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The G8′s great land-grab

Photo credit: archer10 (Dennis) / Foter.com / CC BY-SA
EU Observer | 11.06.2013

The G8′s great land-grab

On Saturday David Cameron was celebrating the historic commitments to ending under-nutrition that had been secured under the UK’s G8 presidency. But another less visible development was also being celebrated, namely Malawi’s decision to become the seventh guinea pig – alongside Tanzania, Ghana, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso – in the G8′s ‘New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition’.

The New Alliance, launched a year ago by President Obama, is a partnership of G8 countries, African governments and private companies (including Monsanto, Syngenta, Cargill and Yara) aimed at lifting 50 million people out of poverty over the next 10 years.

It intends to do so not only through development aid, but by encouraging African leaders ‘to refine policies in order to improve investment opportunities’, thus ‘catalysing private sector investment in African agriculture’. The policies in question concern seeds, pesticides, fertilizers, land tenure, water resources, and any other domain where local practices, if ‘unreformed’, may constrain the investment potential for agribusiness.

Mozambique’s Cooperation Framework, drawn up with private sector partners in exchange for their commitment to invest, provides an insight into how far the New Alliance is already redrawing the regulatory map in partner countries.

A role is envisaged for smallholders, to whom production would be contracted out by agribusiness. However, the meat of the agreement is on the regulatory front, where the Mozambican government promises ‘incentives for the private sector, especially in developing and implementing domestic input and seed policies’ which is fleshed out to mean ‘ceasing the distribution of free and unimproved seeds’. This comes alongside commitments to reform land rights to facilitate major investments, and to promote free trade.

Colonial undertones

What is striking is how brazen and unapologetic the New Alliance is in its quest to open up African farmland – memorably described by the World Bank as the ‘last frontier’ for multinationals – to an unprecedented wave of industrial-scale investment.

In a recent paper on the New Alliance, CIDSE, a development NGO, points out that the Beira Agricultural Growth Corridor designated by the New Alliance in Mozambique corresponds almost exactly to the area that was contracted out to The Mozambique Company in the colonial era.

Taking a more recent example, the NGO calls the scheme “the new face of structural adjustment”, highlighting the continuity between the conditionalities of the New Alliance (regulatory reform for aid) and those imposed on developing countries in the 1980s and 1990s (privatisation and trade liberalisation in exchange for World Bank/IMF support).

This continuity should come as no surprise. The New Alliance is merely the latest incarnation of a dominant foreign investment-led vision for African development. It is intellectually akin to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which has leveraged the likes of Kofi Annan in favour of an investment-driven, input-heavy productivity drive in Africa. Meanwhile it ties in with the ‘Grow Africa’ platform set up to prime countries for private investment under the New Partnership for Africa’s Development that the African Union established in 2003.

In essence there is nothing new about the ‘New Partnership’ or the ‘New Alliance’, although this latest project is perhaps novel in how ambitiously it bundles together development aid and corporate investment opportunities.

Fait accompli

The great success of the New Alliance is to have snuck in under the radar. At the May 2012 launch, the US presented the scheme as the next logical step in the ‘reinvestment in agriculture’ that had taken root since the 2007-2008 food price spikes, and had garnered billions of dollars of aid commitments at L’Aquila.

Allegedly the finer details of the scheme came as news even to the US’s G8 partners, whose initial scepticism has given way to a jostling to get their own companies in on the act (Angela Merkel has established a ‘German Food Partnership’ to replicate the benefits).

And crucially, it has taken time for NGOs and civil society groups in G8 countries (as well as blogs such as this!) to wake up to what is being imposed on African countries in the name of market access for corporate flag-bearers. Now that they have, the outcry is deafening: on the eve of the Nutrition for Growth summit, more than 25 UK campaign groups (including Friends of the Earth and War on Want) called on David Cameron to withhold the £395m of UK aid that has been pledged to the New Alliance over the next three years.

However, the New Alliance has made itself a fait accompli by putting dozens of investment plans and regulatory reforms into process within the first year.

What do African farmers actually want?

Will the scheme at least deliver some benefits to African smallholders, in addition to those accruing to the likes of Cargill and Syngenta? Absolutely not, according to those it designs to lift out of poverty – African farmers.

In a letter to the African Union and the G8 following the launch of the New Alliance, Mamadou Cissokho, then President of West African farmers’ confederation ROPPA, made a striking indictment of the scheme on behalf of African farmers:

“I ask you to explain how you could possibly justify thinking that the food security and sovereignty of Africa could be secured through international cooperation outside of the policy frameworks formulated in an inclusive fashion with the peasants and the producers of the continent.”

A quick glance at policy papers drawn up by Western, Eastern and Central African agricultural associations reveals the huge discrepancies between what these farmers want and need, and what the New Alliance proposes.

While the G8 flagship looks to protect seeds and formalise land titles, the farmers recall that Africa’s 33 million family farms (80% of the continent’s total) draw ‘autonomy and resilience’ from the control they hold over a ‘largely uncommodified’ production base of land, water, seeds, labour and knowledge. Their concern is to ensure that farmers are not prevented from the overwhelmingly popular practice of recycling seed, and that herders are not constrained by land titling systems that prevent them from accessing communal grazing land.

The logic of African agriculture is fundamentally opposed to prevailing visions in the North. The crop rotation which EU farmers are loathe to perform is part and parcel of African farming systems that have to be biodiverse in order to survive harsh conditions; Malian farmers who forego chemical inputs can spend weeks hand-weeding in mutual support groups, culminating in a ‘party with food, drink and dancing to traditional music’ at the end of the rainy season.

This vision can easily be dismissed as parochial and outdated. But the African farmers’ wishes are by no means naïve. They acknowledge the need for investment and access to markets, but they simply want it to be provided to their family farms, not to Western agribusiness. They are under no illusion about how difficult it is for this family farming model to coexist with industrial agriculture, acknowledging that:

This is why they do not wish merely to coexist and struggle in the face of New Alliance-style investments, but instead want to see family farms supported and given precedence.

Competing interests

It is therefore no coincidence that the New Alliance failed to consult African farmers, whose true interests are diametrically opposed to those of Western agribusiness. After all, they are competing for the same reserves of land and water, and the same primordial role in national agriculture plans.

The voice of African farmers fell on deaf ears when the New Alliance was launched. But, just to be on the safe side, the New Alliance has contrived to sideline the one forum at which they can be heard.

A key effect of launching such an ambitious, big-money scheme is to have elevated the status of the G8 as the key driver of agricultural development, at the expense of the World Committee on Food Security (CFS), where farmers in developing countries can negotiate on equal footing with world governments. The stakes are huge, given that the CFS has recently drawn up its own guidelines on land rights and ‘land grabs’ – an area where corporations had hoped to self-regulate.

What the New Alliance has taught us is that what are essentially corporate investment opportunities can easily be presented as development frameworks, as pathways to smallholder-led food security – or even as the only pathway to smallholder-led food security. The G8 has been allowed to own the narrative and legitimise the New Alliance, and itself, as arbiters of food security.

Ground rules

Perhaps there is a constructive role for foreign investors to play in African agricultural development. But what is clear is that some basic ground rules (not to mention specific investment rules) must be established before companies are unleashed into this ‘last frontier’. Here are three for starters:
  1. In no case should the companies who stand to benefit be anywhere near the political and regulatory processes.
  2. The wholesale support of the G8 and the agribusiness lobby should not be enough to bring a development scheme into being.
  3. The wholesale opposition of the supposed beneficiaries of a development scheme should be enough to block it.
As a minimum, the New Alliance should not expand into any other countries until ground rules have been established.

The opinions in this blog are those of the author alone

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