Land grab: Africa at the mercy of investors abroad

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Madagascar rice terraces (Wikimedia Commons)

Asahi Shiumbun | 2010/09/27

BY MASANOBU FURUYA

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN GLOBE

I visited the commune of Antetezambaro, a 30-minute drive from Toamasina, the largest port-city in eastern Madagascar, where the waves of the Indian Ocean lap against the shores of the island-nation.

The road, paved around the time of independence in 1960, was littered with potholes. The houses--simple constructions of lumber and leaves--were almost all without water or electricity.

In May 2008, this poverty-stricken village received some good news.

A Chinese company said it wanted to produce rice there. If the company could lease 150 hectares of rice fields, it would cultivate hybrid rice with yields three times that of normal rice. And 30 percent of the harvest would be returned to the local landowners.

The company would also supply electricity to the village and build roads and agricultural waterways.

This dream-like proposal was communicated to the village through the secretary-general of the local Atsinanana region.

As a preliminary trial, rice was grown on 5 hectares in a mountainous settlement at the request of the Weichu Madagascar Agricultural Development Company (Weichu) from China's Hunan province.

"Everyone agreed to it. We thought it would make our lives easier," rice-field owner Toma Rahadi, 41, recalls.

Weichu signed a contract with Toma and 14 other landowners. Two months later, in July, five Chinese people arrived and the rice cultivation began.

That was two years ago. Li De Sheng, 40, was dispatched to the area on a five-year contract. In broken Malagasy, he talked about how the company had hired 15 local rural laborers and how the cultivation had gone smoothly.

"I have seen my income grow and I can send money back to my family in China," he said.

However, the village has yet to see any electricity or waterways. It appears some misunderstandings existed between Weichu and the landowners.

At the end of the first year, Toma and the other landowners were called to the quarters of Weichu. Li offered them each a "present" of a mere 20 kilograms of rice and a bottle of cooking oil. Under Toma's calculations, "30 percent of the harvest" amounted to more than 2 tons.

The landowners refused the presents, saying, "That was not the deal."

They later realized that the "30 percent" figure had been pulled out of the air by the secretary-general in an effort to persuade the local people to accept the agreement.

The secretary-general retired, and negotiations took a turn for the worse until finally the landowners broke off the contracts. They never did receive the electricity or waterways.

It appears that Weichu continues to cultivate rice, this time on fallow fields rented from Indians.

The fact is, Madagascar agriculture must rely on foreign capital, despite the risk of these kinds of problems.

Although 70 percent of Madagascar's 20 million people are peasants, the country depends on imports for 20 percent of its staple food, rice.

Also, 30 percent of Madagascar's land can be used for agriculture, but only 4 percent of the land is actually farmed.

The government has neither the budget nor any effective strategies to address these problems.

"All we do is hope for investments and technology transfers from overseas," says Rakotoson Philibert, secretary-general of the Ministry of Agriculture.

There are many striking examples of countries such as Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Congo (formerly Zaire) supplying or lending land to overseas enterprises. Each country faces the same kind of situation.

Fears persist that overseas investment could lead to serious disturbances.

Madagascar itself has experienced a coup d'etat set off by planned farmland development by South Korea's Daewoo Logistics Corp.

According to Eric Robson Andriamihaja, the deputy CEO of the Economic Development Board of Madagascar, the South Korean company had announced plans to rent 1.3 million hectares of land to grow corn.

Before full-fledged negotiations started, word spread among the population that "1.3 million hectares, or half of all Madagascar's arable land, was going to be leased to a foreign country for 99 years."

This roused opposition to President Marc Ravalomanana, an autocratic leader with many enemies.

These disturbances became one of the factors that led to Ravalomanana resignation in what was essentially a coup d'etat.

Andry Rajoelina, the former mayor of Madagascar's capital, Antananarivo, seized power. His first act was to send Daewoo's plans back to the drawing board.

Although the Agriculture Ministry is still trying to lure foreign agricultural investment into Madagascar, there have been no new cases of investment since the coup took place.
Original source: Asahi Shimbun
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