Ministry says it was not consulted over Qatar land deal

Business Daily Africa | 16 January 2009

Written by Morris Ochieng-Aron

The Lands ministry has denied any knowledge of an arrangement between Kenya and Qatar to lease 40,000 hectares of its prime farm land to the Arabian country to grow food while over 10 million households face starvation.

Lands Minister James Orengo said he learned of the now controversial deal through the Press and that no key official of his ministry had wind of the project.

“The Ministry of Lands is not aware of the details of the deal and as such is not party to it,” said Mr Orengo.

The development, however, raises queries about how the deal was brokered as such a transaction should involve the Commissioner of Lands.

The deal, which was struck during President Kibaki’s visit to Qatar last November, will see the Gulf state lease 40,000 hectares of uncultivated land near the fertile Tana River Delta, which is part of 500,000 hectares owned by the Kenya government in the area.

In return, Qatar is to fund the building of a new port in Lamu, that will be Kenya’s second port after Mombasa, under terms estimated to be worth Sh180 billion ($2.3 billion).

The project is expected to take five years to complete and most of the produce, mainly vegetables and fruits, will be exported to the Gulf state.

Food security
A separate agreement to allow a local company to grow sugarcane and build a factory in the area drew opposition from environmentalists who say the ecosystem of mangrove swamps, savannah and forests will be destroyed by the development. Pastoralists, who regard the land as communal and graze up to 60,000 cattle in the delta each dry season, are also opposed to the plan.

Questions have been raised about the Government’s move to let the land instead of engaging local farmers to boost food security.

Kenya recently announced it would declare famine a national emergency in the coming weeks.The country has since last year been experiencing food shortages which have pushed up the prices of foodstuff.

As a result, the State recently subsidizing the cost of maize flour for low income earners and ordered the importation of more maize, among other raft of measures to stem food shortages.

The Government has, however, defended the deal with Qatar, saying under the agreement, the country will help Kenya to develop an equivalent number of hectares for its own food security.“Nothing comes for free,” Isaiah Kabira, the head of the presidential press service recently said regarding the transaction.

“If you want people to invest in your country, you have to make concessions.”

The arrangement is similar to a model that has been widely criticised by agricultural experts worldwide that mainly involves poor countries and rich nations or corporations, especially from the Middle East. Many oil-rich countries are leasing land in sub-Saharan Africa to boost their own food security, raising concern from United Nations agencies

Mr Jacques Diouf, the director -general of the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), recently spoke of the risk of a “neo-colonial” agricultural system emerging from such arrangements.

He said some of the first overseas projects by Gulf companies in the Sudan, where more than five million people receive international food aid, showed limited local benefits, with much of the specialist labour and farming inputs imported.

Another deal struck last month saw Daewoo Logistics acquire a 99-year lease for 1.3m hectares of land from Madagascar to grow crops.

Qatar, which has large oil and gas revenues, depends on food imports as most of its land is a desert and just one per cent is suitable for arable farming.

Additional reporting by The Guardian.

Original source: Business Daily Africa

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