Since 2001 governments of developing countries have rented out, sold or are in negotiations to sell 2.27 million square kilometers of land, according to figures of the Land Matrix Partnership, a group of academics, investigators and NGO cited by Oxfam in a recent report. African governments are the main “culprits”.  More than 70 per cent of these contracts have been signed in Africa. Suddenly the developed world has realized that sub-Saharan Africa is not over-populated, as we have been told for years, but that it’s the new El Dorado: endless bounties of badly wanted minerals and the largest area of unused rich, cultivable land in the world.

In Ethiopia, Mozambique, Sudan and Liberia, for example, some 43,000 square kilometers were sold or rented out to foreign investors between 2004 and 2009, according to official data of the World Bank. This is equal to the surface territory of Switzerland.

Considering that the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the size of two-thirds of Western Europe, Switzerland is a spot on the map for an immense continent like Africa. Nevertheless it indicates an interesting trend.

This race for cultivable land has been due to the increase in world food prices of 2007 and 2008; associated with it is the control of water. Many of the countries affected, such as Ethiopia and Sudan, are in the Nile basin, or the Niger basin, like Mali, which sold 2,400 square kilometers of land to foreigners in 2010 alone.

The main beneficiaries of these arrangements are countries with little water such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and United Arab Emirates, as well as Western countries, interested in bio-fuel and palm oil, and countries like India and China which fear they will one day be unable to feed their large populations.

What is the price of this ongoing process? Is there a price to pay? Surely the local people ought to look forward to this new development as they can be only beneficiaries.

The few studies carried out show that in practice almost all cases of letting out land to foreign investors have ended badly for the local people. For Michael Ochieng Odhiambo, author of the report “Commercial Pressures on Africa” for the International Land Coalition. Odhiambo is also an environmentalist lawyer and executive director of a Kenya-based institute for resources conflict resolution, and says further that this amounts to expropriation precisely because the local people and local customs are not taken into account. One day they see tractors come and start ploughing their land, and when they ask local authorities what is going on, they are told that no-one knows; the whole agreement took place with some corrupt government officials behind closed doors, with no local person being consulted.

 Foreign companies that invest in African land reject these charges and say that they are actually contributing to development. The British firm New Forests Company, which Oxfam accuses of forcing 20,000 people off their land in western Uganda, claims that it has an impeccable record in social and development investments and has created 2,000 jobs in remote areas of the country, increasing access to health care, education and clean water.

Odhiambo’s response is that no-one denies that these tracts of land could be put to better use; there’s nothing wrong with such land investment. The complaint is the process followed. Normally the rights of the indigenous communities whose sustenance relies on these lands are completely ignored. In some cases Chinese companies, for example, bring their own workers and displace the local people from their ancestral or community land.

Corrupt governments and the lack of adequate laws and regulations add to the injustice.

Lorenzo Cotula of the International Institute for Environment and Development says that no African country requires by law the free, informed consent of the people affected by these land deals.

Some developed countries are attracted by the lack of properly functioning democratic institutions in Africa, that there are few or no laws regulating working conditions, protection of the environment or the communal ownership of land. Many African governments consider they own all the land, and that communal ownership does not exist.

So it’s Robin Hood in reverse? The rich taking from the poor to give to other rich? Is it as simple as this?

A bit of background will help. Colonial governments developed huge estates in Africa, of tea, coffee, rubber, etc and exported the produce back home, which was then resold to local consumers in Africa. The agricultural industry and other light industry were developed, but subsistence agriculture was not, owing to several factors, among which is that men were not used to working and most land was cultivated by women, their babies slung on their backs in the sweltering heat. It is still rare to see a tractor or other modern farm implement working the land in Africa. Ownership of land was considered customary and ancestral by the local people; title deeds are still a recent development. Modern agriculture is practically unknown in Africa.

 No girl of today who attends school wants to spend her life cultivating land. She has seen her own mother suffer and better opportunities on offer; boys even less. For them the local town or the capital city is the promised land, even if it means living in squalor and casual work on a building site for some time. One day some rich or educated man will notice them, or they’ll manage to go for further education and get a white-collar job and live in a proper house. The ones left to cultivate the land are the older generations.

 So what is the way forward for agriculture in Africa? If the local people were consulted and had a voice and a vote and if the whole process was carried out democratically, and foreigners and Africans worked together, could African agriculture develop and the local people gradually take over, and the flight from the land be stemmed? That could be a beginning.

Martyn Drakard is Spero columnist for Africa.



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