Mali: Gov’t land deals forcing local farmers out of vocation?

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There are growing fears in Mali, amongst farmers, over land availability, as the government leases out large portions of arable lands to foreign investors. The leased lands are some of the most fertile rain-fed land in Mali, but Mali’s Agriculture Minister has said that the country has no choice if it is to feed its own population.

Former Finance Minister Abou Bakar Traore, in April 2009 signed an agreement to lease more than 11,000 hectares to the West African Economic and Monetary Union, and now 160,000 hectares of land has been leased out to foreign farmers, as the Mali government stresses the need of foreign investment in moving the agricultural sector forward.

Local farmers have complained that they may be forced out of vocation by this development.

Rice farmer Siaka Daoufrom Niono, told local reporters that they [rice farmers] would be reduced to day laborers for foreign farmers.

“The way the government is parceling out land from Office of Niger [region] is worrisome. This will stamp out small producers. We will no longer have land to cultivate and will be forced to work for industrial agriculture producers,” Niono is quoted as saying.

Despite the fears expresses by local farmers, Mr. Bakar Traore insists that the land deals are not pushing any farmers off the land, but rather trying to improve the land for these producers.

Land development secretary Mr. Abou Sow told reporters it will cost Mali almost half a million dollars to clear enough land to meet local food needs.

“We have one million [hectares] of potentially cultivable land, of which we have developed 70,000. The state cannot do it alone. The need for cultivable land increases every year, but development has not followed suit. These contracts allow Libyans, Chinese and others to come help us,” he said

The fears of the local farmers has however been echoed by International research groups who according to reports have claimed that the land grab by foreign investors is to seek produce for their own countries.

But the decision, according to Agricultural minister is mostly about feeding Malians. “Our concern today is to modernize agriculture, especially rice cultivation. To do this, we need a lot of resources and a lot of land. We cannot give a tractor to a small producer who would use it on two or three hectares; that would be a waste. Boosting irrigable land will ensure there will be enough work for local producers and enough food for local populations,” Agatham Ag Alassane, Mali’s Agricultural minister is quoted.

According to reports, the deal is already sealed; a joint Mali-Libyan group started construction on a 40-km irrigation canal at an estimated cost of $54.7 million for 100,000 hectares of rice production. There is also a US-funded Millennium Challenge account irrigation project estimated to affect 800 households. The US-funded project would provide five hectares of irrigable land per household, of which two are free and three are paid over a 20-year period.

According to experts, Mali’s land code protects local land rights, when its use is considered productive. However “productive land use” is not clearly defined and this may “open the door to abuse and undermine the security of local land rights”, a 2009 Food and Agriculture (FAO) report on land deals in Africa warned.

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