Development experts fear unchecked international land grabs in Africa

A farmer sifts grain in Nigeria

Deutsche Welle | 13.08.2009

Development experts are concerned that the combination of soft United Nations regulations, inefficient legal systems and compliant local elites are aiding foreign land grabs in Africa.

Questions over whether international assistance in Africa actually helps the continent develop or stymies its growth while allowing foreign interests to exploit the continent’s potential reared their head again in July this year.

The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) issued a report into the acquisition of arable land in Africa by foreign companies and governments as a response to growing concern among international institutions, non-governmental groups and independent experts.

The report - "Land grab or development opportunity? Agricultural investment and international land deals in Africa” - reviewed the present trend of foreign land purchases, leases and other transactions and weighed both the risks and the economic opportunities that such acquisitions represent for African countries.

The FAO said that foreign investments in African farmable land "could be good news if the objectives of land purchasers are reconciled with the investment needs of (the hosting) countries.” The report suggested that land purchases from outside of Africa could lead to higher state revenues, and new chances of development in rural areas.

In the report, the FAO suggests that measures should be taken in order to regulate the land acquisitions and guarantee a minimum benefit for African citizenries. ”The risks attached to international investments have led to calls for a binding code of conduct,” the FAO says in the paper.

Report ignores realities of "agrarian colonialism"

But critics of the practice, which some have referred to as "a new form of agrarian colonialism,” say that the FAO’s suggestions on how to protect African nations and their citizens from exploitation ignore many realities on the ground.

The UN's suggestions to protect Africa have come under fire

Some say the FAO report provides only weak suggestions for regulating foreign investment in arable land and relies heavily on the voluntary application of lax rules for foreign investors, while the modalities of implementation are too ambiguous to fulfill the FAO’s goals. The deficiencies of Africa’s legal structure also mean that the implementation and control of regulations imposed on foreign investors will never be applied.

Critics also mention the combination of a lack of transparency and checks and balances in contract negotiations which in turn create a breeding ground for corruption and lead to deals which don’t have the public interest at heart.

The FAO report does admit that most African countries do not have in place legal or procedural mechanisms to protect local rights and take account of local interests, livelihoods and welfare, adding that it regards African processes to negotiate land deals as ”unsatisfactory” while the enforcement of rules of conduct remains ” problematic.”

Experts fear land grabs can compromise food security

"This report shows that the current large scale investments in land in Africa carry a high risk for the local population's food security," Alexa Emundts from MISEREOR, a German development organization affiliated to the International Cooperation for Development and Solidarity Alliance, told Deutsche Welle. "Many of these investments, aiming at the production of export goods, target countries that suffer from high rates of malnutrition and which even depend on food relief, countries like Sudan and Ethiopia. By further reducing access of the local population to land, this situation will still be aggravated."

"The FAO-report gives various recommendations what should be considered when negotiating land contracts. For example there should be careful analysis of the local context, transparency in the land deals and participation of the local population," she added.

"However, with regard to the fact that many of these deals take place in non-democratic countries it is unrealistic to think that small-scale farmers will be given the same power as big international companies or governments that are interested to purchase land," Emundts said.

"As it is practiced now, details of land negotiations will rarely be revealed and involvement of the local population will not take place to an adequate level. The FAO report itself gives the example from Tanzania and Mozambique where national regulations stipulate that the local population has to be asked for approval to investments in land, but in reality this is not being adequately followed," she said.

Smallholders vs. powerful foreign investors

Smallholders could benefit from more info on foreign land deals

Critics argue that most of these deals for land are extremely unbalanced and that the bargaining power is on the side of the foreign investor, especially when the investor is supported by the host state or local elites in the region. The smallholders who sell their land can do little in the way of negotiating a fair outcome and are powerless to enforce any agreements with the foreign investor if they fail to make good on their promises of employment or local support.

Alexa Emundts believes African smallholders and state authorities would stand a better chance of protecting their land and rights if they were in possession of all the facts.

"The affected population should be made aware of the high risks of these land investments, so that they can try to form an opposition," Emundts said. "But this is very difficult since the negotiations take place in secrecy. Sometimes the local governments themselves might not be aware of the risks and if they are informed, there might be a chance sometimes that they refrain from concluding respective contracts."

A race against time

Land is not only being grabbed for agricultural purposes

However, when faced with the might and will of not only a broad range of private foreign companies, but also joint ventures with governments and government-led investments from major players such as the Gulf States, China, India and others from Asia and the EU, the general consensus is that Africa is being out-gunned. While regulations and rules are debated, the amount of land being bought up by foreign investors is increasing at a rapacious speed.

"The German company Flora Ecopower has bought up at least 15,000 hectares of land in Ethiopia to produce oil for the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industry," Emundts said. "Our information shows that they had plans to expand that to 80,000 hectares by the end of last year. We don't as yet have any evidence of the impact of this investment on the local population.

"The aim of the investments taking place at the moment is to satisfy the food or agrofuel needs of foreign governments and in the case of private companies the hope for lucrative gains by speculating with land or trading agricultural goods," Emundts added. "The investments will focus on industrial agro-production with intensive use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides and large-scale irrigation schemes. This will lead to a long-term overuse of resources and degradation of land."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor:  Rob Mudge
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