Africa: up for grabs


Reported cases of land grabbing and agrofuel development across Africa


Friends of the Earth Africa and Friends of the Earth Europe | 30 August 2010

Africa: up for grabs

The scale and impact of land grabbing for agrofuels


Executive summary


Access to land provides food and livelihoods for billions of people around the world, but as the availability of fertile land and water is threatened by climate change, mismanagement and consumption patterns, demand for land has been increasing.


“Land grabs” – where land traditionally used by local communities is leased or sold to outside investors (from corporations and from governments) are becoming increasingly common across Africa. Whilst many of these deals are for food cultivation, there is a growing interest in growing crops for fuel – agrofuels – particularly to supply the growing EU market.


These land grabs have been taking place against a backdrop of rising food prices which led to the food crisis in 2008. There were food riots in some developing countries and in Haiti and Madagascar the governments were overthrown as a result of the crisis. Crops being used for agrofuels was a major factor in the rising price of food.


This report looks at the extent of these deals for agrofuels and questions the impacts on local communities and the environment. It finds that although information is limited, there is growing evidence that significant levels of farmland are being acquired for fuel crops, in some cases without the consent of local communities and often without a full assessment of the impact on the local environment.


Extent of the problem

Studies suggest that a third of the land sold or acquired in Africa is intended for fuel crops - some 5 million hectares. Friends of the Earth has looked at cases of land grabbing in 11 countries across Africa, from Ethiopia to Mozambique (see appendix).

While some of this land is sold outright – to private companies, state companies or investment funds – most is leased and some is obtained through contracting with the farmer to grow specific crops (known as “out growing”).

A number of, often small, EU companies are involved, sometimes with support or involvement from their national government. Many are keen to vaunt the social and environmental benefits of their business, offering employment and the promise of development to rural areas.

Green OPEC

Many of the host countries have encouraged this investment, keen to develop a potentially lucrative export crop. Fifteen African nations joined forces to set up what has been described as a “Green OPEC” and a number of national governments have also introduced domestic targets and strategies for agrofuel use at home.


But there is also a growing awareness of the downsides of this agrofuel boom. As scientists and international institutions challenge the climate benefits of this alternative fuel source, local communities and in some cases national governments are waking up to the impact of land grabs on the environment and on local livelihoods.


Local protest

In Tanzania, Madagascar and Ghana there have been protests following land grabs by foreign companies. Companies have been accused of providing misleading information to local farmers, of obtaining land from fraudulent community land owners and of bypassing environmental protection laws.

Agrofuels are competing with food crops for farmland, and agrofuel development companies are competing with farmers for access to that land. And this appears to be as much the case for jatropha, as for other crops, despite the claim that it grows on non-agricultural land. When losing their access to traditional land, local communities face growing food insecurity and hunger – their human right to food is threatened.

Environmental damage

Pressure on farmland has led to forest being cleared to make way for agrofuel plantations, destroying valuable natural resources and increasing greenhouse gas emissions. In Ethiopia, land inside an elephant sanctuary was cleared to make way for agrofuels.


Farmers have found that the much vaunted wonder crop jatropha, rather than bringing a guaranteed income, in fact takes valuable water resources and needs expensive pesticides. In some cases, food crops have been cleared to plant jatropha, leaving farmers with no income and no source of food.


Threat from genetically modified crops What is more, there are concerns that biotech companies, keen to find new outlets for their products, will see agrofuels as a way into the African market. Research is on-going into genetically modified (GM) varieties which might be suitable for agrofuels, and biotech companies are eager to claim that their products can help tackle climate change.


Resource exploitation

Growing European and international demand for agrofuels as a transport fuel is creating market demand for agrofuels. While African politicians may promise that agrofuels will bring locally sourced energy supplies to their countries, the reality is that most of the foreign companies are developing agrofuels to sell on the international market. The EU’s mandatory target for increasing agrofuels is a clear driver to the land grabbing in Africa.

Is the tide turning?

Concerns about the social and environmental impacts have caused a backlash in a number of countries such as in Tanzania and Swaziland. Some companies have also withdrawn their investments. But elsewhere the enthusiasm for agrofuels continues unchecked.


Just as African countries have seen fossil fuels and other natural resources exploited for the benefit of richer countries, there is a risk that agrofuels, and with them, Africa’s agricultural land and natural resources, will be exported abroad with minimal benefit for local communities and national economies.


Recommendations for action


1. Put a brake on land grabbing





2. The real political priorities





3. Dealing with land grabbers










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Source: FOE

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