Land grabs - Another scramble for Africa

Fahamu (Oxford) | 17 September 2009

Ama Biney

How is it possible that in the 21st century the world has the capacity to feed every single human being on the planet, yet the majority of people in Africa and the rest of the Global South, who are poor - whilst obesity soars in the West - go rampantly hungry? In addition, why has there been a recent 'land grab' in Africa by rich countries?

The short answer to the first question lies in the unequal distribution and control of global wealth and its ownership, which lies in a few hands. The answer to the second question is tied to the first and is the focus of this article.

The recent haste i.e. within the last 12 months, to buy land in Africa, has its origins in a number of factors related to global food security concerns, particularly the increase in world grain prices between 2007-2008 which led to food riots in over 20 countries around the world, including Haiti, Senegal, Yemen, Egypt and Cameroon.

Contributing to this state of affairs has been the volatility of food prices in the international market and speculation on future food prices. The food growing nations imposed tariffs on staple crops to minimise the amounts that left their countries. The consequences of this were that it escalated the situation further.

For the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar (which control 45 per cent of the world's oil), they are finding that they can no longer rely on regional and global markets to feed their populations. They have rushed to grab land in Africa and are the pioneers of this agri-colonialism to secure food supplies for their own populations. The geopolitical ramifications of this is that food is likely to become the next coveted commodity like oil.

Other factors include failure to deal with environmental trends such as climate change, which has led to water shortages and drought in several places around the world. The impact of drought in places such as the Rift Valley for the Masai people in Kenya and Punjabi farmers in Pakistan has been totally disastrous.

In short, these global developments have led countries such as China, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which are short of arable land, to seek agricultural investments in Africa. They are joined by Malaysia, Qatar, Bahrain, India, Sweden, Libya, Brazil, Russia and the Ukraine.

As the world's population is projected to grow from 6 billion to 9 billion by 2050, the capacity of the world to produce as much abundantly as it has done is beginning to be squeezed. The world must change how food is produced, how much is eaten in the richer parts of the globe, and slow down its negative impact on the environment. Otherwise the crisis in food security because of a rising demand will be catastrophic in years to come, as food production fails to keep pace with rising demand. It appears for countries like Saudi Arabia that can no longer feed their own populations, they are aggressively seeking to do this by buying land in other countries.


In the last 4 months a spate of articles in the Western media, with headlines such as: 'The food rush: Rising Demand in China and West Sparks African Land Grab',[1] 'The World Wide Land Grab',[2] and 'Africa Investment Sparks Land Grab Fear'[3] - have given publicity to this emerging trend. Setting aside the sensationalist headlines, the trend is a profoundly disturbing one for the political and economic implications it suggests.

The cause for alarm among Africans is justified when the trend is being dubbed a 'neo-colonial system' by the head of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), Jacques Diouf. The deputy director of the FAO, David Hallam, claims: 'This could be a win-win situation or it could be a sort of neo-colonialism with disastrous consequences for some of the countries involved. There is a danger that host countries, particularly the more politically sensitive and food-insecure, will lose control over their own food supplies when they need it most.'

Others have also referred to it as 'the new colonialism' and 'agrarian colonialism'. The reality is that in the last year millions of hectares of land have been leased for bio fuel and agricultural production by countries such as Ghana, Ethiopia, Mali, Tanzania, Kenya and Sudan. For example, Saudi Arabia has approached the Tanzanian government in April 2008 to lease 500,000 hectares of farmland for rice and wheat production.[4]

The pros and cons of these new large-scale land acquisitions have recently been presented in a paper entitled Land Grab or Development Opportunity? Agricultural Investment and International Land Deals in Africa, published in June by the FAO, the Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

The liberal position of the authors is that their 'aim is not to come up with definitive answers, but to facilitate bold debate among government, private sector and civil society interest groups.'[5] They point out that 'there is a big difference between announcing plans [to sell or lease land] and actually acquiring land - let along starting to cultivate it.' They maintain that some of the land purchases are unprecedented and significant. They concur with the Economist that 'investment in foreign farms is not new.'[6]

What is unprecedented, is firstly, the scale of the land deals that have been transacted. The Washington DC think-tank, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFRI) estimates the deals to be worth between US$20 - $30 billion and involving between 15 - 20 million hectares of farmland in poor countries in Africa, Cambodia, Pakistan and the Philippines. According to the FAO report, such huge deals could be 'the tip of the iceberg'. Already 2.5 million hectares (6.2 million acres) of farmland in five sub-Saharan African countries have been bought or rented in the last five years at a total cost of $920 million ( £563 million).[7]

The second important characteristic of these new land acquisitions is that they are focused on staples (e.g. wheat, maize, rice, jatropha) or bio fuels. For example, in 2002 Sudan signed the Special Agricultural Investment Agreement with Syria. It involves a 50-year lease by the government of Sudan to the government of Syria. According to the FAO paper, 'the Saudi Arabia company Hadco reportedly acquired 25,000 hectares of cropland in Sudan with 60 per cent of the project's cost coming from the governmental Saudi Industrial Development Fund.'[8] In Ethiopia, the government of Meles Zenawi has recently accepted a deal of US$100 million for farmlands permitting Saudi Arabia to cultivate barley and wheat.

Thirdly, in the past, foreign farming investment was pursued by private investors. Now, several new deals are government-to-government. At times the acquirers are foreign companies. The sellers are host governments dispensing land e.g. Cambodia leased land to Kuwaiti investors in August 2008. In the same year the Sudanese and Qatari governments set up a joint venture in Sudan. The land is usually leased or made available through concessions but sometimes bought. Adding to the complexity of the land buying deals is the fact, pointed out by the FAO paper, that 'there is no single dominant model for financial and ownership arrangements but rather a wide variety of locally specific arrangements among government and the private sector.[9]


The FAO paper seeks to manoeuvre between extolling the advantages of the land deals and offering a critique of them. The authors write, 'This fast-evolving context creates opportunities, challenges and risks. Increased investment may bring macro-level benefits (GDP growth and government revenues), and create opportunities for raising local living standards. For poorer countries with relatively abundant land, incoming investors may bring capital, technology, know-how and market access, and may play an important role in catalysing economic development in rural areas. On the other hand, large-scale acquisitions can result in local people losing access to the resources on which they depend for their food security and livelihoods.'[10]

What these deals do not spell out is the environmental tab of highly intensive farming - that is devastated soils, dry aquifers and ruined ecologies from chemical contamination. This will be the cost to the host country to pick up - no different from the environmental wreckage of exploitation carried out by Anglo-Dutch Shell in the Niger Delta region in Nigeria.

Dr Vandana Shiva, Director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in India, questions the current zeal for biofuels in the West that not only require millions of hectares of land, but, as she points out 'are very centralised and industrial.'[11] They were a hidden factor behind the 2007-8 increase in global food prices, however, Shiva points out that the production of biofuels as an alternative to fossil fuels is forcing many farmers to switch their production on land that would otherwise be used to grow food.

In central India, the region of Chattisgarh has seen several jatropha fields ripped up by villagers (jatropha produces oil sees that can produce biodiesel). One woman who was imprisoned for doing so, forthrightly said 'the problem we have with jatropha is that we can't eat it. We can't burn it; we can't use it for anything. The poor have to make their living from the land. Jatropha is only useful for fuel. As we don't have a vehicle it is of no value to us. Also, a big problem is that if our animals eat jatropha they die.'[12]

Recently, it is alleged that land in northern Ghana has been offered to a Norwegian bio fuel company to create a massive jatropha plantation. The people of northern Ghana should heed the experience of the dispossessed villagers of Chattisgarh who wish to be self-sufficient in food production yet their land has been given over to the exploitation of jatropha for profit.

Walden Bello rightly contends that at independence many African countries were self-sufficient in food production and were exporters of food. That situation has dramatically changed. The policies of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) dictated by the IMF and World Bank during the 1980s and 1990s helped to destroy African agriculture through the imposition of conditionalities as the price for receiving IMF and World Bank assistance to service debt. African governments were obliged to withdraw government controls and support mechanisms and in addition 'lifting price controls on fertilisers while simultaneously cutting back on agricultural credit systems simply led to reduced application, lower yields, and lower investments.'[13]

As the IMF and World Bank insisted that their policies would lead to foreign direct investment 'in country after country, the predictions of neoliberal doctrine yielded precisely the opposite: the departure of the state "crowded out" rather than "crowded in" private investment.' In short, 'as in many other regions, structural adjustment in Africa was not simply underinvestment but state divestment.' Currently African governments such as that of Ethiopia and Sudan are using the argument of seeking foreign direct investment as the reason why they have invited rich countries to purchase land in their countries. Even before these unprecedented land purchases, farmers in Africa had been forced to grow crops that the market demanded if they were to make a living. Few farmers had genuine options. They often get into debt in order to purchase or hire machinery, acquire credit to purchase seeds, fertilisers, or abandon farming altogether in order to migrate to urban areas in search of an alternative means of living.

Overall, the political and economic risks of these land purchases are colossal and outweigh any gains. The reasons are many. Firstly, the unequal power relations in such deals jeopardise the livelihoods of the poor. In essence, the foreign investor has the might of power in money to buy off local and government elites in their favour. In this way, smallholders will be legally trampled on, displaced, if not dispossessed of their land. Ruth Meinzen-Dick, a researcher at the IFPRI claims, 'The bargaining power in negotiating these agreements is on the side of the foreign investor, especially when its aspirations are supported by the host state or local elites.'

Often these smallholders have little formal education and do not understand the full implications of the small print in legal documents. In addition to this, the UN and other agencies caution that many African farmers often do not have formal rights to the land they farm and therefore will be pushed off in favour of the investor.

Secondly, many African countries do not have in place the legal mechanisms or procedures to protect the rights of such smallholders. Compounding the matter is that there is often lack of transparency and checks and balances in such contract negotiations. This creates a fertile ground for corruption, particularly as there are often huge gaps between what is on the statute books and the reality on the ground that can be manipulated in particular interests.

Is it just a case of greater transparency or a necessary code of conduct? The July meeting of the G8 group of rich countries in north eastern Italy pledged to develop a proposal on principles and best practices on purchase of land in developing countries. This code of conduct is being support by the IFPRI and the African Union (AU).

The win-win language of Western agri-businesses conceals the fact that as Raj Patel points out, 'as lands have fallen before the banks, repossessed and repurchased, suicide rates for farmers across the world have soared.'[14] Whilst records of suicides amongst African farmers are unknown, according to P. Sainath, between 1997 and 2007 the official numbers of Indian farmers who have committed suicide has reached 182,936. He writes, 'Those who have taken their lives were deep in debt - peasant households in debt doubled in the first decade of the neoliberal "economic reforms."'[15] Meanwhile, it is ironic that whilst Indian farmers commit suicide, the Indian government is seeking to purchase land for growing food in Ethiopia and Sudan.

The barometer of social distress is reflected in the increase in suicide rates in countries such as Sri Lanka, China and South Korea. As Patel points out, 'these are not only individual tragedies, but social ones.'[16] They tell the story of political and economic powerlessness of a community. They are an acute symptom of a society's inability to ensure not only food sovereignty but economic security in the hands of a people. They are also indicative of the absurdity of the capitalist free trade logic of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that dictates that competition is good and will weed out the inefficient producer. Meanwhile, farmers in the West continue to receive agricultural subsidies that give them a head start in the capitalist game and they are able to out price African farmers.


For the majority of Africans land remains both an emotive and political issue. One only has to look at the history of settler-colonialism in Africa, in countries such as Zimbabwe, Kenya and South Africa to see that land is not only an issue of economic resources, and therefore livelihood, but is also tied to identity. The continued purchase of African land is a critical topic for Africa because it is an integral dimension of the neo-colonial partnership that exists between the elite in African countries and Western governments and trans-national corporations.

Such a class continues to perform the role of gatekeepers of the rentier state, that is, renting out the resources of the state, whether it be oil, diamonds, coltan or land, that should be utilised for the benefit of the African majority, in order to consolidate their own political and economic base and to shore up their illegitimate regimes in terms of defence and security. Frantz Fanon aptly described such an elite as considering themselves as having 'nothing to do with transforming the nation; it consists, prosaically, of being the transmission line between the nation and a capitalism, rampant though camouflaged, which today puts on the masque of neo-colonialism.'[17]

In cognisance of this masque, we should ask: To what extent are the leaders of Sudan and Ethiopia different from the African chiefs and kings who during the days of colonialism signed away their land not knowing exactly what they were signing away? Today, unlike the African chiefs of the colonial era, African leaders such as Meles Zenawi and Omar Bashir sign such contracts with deliberation and calculation. Moreover, to what extent would Europe, Britain or the US have developed in the way they currently have, if they had sold or leased huge hectares of their land to other countries? This outsourcing of African land is a profoundly negative feature of globalisation and it is necessary that we stop our rulers voluntarily making us a colony again. Such neo-colonial partnerships are indirectly a re-colonisation of Africa's resources, which is unlikely to benefit all parties equally.

For example, the European Union (EU) paid developing countries £125 million in 2008 to allow modern European fleets to fish the waters of developing countries. The deals proved controversial and continue to be. For years European trawlers from around the world and particularly Europe have fished off the coast of Senegal, some are legal and some are illegal. Every year about 25,000 tons of fish is exported to the EU. Many big trawlers fly Senegalese flags and are allegedly Senegalese ships. Yet as Moussa Faye from Actionaid, who campaigns against overfishing, candidly remarks, 'They are cheating the Senegalese government and the Senegalese people, because they are actually European enterprises who come for our resources and who export the fish and the profit they make. I think that this issue should serve Senegalese people and should be a source of livelihood for the people here. There is also a serious limitation on the numbers of trawlers authorised to fish. We rely mainly on fish as source of animal protein in Senegal, which means we have less animal protein available for people who cannot afford to buy meat. The result will be malnutrition.'[18]

Like European trawlers engaging in fish farming in African waters for their own people, there is no doubt that the countries involved in land purchases in Africa, the Gulf States, India, South Korea and China, are seeking to ensure cheap food for their own citizens. Similarly, during the slave trade and colonial period in Africa, European nations managed to maintain a tacit social contract with their working classes: The ruling class would maintain low levels of hunger and deprivation where possible, by ensuring sufficient quantities of food was available. This contract was maintained on the backs of millions of African slaves in the New World and colonial subjects in the African colonies, who produced cheap sugar, tea, cotton, rubber, tin, palm oil, that were shipped to the colonial metropole. Then - as now - the cheap sugar and other agricultural products were intended to pacify the bodies of European workers. In the light of the riots that occurred in over 20 countries in 2007-8, the spate of new land deals perform a similar role in pacifying such citizens at the expense of the African poor and African farming communities in particular. In such a situation, who will feed Africa's hungry?


Malagasy farmers have recently given farmers worldwide an example of what is to be done. In fact their example requires wider media coverage in the dissemination of globalising resistance and victories against such land deals. The farmers of Madagascar recently resisted the neo-colonial deal between South Korea's Daewoo Logistics and the government of Marc Ravalomana. The announcement of the deal led to the toppling of Ravalomana's government when the people of Madagascar were informed that the Ravalomana government had entered into a land deal to lease 1.3 million hectares in a 99-year lease in east and west Madagascar to the South Korean Company Daewoo Logistics. The contract gave Daewoo Logistics the right to grow and export maize and oil palm to South Korea to the tune of US$6 billion.

The 34 year-old new president of Madagascar said that land was not for sale in his country. The Malagasy Farmers Confederation (Fekritana) mobilised its workers to resist the contract. Its programme officer, Rihatiana Rasonarivo said that it was not in the interests of Madagascar to lease land for food. He said: 'We don't agree with the idea of foreigners coming to buy land in Madagascar. Our concern is that first of all the government should facilitate the access to land by local farmers before dealing with foreigners. One of the biggest problems for farmers in Madagascar is land ownership, so we think it's unfair for the government to be selling or leasing land to foreigners when local farmers do not have enough land.'

Similarly, in the Philippines, a poor South East Asian country of 90 million people, the politician Rafael Mariano, who represents Filipino farmers introduced a resolution calling for an immediate enquiry into what he characterised as the 'great foreign land grab.' He said: 'It is the height of stupidity for our country to bargain our lands for the sake of other nation's food security, while being dependent on importation for our very own food security needs.' Therefore, it is necessary to question how it is possible that Ethiopia, a country which is largely associated with famine and Live Aid, is able to have signed land deals with Saudi Arabia, when it cannot feed its own population but is promising to feed the people of Saudi Arabia? Similarly, why is the Kenyan government considering leasing parcels of the rich coastal lands in the delta of Kenya's Tana River, which is home to farming and pastoralist communities, when Kenya is currently facing not only huge food shortages and high prices but a third consecutive year of drought?

Other protests which have received little media coverage in the West and in Africa is the campaign led by the militant Asian Peasant Coalition (APC) and International League of Asia Wide Peasants Caravan for Land and Livelihood from July 2009 to November 2009 in ten Asian countries. The theme of the Peasant's Caravans is 'Stop Global Land Grabbing! Struggle for Genuine Agrarian Reform and People's Food Sovereignty.' This grassroots movement is seeking to bring to light the plight of poor peasants whose livelihoods have been worsened by neo-liberal policies of trans-national corporations, the WTO and large-scale corporatisation of farming. Their objectives are 'to popularise peasant victories and success stories in the struggle for genuine land reform that will inspire' and lead to agrarian change in the interests of Asian farmers.

In addressing what is to be done, there are a number of actions and sites of struggle to be initiated. Firstly, African governments must make food security and sufficiency for their own people paramount. Agricultural investment is a necessity and number one priority, as is the need to help small farmers produce greater yields to stem both rural and urban hunger. African farmers need to be paid a decent wage to produce for the nation and not for foreign investors. Secondly, civil society, including African farmers unions and co-operatives need to educate local people, and small-scale farmers, that such land deals are not in their interests, however well-meaning or couched in 'win-win' terminology they appear to be. Thirdly, resistance along the lines of the Malagasy farmers' union and the Asian Peasant Coalition needs to be shared by farmers unions in the Global South not only in a spirit of solidarity but also as concrete evidence of collective change being both a possibility and reality against such land deals. Ultimately, we need to fight for African people's right to control land and other critical resources and these must be placed in the interests of African people.

Dr Ama Biney is a Pan-Africanist and scholar-activist who lives in the United Kingdom.


[1] The Guardian Fri 3 July 2009.



[4] Christian Science Monitor, July 8 2009.

[5] P.16.

[6] May 21 2009.

[7] Guardian Fri 3 July 2009.

[8] FAO paper, p.39.

[9] Ibid, p.35.

[10] Ibid, p.15.

[11] Future of Food, British Broadcasting Corporation, Channel BBC2 documentary, presented by George Alagiah, 24 August 2009.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Walden Bello, 'Destroying African Agriculture' in Global Research, June 5 2008.

[14] Raj Patel, Stuffed & Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World's Food System, Portobello, 2007, p. 15.

[15] P. Sainath, 'The Largest Wave of Suicides in History' in CounterPunch, February 12, 2009.

[16] Raj Patel, Stuffed & Starved, p. 27.

[17] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, p. 122.

[18] Future of Food, British Broadcasting Corporation, Channel BBC2 documentary, presented by George Alagiah, 24 August 2009.
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