Move to lease land to the Qatari is ill-advised

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Daily Nation | Saturday, December 27 2008

By DANIEL ICHANG’I

Reports that the Government of Kenya intends to lease more than 100,000 acres of prime fertile land in the Tana Delta to Qatar to grow food is the latest in an emerging trend where rich countries, especially from Asia and the Middle East -- faced with growing populations and dwindling arable lands -- are outsourcing their food production to poor, food insecure countries.

This trend is raising serious concerns over the fate of Africa with the Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Jacques Diouf, having expressed fears in August of an emergent “neo-colonial agricultural system”.

This new wave of invasion is targeting some of the most fertile lands in Africa in a manner reminiscent of the scramble for Africa in the 19th Century. We are facing the beginning of a modern agro-imperialism, this time coming from the East.

In the case of Kenya, the area around Tana Delta which the government seeks to lease to the Qatari is of immense strategic value.

It is fertile, has fresh water and, more importantly, is located in a region that has the highest potential oil and gas deposits in the country as well as other mineral deposits.

In addition, the area lies in close proximity to the proposed deep water port at Lamu and the Lamu-Isiolo-Juba, Isiolo-Marsabit-Moyale-Addis Ababa railway lines and related road infrastructure along which there are a number of proposed tourist cities.

There have also been proposals to link this infrastructure with the proposed Mombasa-Taru-Mwingi rail and road network.

Whilst it is obvious that this infrastructural development is much needed, Kenyans need to think twice before moving forward with the deal, especially considering that Qatar is offering a $3.5bn loan to finance the building of the Lamu Port as part of its strategy to “diversify its international investment portfolio”, according to Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.

Putting such factors into consideration, one would quite rightly question the wisdom of leasing such prime land to a foreign country and government as this has implications on our national sovereignty.

This might just be the beginning of a long term plan by the Arab state to control a key region and gateway of our country.

Furthermore, the construction of the proposed infrastructure is expected to cost much more than the amount expected from the Qatar government.

Our government has not come out clearly to explain how the rest of the money is to be raised and whether it has explored other options of raising the funds required for this mega infrastructural development.

It may be worthwhile to learn from the experiences of Chinese involvement in Mozambique.

Two years ago, the Chinese offered loans to Mozambique to build dams, ports and roads in the fertile region in the Zambezi and Limpopo valleys and, in return, the Mozambican government was to avail land to the Chinese to grow food for themselves.

However, it would appear that the Chinese started making demands for increasingly larger pieces of land and even signed an MoU that would have allowed as many as 10,000 Chinese settlers to move into the region.

IT SOON BECAME CLEAR THAT CHINA was setting up base in Mozambique, offering cash to develop infrastructure that was clearly designed to help them ship the food back home easily.

This caused so much disquiet in Mozambique that the plan appears to have been shelved for now.

Turning to the issue of food security and food sovereignty, it is emerging that, as part of the compensation for the land, the Qatari will assist Kenya develop some of the land to produce more food for local consumption. This may sound fine but it suggests upturned priorities.

Should Kenya not first secure its own food supply before letting foreigners partake of some of the produce of its soil?

Qatar, using similar strategies, is already securing supply of rice from Vietnam and Cambodia, maize, wheat and edible oil from Sudan and meat from Australia and Pakistan.

It is no surprise that they want to grow vegetables and fruits in Kenya.

What about our own food security? Considering that the current food crisis is largely the product of poor planning, is this the best reaction we can muster in response to the recent global food crisis and an uncertain future?

Should we not have first formulated a comprehensive development plan for the Tana Delta region and the entire eastern, central and northern Kenya regions before even considering leasing part of the land to a foreign country and government?

Has the government made provisions for local partnership, value addition and technology transfer in this enterprise? What safeguard measures have been put in place to protect local farmers and the ecosystem?

Recent experiences, and particularly the controversial disposal of the Grand Regency Hotel, justifies the serious concerns regarding unequal transactions that our government may enter into.

Dr Ichang’i lectures geology at the University of Nairobi and is the chairman of the Association of Professional Societies in East Africa. [email protected]

Original source: Daily Nation
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