Desperate for foreign investment and the promise of development, African governments are increasingly offering to foreigners what their people rely on most—land. The result of the phenomenon known as “land grabbing” has seen millions of people displaced, unrest, and even bigger poverty.
This land grab or land rush began in earnest a decade ago, but gained momentum following record high food prices in 2008, combined with increasing hunger, the ongoing financial crisis, and a surge in biofuel demand. It describes investors, governments, or companies, buying or leasing vast tracks of arable land in foreign countries for the purpose of exporting the produce back to their own country, or simply for financial speculation.
The phenomena is most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as in Brazil and Russia; the foreign countries most involved in claiming the land are China, South Korea, India, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar.
While the exact figures are hard to determine, in 2009, the World Bank estimates that over 110 million acres of land were under negotiation for allocation, 70 percent of which were in Africa. The International Land Coalition (ILC) puts the number at almost 200 million acres, 64 percent in Africa.
According to the World Bank, 21 percent of land deals in 2009 globally were for biofuel production; the ILC figure for 2009 is 44 percent, with Southern Africa being called the new Middle East of biofuels.
Africa is arguably the most vulnerable to this trend since the continent relies entirely on subsistence agriculture to feed its population. It has an estimated 80 million small-scale farmers who supply 95 percent of Africa’s food needs and produce 30 percent of its Gross Domestic Product. Any land taken away from these farmers, has dire consequences for them.
“Especially in Kenya, Ethiopia, and elsewhere across the Horn of Africa, where you can see devastating famine and drought, the fact that the government has sold or leased land which can be used to grow food and feed their own people, is really posing a moral dilemma,” Danielle Nierenberg, director of the project Nourishing the Planet of the Worldwatch Institute said in a telephone interview.
In addition, much of the land taken away from farmers is not being productive. A World Bank study in 2010 indicated that only around 20 percent of approved projects had begun production. The rest of the land remained idle.
Nierenberg says that the farmers’ groups she met across Africa were frightened and very angry that these land grabs have been allowed to happen. They had faith that the government would not sell their land to other people.
Ethiopia has become a poster-child for the devastating impact of land grabs. Huge swaths of land around the Omo River in the southeast of the country, some 605,000 acres, are being leased to foreign companies or cleared by the government for cash crop plantations such as sugar cane.
Moreover, the government is building the highly controversial Gibe III Dam on the Omo River to provide irrigation and to produce electricity, much of which will be sold to neighboring Kenya.
The dam stops the annual flooding of the river, which the tribes depend on for “flood retreat cultivation” of crops, and the rich silt the retreating waters leave behind.
In Ethiopia alone, the tribal people of the Omo Valley—numbering some 200,000—depend entirely on growing crops and grazing their livestock on their land for survival.
In a recent interview with Deutsche Welle, Essayas Kebede, director of the Ethiopian government’s Agricultural Investment Agency, explained that offering land to foreigners can help increase productivity and buying power of Ethiopians.
He says that 37 million acres of land is lying fallow, and of that about 9 million acres is suitable for commercial farming. “But for that we need investors. They can come from Ethiopia or from abroad, it doesn’t matter to us, but we urgently need capital and modern technology to increase our agricultural sector output.”
Part of the Lower Omo is an UNESCO World Heritage site because of its cultural and archaeological importance to humankind. UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee recently urged Ethiopia to "immediately halt” the Gibe III Dam.
“There is no singing and dancing all along the Omo River now. The people are too hungry. The kids are quiet. We adults go into the shelter and sleep silently. We don’t chat,” complained one local Mun tribesman, related Christina Chauvenet, press officer at Survival International USA, via email.
One Mursi man said, “That time (2006) the land was very full. We had a lot of flood water in the Omo River and we were very happy. Now the water is gone and we are all hungry. Later it will be death.”
Chauvenet says that many tribal peoples in the region are too afraid to speak out for fear of reprisals. In 2009, the Ethiopian Southern Region’s Justice Bureau revoked the licenses of 41 local NGOs or community associations. As a result, the tribal peoples have no organizations to press their cases or articulate their concerns.
She added that Survival International received credible reports that any tribal person who opposes the dam is being severely dealt with by the military and secret police, including beatings, torture, and jail. They were being told, “to go plant somewhere else” and “sell their cows and spend the money.”
Grabs Increase Food Prices
In 2008, international food prices reached record highs following a series of natural disasters. While prices subsequently came down again, they remained high in many developing countries.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates a record 1 billion people—or one-sixth of the world’s population—goes to bed hungry, without sufficient calories to live a healthy life. This year, the Horn of Africa suffered its the worst drought in 60 years, dooming at least 10 million people to an even worse fate.
Soren Ambrose, a land grabs expert at ActionAid says small-scale farmers are facing increased competition for land and resources from agri-business. The production of food for export is reducing the local food supply and driving up prices.
“If it goes unchecked, the impacts for local communities will be devastating, causing local food prices to spike and driving some of the world’s poorest people deeper into poverty,” warns Ambrose.
Unemployment is also on the rise among local people, who are being displaced because of land grabs. When foreign investors take over the land for agricultural projects, they usually promise jobs for locals, but the job openings are often few compared to the number of people who had lived on that land, and moreover, they are extremely poorly paid.
“Farmers say that they don’t want to give up farming in order to become agricultural labor. It is not a good trade-off for them,” said Devlin Kuyek from GRAIN, in a telephone interview from Montreal.
When local communities are evicted, they have no other choice but to go to big cities. Experts say that most of the displaced population in the cities are former farmers.
“So when you see urban poverty in Africa, it is actually rural poverty displaced to the cities,” said Harwood D. Schaffer, research assistant professor at the Tennessee Institute of Agriculture via telephone.
Mariya Nedelcheva, member of the European Parliament and member of the European Union Delegation to Africa, described similar experience she had in Luanda, the capital of Angola.
The MEP said that many people in Africa are very easily influenced by how the government and media present the situation.
“I have observed that after mass campaign where the government explains that this is good and will help for modernization. But when these investors come and people see that for two years the land remains unprocessed, then they realize it is not so positive a thing,” said Nedelcheva.
According to Nedelcheva, in order for mass land allocations to bring benefits to people in Africa, clear rules and balance is necessary.
“When this is done with the sole purpose of buying high-quality arable land, this deprives small farmers of their land and turns them into manual labor; cuts their access to their own land, and furthermore this is a land which can be used for food but instead is used for biofuels; it is really scary what is going on.”