In five short years, rich countries have acquired about 80 million hectares of land in Africa and other developing countries in what is now a worrying trend.
Critics have dubbed this “the big land grab”, or “the new type of neo-colonialism”. What is happening?
Now, foreigners have always owned land in Africa. What is new in this “second scramble for Africa” is the scale, size and more importantly, the exclusion of civil society and local communities in the process.
The United Nations has very little data, and the governments or corporations involved are not willing to talk.
Land acquisition of such a scale in Africa was last witnessed in the historical scramble for the continent more than a century ago, when European powers met in Berlin, Germany, drew arbitrary lines on a piece of paper, and shared the different parts of the continent among themselves.
Host governments are generally receptive to these acquisitions for obvious reasons: they offer various opportunities to create jobs, increase foreign direct investments and of course, for the extraction of rent.
But questions are emerging about the implications of these land deals, especially the exposure of economically fragile groups to further marginalisation through speculation and land rights transfers, loss of access to land and resources for pastoralists, small-scale agricultural producers, and subsistence farmers.
Despite a decade of high growth across the continent, the wealth created is not being equally shared and so progress in human development in Africa has been disappointingly limited, according to the report by Christian Aid and Tax Justice Network-Africa.
But the growing gap between rich and poor is not simply the result of the rich getting richer, the authors say. They also point to money escaping offshore in illicit flows as well as tax systems that are failing to redistribute wealth and in some cases even disadvantaging the poor.
"Inequality has been exacerbated by the growth model in many countries which has seen a concentration of income," said Alvin Mosioma at Tax Justice Network-Africa.
"It also reflects the inability of governments to tax the proceeds of growth, either because so much is given away in corporate tax breaks, or has escaped offshore into tax havens.Until tax dodging is tackled effectively, nationally and internationally, and illicit finance flows from the continent halted, economic inequality will continue to rise."
Although there is no argument that deforestation is proceeding, academics disagree sharply on its rate. The latest turn in the dispute focuses on a study published in July 2013 by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), which said that deforestation across the Congo basin had fallen by about one-third since 2000. Using satellite imagery, the report claimed that between 2000 and 2010, an average of 2,000 square kilometres of rainforest was felled every year, down from 3,000 square kilometres in the 1990s.
Simon Lewis, a reader in global change science at University College London and the University of Leeds, edited the series that included this report. He attributed the downturn to the lack of commercial agribusiness in the region. “Unlike in South America or south-east Asia, in Africa we still see very little large-scale industrial deforestation for agriculture,” he said. “The decline of deforestation appears to be associated with countries obtaining revenue from mining and minerals and oil, rather than from large-scale agriculture expansion.”
Conflict in the DRC, which alone contains more than half of Africa’s forest cover, may also have contributed to the slowdown. “The reduction in deforestation is not because conservation initiatives have worked, or because the fight against illegal logging is won. It’s just that there has been less industrial activity as a result of the turbulence,” said Alexandra Pardal, an official at Global Witness, a UK-based campaign group. “As the region becomes more stable, there will be increased commercial interest to convert the forest for agriculture.”
With estimates ranging from 56 to 227 million hectares globally (with 60-70% of this in Africa), what is clear is that what has taken place in the past 5-10 years is a rapid transformation of landholding and agricultural systems, not seen since the colonial period. Underpinning these deals is the longstanding failure of many African states to recognise, in law and practice, the customary land rights of existing farming households and communities, and the perpetuation of the colonial legal codes that centralise control over such lands in the hands of the central state, as trustee of all unregistered property.
It is not only African land and water that is now so desirable for international investors, but also growing African consumer market demand for food. In the face of growing urbanisation and consumer demand in Africa’s cities, the challenge is to scale up production and connect small farmers to markets, lest the benefits of rising consumer demand in Africa’s cities be netted by importers and foreign supermarkets.
The ‘land grab’ raises questions not only about land rights and transparency in investment, but also what constitutes inclusive agricultural development and how to bring it about. With growing urgency among development institutions globally to arrive at agreement on how to stop land grabs while still promoting investment, the stakes are high.
The Concept Note (CN) which was formulated by the ProSAVANA-PD and was announced on and dated September 2013, maintains the same concept of the ProSAVANA-PD’s Report No.2 (2013 March) prepared as a “blue print” for the Master Plan, a copy of which was obtained by civil society. However, due to recent international criticism, the presentation of agrobusiness participation and land acquisition within the project are now either evaded or treated in a hidden way. Instead, a strategy of “agricultural revolution” is proposed. This is described as “implementing the program of registering DUAT of the individual farmers, and demarcating and fixing the use right of the cultivated land, so as to clarify the area of unused land”. It is claimed that this portion of land will then induce agricultural investment, and such strategy forces the small scale farmers within the target area to transform their farming into a so-called “high-input high-productivity type of agriculture”. However, such a strategy of coercing small farmers to drastically transform their farming practices to a high-input type of agriculture is likely to subordinate them to agribusiness through one-sided contract farming or to lead to the loss of their lands.
It’s a question being asked not only in Ethiopia but across Africa. As I report in the current issue of the journal Ethics and International Affairs , many other countries are also welcoming big agricultural projects bankrolled by foreign investors whose goal is to send food abroad. Liberia has reportedly signed concessions for nearly one-third of its national territory in recent years. (Liberia, like many other African nations, claims government ownership of all the country’s arable land.) Half of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s agricultural lands are being leased to grow crops, including palm oil for the production of biofuels. Perhaps the largest single venture to date is the ProSavana Project in northern Mozambique, where an area roughly the size of Switzerland and Austria combined has been leased by Brazilian and Japanese companies to produce soybeans and maize for export.
Critics question the wisdom of producing food for foreign consumption in regions where many go hungry — especially when the land deals displace local subsistence farmers. In Mozambique , where more than 80 percent of the overall population depends on family farming, authorities claim that the land seized for ProSavana is unoccupied. But surveys by the country’s National Research Institute show that it is an area of shifting seasonal cultivation and grazing, and the nonprofit group GRAIN estimates that millions of peasant farmers are losing their land as a result of forced resettlement schemes. In Ethiopia, meanwhile, 1.5 million farmers and pastoralists have been moved off of their land to make way for new industrial farms.
What is new about these neo-colonial developments is the presence of and support from global governance institutions. As much of the land grabbing literature attests, and as this case confirms, international finance institutions in particular have been critical to the growth of large-scale acquisitions of land and other resources in Southern countries following the 2007-2008 crisis. Citadel Capital’s farm in South Sudan (Concord) will produce and transport staples for the South Sudanese army and the UN World Food Programme through lucrative contracts. The World Bank’s IFI and other finance institutions like the African Development Bank have been principle co-investors with Citadel Capital in its ‘green’ investments.
Rather than leading to anything that may be called ‘development’, partnerships between investors and global governance institutions represent greater control over vital resources and distribution routes for private wealth accumulation. Citadel Capital’s ‘gold corridor’ sheds light on these partnerships as not simply speculative in nature but as paths of capital accumulation in the medium term. In these ‘risky’ times, with (fears of) political instability in revolutionary Egypt and in other investor originating countries (e.g. Saudi Arabia), Citadel Capital is converting from a private equity firm, with short-term interests, to an investment bank with principle longer-term interests. Such a shift reveals quite convincingly anticipation of continued chronic food insecurity (as the firm renews continually its contract with the World Food Programme to transport food aid throughout the region) and corporate consolidation of agri-food systems (as it attempts to expand and integrate its market shares regionally – and other investors develop and expand their acquisitions in the region as well).
Kenya’s government announced last week the discovery of two huge aquifers in drought-stricken areas in the north of the country. The underground water sources reported in Turkana contain at least 250 billion cubic meters of water. The revelation has raised hopes of more such finds in Africa; like oil (also discovered in Turkana), new aquifers are being discovered across the continent . Analysis suggests that underground water volumes in the region equal about 100 times the amount of water found on the surface.
Yet the discovery of these new aquifers won’t have much impact unless the world takes measures to ensure more effective access to, and use of, the water sources we already have. Even for Kenyans, a new aquifer in one part of the country isn’t that much help. For some people in rural Turkana, the new find will help simplify access to clean water by providing nearby boreholes. But the country’s annual freshwater withdrawal from lakes, aquifers, and rivers is 2.7 billion cubic meters, compared to close to 21 billion cubic meters in renewable supplies. For most of Kenya (and the rest of Africa), the most pressing problem isn’t a countrywide lack of water; it’s the lack of immediate, reliable access to it.
The UN is deploying an offensive combat force for the first time in an attempt to neutralise eastern Congo’s myriad armed groups. In March, Monusco adopted resolution 2098 , which enabled offensive combat and authorised an “intervention brigade”. The brigade will comprise 3,000 troops from Tanzania, Malawi and South Africa . Approximately 70% have arrived in Goma so far.
A concern among NGOs in Goma is how the UN is blurring the line between military and humanitarian roles. Will those providing aid be perceived as allied to this new militarised group? For organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins sans Frontières, their neutrality in conflicts is rewarded with access to those in need. In many areas of eastern Congo there is an assumption that any outsider belongs to Monusco. “If that imbued affiliation is there, and then perception of Monusco declines, we could start seeing problems for humanitarians,” Briggs says.
There is also criticism that the new force creates a conflict of interest within the peacekeeping brigade. “Humanitarian action has to be humanitarian and has to be done by a neutral actor,” one Goma-based co-ordinator said.
A statement by the UN mission in the DR Congo has given everyone in the city of Goma and surrounding areas until 2000 GMT on Thursday to hand in their weapons to the city’s UN base, warning that anyone caught after this would be considered a rebel.
"They will be considered an imminent threat of physical violence to civilians and [UN mission in DR Congo] Monusco will take all necessary measures to disarm them, including by the use of force in accordance with its mandate and rules of engagement," the statement read.
Just across the border in Mozambique there is neo-colonial exploitation underway. It is not Europe or the United States that are dominating, but rather countries which are often looked up to as challengers, such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. […] this tells a tale of one country, in which tens of billions of rands of investment by BRICS countries and companies in extracting minerals results in the extraction of wealth. Mozambique will join the Resourced Cursed societies of our region, with polluted local environments, and a changed structure of peoples’ lives, making them dependent on foreign decisions rather than their own local and national political power. This is not a random set of exploitations, but rather a well-orchestrated strategy to shift the elite development agenda away from Europe, the US and Japan, to what we now term the BRICS.
This positioning means that the BRICS drive for economic superiority is pursued in the name of poverty alleviation. No matter how one terms the process – imperialist, sub-imperialist, post-colonial, or whatever – the reality is that these countries are challenging the power relations in the world, but sadly the model chosen to challenge this power is nothing different from the model that has resulted in mass poverty and elite wealth globally.
Two new reports from the Oakland Institute, Development Aid to Ethiopia: Overlooking Violence, Marginalization, and Political Repression and Ignoring Abuse in Ethiopia: DFID and USAID in the Lower Omo Valley , show how Western development assistance is supporting forced evictions and massive violations of human rights in Ethiopia.
The Ethiopian government’s controversial “villagization” resettlement program to clear vast areas for large-scale land investments is funded largely by international development organizations. The first report, Development Aid to Ethiopia , establishes direct links between development aid—an average $3.5 billion a year, equivalent to 50 to 60% of Ethiopia’s national budget—and industrial projects that violate the human rights of people in the way of their implementation.
The report also shows how indirect support in the form of funding for infrastructure, such as dams for irrigation and electricity for planned plantations, plays a role in repressing local communities by making the projects viable.