The National | June 05. 2009
NAIROBI // It seemed, when the proposal was announced last December, to be a throwaway clause in a much larger deal. In exchange for a US$2.5 billion (Dh9.1bn) loan to build a second deep-water port in Kenya, Qatar asked for 40,000 hectares of land to grow food.
Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, may have thought that he had a deal that would help feed his 800,000 people. But he was also about to get a major headache.
In the months since, the proposed land deal in Kenya’s Tana River Delta has been jeopardised by the global economic downturn, tainted by criticism from think tanks, conservationists and civil society and seized upon by locals who have promised to fight it – to the death, if it comes to that.
“No government has ever been able to acquire Tana River Delta land as long as we’ve been alive,” said Omara Kalasinga, a local activist. “No amount of force will get us to give that land to Qatar.”
The furore surrounding the Tana River Delta is perhaps an ominous example of just how difficult it is proving for Gulf states to find food security abroad and especially in Africa. Some analysts question whether such proposals – which have gained a great deal of media attention in the wake of rising food prices and South Korea’s failed bid to snap up a third of all arable land in Madagascar – are worth the trouble. They are asking whether Qatar and its neighbours should seek alternative strategies to feed their people.
“It turns out these deals are not such simple things to do,” Marie Bos, a researcher at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, said. “Buying land comes with so many issues, so many factors to take into consideration.”
By all accounts, given the business climate when Qatar made the proposal to the Kenyan president, Mwai Kibaki, during a visit to Doha in December 2008, the idea seemed perfect. Qatar and its wealthy neighbours had recently launched sovereign investment funds which were looking to buy land abroad. Even better, the Kenyan government seemed willing to play along.
The Tana River Delta is a massive swath of land along Kenya’s coast. Rain is abundant and much of the land is government owned. Little of it is developed and prime, fertile land would be just kilometres from the proposed port and a quick run by sea up to Qatar. At the same time, Kenya was pushing its own development plan, known as Vision 2030, to promote investment and improvements in Kenya. The port deal was seen as crucial because it would open up a third of the country – the arid and neglected north-east – to development.
The country’s planning minister, Wycliffe Oparanya, declared that Qatar was ready to finance the port unconditionally and that the deal was too urgent to go through the process of applying for a World Bank loan.
“It is not a matter of free money,” he told Reuters. “But if we go to the World Bank, it takes four years to negotiate and then you are told: ‘Do this, do that’. The Kenyan people cannot wait that long for this urgent development project.”
Yet soon after the announcement appeared in Kenyan newspapers, anger started to mount. In Kenya, people do not just debate land – they kill for it too, as happened during violence after botched elections in December 2007. And for decades, people had been killing each other over the Tana River Delta, an area inhabited by pastoralists and small-scale farmers and occasionally terrorised by bandits from Somalia.
Despite its post-election troubles, Kenya has a vibrant civil society. Its neighbours, Sudan and Ethiopia, have been popular destinations for Gulf investors looking for land, but Kenya is a messier place to do business. Desperate peasants in Ethiopia may be easily cowed by autocratic governments. Kenya’s conservationists are a different matter.
“They think Kenyans like making noise and after a while they won’t have the energy to sustain it and will keep quiet,” said Hadley Becha, the director of the East African Wildlife Society. “But they don’t know some of us, we are like sniffer dogs.”
That the Tana River Delta is undeveloped is, in some ways, testament to that tenacity. The government has long tried a host of schemes – from sugarcane, to shrimp farming, to rice fields and agro-fuels – in the delta, all of which failed, sunk by local opposition, poor planning or conservation groups, who cherish the delta’s extraordinary ecological diversity.
The government claims that the land – 200,000 hectares – is its to give. Yet the people who live there say that while they have no deed, customary law makes it theirs.
“There were people there even before the state came into being,” said Ms Becha. “On the ground, they will have to displace people and people are not ready to be displaced.”
Even if Qatar does look elsewhere, such deals have come under a lot more scrutiny, especially since the South Korea deal in Madagascar ultimately played a part in the government’s downfall.
Regardless of the fact that Kenya has a great deal of uncultivated land, the country finds itself in the middle of a drought that has brought a low-level famine to many of its people. The land Qatar wants may be small, but the symbolism would be potent, experts say.
“It does seem rather anomalous that you’ve got countries which are food insecure and in receipt of food aid shipments and at the same time handing over control of land to third countries,” said David Hallam, head of the Trade Policy Service at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
Analysts say Qatar and its neighbours may be better off forming relationships with existing domestic farms rather than snapping up land.
Last week, a UN report on Africa noted that the global financial crisis would slash growth rates across the continent and said that such land deals with wealthy Gulf nations could be “part of the solution” to the continent’s troubles – but only if they helped create jobs or cut poverty.
“There has been talk about the business model not being robust enough – it may be better just to work with local farmers,” said O?B Sisay, a deputy Africa analyst with Exclusive Analysis in London. “You’re going to find it difficult to produce food for export in countries that have perennial food and farming shortages.”
Kenyan officials deny the Qatar deal has been set in stone, while Qatar has maintained a general silence.
Isaiah Kabira, President Kibaki’s spokesman, said there would be discussions next month over the port deal. He said Kenya was asking Qatar to develop not only the 40,000 hectares for its own use, but also another 40,000 hectares so that the produce could be sold domestically.He insisted that conservation groups and community leaders were wrong about the location of the land that would be leased to Qatar, and that the port would bring benefits to the entire country.