Stop selling off African land - invest in farmers instead

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Guardian | 23 January 2014
Millions of hectares of land have been leased in some of Africa's poorest countries to grow fruit and vegetables for rich countries - while Africans go hungry. (Photo: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images)

Stop selling off African land - invest in farmers instead

by Ruth Hall

The international year of family farming is now underway, and never before have family farmers in Africa been more under threat.

Large land deals between African governments and usually foreign (and sometimes domestic) investors have seen swathes of the countryside leased or concessioned, often for as much as 50 to 99 years. From Senegal in West Africa to Ethiopia in the Horn, and down to Mozambique in the South, land considered idle and available has changed hands, with profound implications for local people and the environment.

With estimates ranging from 56 to 227 million hectares globally (with 60-70% of this in Africa), what is clear is a rapid transformation of landholding and agricultural systems has taken place in the past five to 10 years. Underpinning these deals is the longstanding failure of many African states to recognise, in law and practice, the customary land rights of existing farming households and communities, and the perpetuation of the colonial legal codes that centralise control over such lands in the hands of the state as trustee of all unregistered property.

And it's not just African land and water that are now so desirable for international investors, but also the growing African consumer market. In the face of growing urbanisation and consumer demand in Africa's cities, the challenge is to scale up production and connect small farmers to markets, lest the benefits of rising food demand in Africa's cities be netted by importers and foreign supermarkets.

The land grab raises questions not only about land rights and transparency in investment, but also what constitutes inclusive agricultural development and how to bring it about.

Replace the farmers?

At a recent meeting of the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa, parliamentarians and small-scale farmers from across this resource-rich region butted heads over what kind of investment was needed. The vice president of the Pan African parliament, honourable Roger Nkodo Dang of Cameroon, argued in favour of the "industrialisation" and commercialisation of agriculture: "We really need to attract investments in the agricultural sector… It is very important for us to work to find the solution for food shortage that we have. Most African countries have an old-fashioned agriculture. The industrialisation of agriculture is very important."

Discourses such as these ignore the inevitable tensions that arise: clear-cutting tropical forests to make way for palm oil plantations destroys carbon sinks; removing local farmers to make way for commercial plantations might enable efficient food production for global markets, while undermining the food security of local people. Often the presumed outcome is that African farmers will become wage workers on their own land, yet most assessments – including The World Bank's 2011 report on "rising investor interest" in agriculture – have found that they are invariably worse off as workers than as self-employed farmers. Yet there are emerging answers, coming from Africa's farmers themselves.

Invest in Africa's farmers, don't take their land

Invest in African farmers rather than give away their land, argued Alangeh Romanus Che, of the Regional Platform of Farmers' Organisations of Central Africa, a network of farmers' associations in Central Africa. "All farmers depend on land as their principal capital, any denial of this access will impact negatively on farmers," said Che.

The international movement of peasants and family farmers, La Via Campesina (literally, "the peasant path"), has rejected efforts to "clean up" land grabs by creating good governance guidelines for the private sector to regulate itself. And African farmers' organisations from across West, East and Southern Africa are now mobilising around an alternative vision for the future, not of corporate-dominated industrial agriculture, but family farming feeding Africa and the world.

Central to their programme are two inter-related concepts. Land sovereignty means that development should not be based on dispossession but on securing the rights of communities to their land, water and forests, and to supporting their types of farming methods. Food sovereignty means privileging local and regional markets, and limiting the role of corporations in the food system. In these ways, they argue, investment in African farmers – rather than investment that dispossesses them – can produce ample, healthy and safe food.

From land grabs to responsible agricultural investment

These arguments reflect the ongoing battle over how to define and ensure responsible agricultural investment. The Committee on World Food Security recently presented its "zero draft" for consultation with African stakeholders in Johannesburg – and the response was telling.

African farmer organisations insisted that transparency is just a starting point. Following years of chronic neglect, African agriculture is in desperate need of investment. What is needed for a turnaround in African agriculture must start with reconsidering the slashing of subsidies, agricultural deregulation and trade liberalisation that constituted the policy formula foisted on many African states over the past three decades.

Responsible investment frameworks tend to wrongly assume that investments are necessarily external, private and land-based. Other possibilities include public as well as private investments in infrastructure, goods and services to enable farmers to commercialise and scale up production, access cheap and appropriate inputs, improve their productivity, add value to their products, access better markets, and fetch better prices for improved quality products.

The challenge remains to develop concrete alternative development programmes that confirm land and other resource rights in the hands of local farming families and invest in them.

Ruth Hall is an associate professor at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, University of the Western Cape, South Africa. She tweets @RuthHallPLAAS. This article was originally published in ECDPM's monthly Great Insights

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