South Korea’s project to transform Madagascar into its breadbasket, branded by some as neo-colonial, came to an abrupt end on Wednesday when the Indian Ocean island’s new president said he would shelve the plan.
Daewoo Logistic’s deal to lease a huge tract of farmland, half the size of Belgium, to grow food crops to send back to Seoul was a source of popular resentment that contributed to the fall of Marc Ravalomanana, the former president.
Andry Rajoelina, who was declared president by the military and constitutional court after months of demonstrations and who will be formally sworn in on Saturday, said that Daewoo’s plan was “cancelled”.
“We are not against the idea of working with investors, but if we want to sell or rent out land, we have to change the constitution, you have to consult the people,” Mr Rajoelina said in Antananarivo, the country’s capital. “So at this hour the deal is cancelled.”
The revelation of the plan was the catalyst that turned smouldering dissatisfaction with the rule of Mr Ravalomanana into the rebellion that ousted him on Tuesday.
Once early prospecting of land became public, outrage at the president’s perceived use of political office to further his own business interests changed gear, said a well-connected Malagasy, who asked not to be named. “It was the news that said Daewoo expected to pay nothing for the land that accelerated the [political] trouble,” he added.
Mr Rajoelina’s announcement came hours after Daewoo officials said they would press ahead with the project regardless of the political situation. Richard Shin, an official at Daewoo, said the company was surprised by the growing political risks in the Indian Ocean island and by the drop in agricultural commodities prices, but added: “We want to continue the project, whether the government changes or not.”
Daewoo’s plan became the most high-profile of several similar smaller foreign agricultural investments in Africa. The race to outsource production is a sign of how countries, particularly in the Middle East but also in Asia, are seeking food security after last year’s food crisis, which saw record prices for staples such as wheat and rice, and the imposition of export restrictions.
The South Korean company initially said it had secured a lease for 99 years for about 1.3m hectares and expected to pay nothing as a rent, although it later said it was still in negotiations with Mr Ravalomanana’s former government.
The company floated the plan in January to lease 900,000 hectares of land with infrastructure investments worth $2bn (€1.5bn, £1.4bn). The plan suggested Daewoo could create up to 45,000 jobs.
Seoul’s long-term target was to import up to half its corn needs, cutting its dependence on the US, Argentina and Brazil. South Korea is the world’s fourth largest corn importer.
Additional reporting by Jung-a Song in Seoul