Senegal herders demand return of grazing grounds controlled by US firm

Bouba Sow a pastoralist farmer from the Ndiaël region. Image by Élodie Toto / Mongabay

Mongabay | 23 March 2023

Senegal herders demand return of grazing grounds controlled by U.S. firm

by Elodie Toto

  • African Agriculture (AAGR), a U.S. company planning to grow alfalfa for livestock feed in Senegal, is set to launch an initial public offering on the Nasdaq exchange.

  • But the land concession it holds used to be part of the Ndiaël nature reserve, a wetland that’s home to many threatened species and a key grazing ground for local herders.

  • The land was declassified by presidential decrees without the consultation or agreement of the local population, who are considering suing AAGR in the U.S.

  • Hydrologists warn the use of pesticides during the cultivation of alfalfa will contaminate the nearby Lake Guiers, which provides 65% of the capital Dakar’s drinking water.

SAINT-LOUIS, Senegal — Every afternoon, Bouba Sow, 60, crosses the Ndiaël in Senegal’s Saint-Louis region with his goats so that they can graze. The territory is immense and partly desert. The land is covered with various yellowed annual grasses as dry as the ground. A few trees dot the area. Bouba Sow plucks the leaves from an acacia tree with his shepherd’s stick to feed his goats, which are fond of them.

Sow grew up here in the Ndiaël, a vast wetland, partially dry and classified as a special wildlife reserve and wetland of international importance for birdlife by a presidential decree and the Ramsar Convention back in the 1960s. And just like him, his father and grandfather used to graze their animals on this same land. His 15-year-old son is also starting to take care of the herd. But Sow says he worries about the future as he gazes over the land: “Their field starts right here in front of my house. Since they have our land, we can no longer graze our herds like before. Some corridors are closed and our water points are inaccessible.”

“They” is the U.S. company African Agriculture (AAGR), which now owns the field where Sow grazes his herd and which plans to raise $40 million through an initial public offering (IPO) on the Nasdaq stock exchange to finance its operations.

The Ndiaël is part of the wider Senegal River Valley, a region already affected by hydro-agricultural developments that have led to its drying out. This includes Lake Guiers, the country’s largest freshwater lake and source of drinking water for the capital, Dakar, which is threatened with pesticide pollution. Now, with AAGR wading into the region and seeking to go public in the U.S., Sow and other herders are bringing their decade-long conflict with the government over the land to the international level.

A tussle over land

It all started in 2012. Senegal’s president at the time, Abdoulaye Wade, declassified 26,550 hectares (65,600 acres) of the peripheral zone of the Ndiaël nature reserve. He gave a 20,000-hectare (49,400-acres) concession for 50 years to Senhuile-Senethanol SA, a consortium set up by Senegalese and foreign investors that planned to grow sunflowers to produce bioethanol.

The remaining 6,500 hectares (16,000 acres) is intended to relocate the population, sparking a cycle that persists today of local protests by farmers and pastoralists who say their livestock grazing corridors will be cut.

In Senegal, areas of natural public domain — forests and special areas such as natural reserves — belong to the state, which is solely responsible for their management and administration and can choose to declassify them at will — without seeking the consent of locals or consulting with them beforehand.

However, Senhuile didn’t last long, failing to use 90% of its concession as required and build local infrastructure projects. Six years later, Frank Timis, a well-known Romanian businessman allegedly involved in a corruption scandal in Senegal, bought the company through African Agriculture. His plan was to grow mainly alfalfa as livestock feed for domestic distribution and export, including to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Registered in the Cayman Islands, AAGR renamed Senhuile as Les Fermes de la Teranga (LFT), or “The Farms of the Teranga,” a Wolof word meaning “hospitality.”

For locals, however, LFT isn’t associated with anything close to hospitality. The establishment of another big agriculture company came at the great displeasure of residents, mostly farmers and pastoralists who were not allowed to do anything other than subsistence farming there and had to commute daily to other communes to cultivate. Thirty-seven villages decided to unite in protest.

“For us, this is a serious spoliation of land,” says Elhadj “Ardo” Samba Sow, president of the Collective for the Defence of the Land of Ndiaël. “It is absurd to give thousands of hectares of land to companies, while at the same time the Senegalese people cannot cultivate … And all this without consulting us … This is not normal.”

Senegal already faces food insecurity due to its dependence on imported food, illustrated most recently by the rise in the price of wheat due to the war in Ukraine. This dependency could be exacerbated if the country’s own arable land is given over to growing livestock feed.

U.S. stock listing and an international complaint

In its IPO prospectus, AAGR says it intends to create a reforestation program adjacent to the LFT farm with carbon offset production that generates “verifiable carbon units” (VCUs). It says it also plans to produce biomass for biofuel and build a museum dedicated to African art and history.

But for locals, this isn’t enough. “They will be exported abroad to feed their luxury animals, they will make a lot of money and we will have nothing,” Bouba Sow says with spite.

He’s not the only one who feels this way. Bayal Sow is the first deputy mayor of Ngnith, a village impacted by the project. Once a week, he organizes meetings at the commune to discuss the problems facing the population. Senhuile is often at the heart of the talks. Faced with the arrival of big agribusiness, his village joined the 36 others in the Collective for the Defense of the Land of Ndiaël.

“Since the arrival of Senhuile, our activities have dramatically decreased due to lack of access to land. Before, some of the herders lived from the sale of dairy products, but now they have to sell their animals on a daily basis to survive,” Bayal Sow says.

As a form of compensation, AAGR says it will sell part of its alfalfa production to local herders for their livestock. But this hasn’t gone down well in a region where grazing has been practiced for free for generations.

“Where will we get the money to buy this alfalfa without land?” Bayal Sow says. “In the past, our cattle grazed for free. If they go ahead with their project, it’s all over, many herders will have to leave the area to find food.”

The protest against the farm has resumed in earnest. This time, the Collective for the Defence of the Land of Ndiaël, associated with international NGOs such as GRAIN, are considering filing a complaint in the U.S.

“In Senegal, what is happening to us is perfectly legal on a national level because it was done by presidential decree,” Ardo Sow says. “We’re considering whether to sue in the United States, but while we’re waiting to find the funds, we’re doing some advocacy to inform the American public, the state, that this company is harming Senegalese and Africans to make money. With the scandal, potential investors may back out.”

Environmental questions remain

Environmentalists and locals also have concerns about how the company filed for an IPO to raise funds for a project for which it hasn’t performed a clear environment and social impact assessment.

Mongabay contacted AAGR and Senegal’s Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development about the assessment and other questions, but received no response by the time of publication.

This is a common situation in the region, according to Patrick Triplet, an ecologist and expert in natural environmental management. “As far as I know, there is no impact study,” he says. “This is not an isolated case. Is there an impact study for all the rice fields that have been made in the Senegal River Delta? None, or when there is one done, it’s all bunkum. They just settle down and that’s it.”

Triplet has worked in the Ndiaël region and analyzed the area on several occasions for the Ramsar Convention, the international treaty that classifies wetlands of importance around the world. Environmentalists have raised concerns over the prospect of pastoralists being forced to give up their sustainable livelihood in the reserve for intense farming.

“It is a martyrdom reserve,” Triplet says. “When I see the shape of the area, I say to myself that it is not possible to ruin such beautiful nature for such a derisory result. Intensive agriculture will not help this area. They have taken land that could have been used for extensive agriculture, breeding for the local population.”

In the IPO prospectus, AAGR touts its proximity to Lake Guiers and emphasizes the “competitive advantage” of low water costs for its operations, which will require “the use of large volumes of water.”

What the prospectus doesn’t mention is that the lake is home to several threatened species of wildlife and currently provides 65% of the drinking water for the city of Dakar.

Irrigated agriculture in the Senegal River Delta region drains its wastewater into the river and Lake Guiers. One study warns that this agricultural drainage water contains pesticide residues and chemical fertilizers as well as low levels of heavy metals that can remain in the environment for a long time and, through a cumulative effect, become harmful to human and animal health.

“Intensive use of the lake can have harmful consequences,” says Abdoulaye Faty, a hydrologist at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar. “The water can be contaminated by [runoff from] the use of pesticides. In the region, agribusinesses already use water in an unreasonable way, discharging polluted water, but they are not controlled. The state has set up the police to control this but the means are lacking. This water all ends up in the taps of Dakar. With plantations of this size, the impact can be dramatic.”

Among the agribusinesses he cites are the rice fields, which abound in the region, as well as industrial tomato producers, and a sugar company, which is often singled out for its use of pesticides that end up in Lake Guiers.

“The water filtration system is not sufficient, heavy metals remain, so if it is not filtered, the water remains polluted,” Triplet says.

For now, African Agriculture is still waiting to launch its IPO, but in the Ndiaël reserve, the protests have not weakened.

Citation: Cisse, B. (2012). Les eaux de drainage des périmètres irrigués du delta du fleuve Sénégal: Systèmes d’évacuation et qualité des eaux. Géographie Physique et Environnement, 6. doi:10.4000/physio-geo.2614

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