The sale or lease of millions of hectares of African farmland to foreigners in recent years has set alarm bells ringing on and off the continent. The headlines practically shout off the page: “The Second Scramble for Africa Starts,” “Quest for Food Security Breeds Neo-Colonists,” “Food Security or Economic Slavery?”
The outcries reflect the emotional power of land on a continent where as recently as the last century colonial powers and foreign settlers seized African land and displaced those who lived on it. But a lot of the concerns are practical. Many deals have little oversight, or regulation; they lack environmental safeguards and they fail to protect smallholder farmers from losing their customary rights to land.
“This is a worrisome trend,” Akinwumi Adesina, of the advocacy group Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, told a science forum in the Netherlands in June. Foreign land acquisitions, he argued, have the potential to hurt domestic efforts to raise food production and could limit broad-based economic growth, he said.
Million of hectares at stake
The sheer size of some of the land agreements has added to the alarm. A deal to allow South Korea’s Daewoo Corporation to lease 1.3 mn hectares was a key factor in the ouster of Madagascar’s President Marc Ravalomanana in March. In Kenya, the government is struggling to overcome local opposition to a proposal to give Qatar rights over some 40,000 hectares in the Tana River Valley in return for building a deep-sea port. Africa is a particular focus because of the notion that plenty of cheap land and labour is available, and that there is a favourable climate. In Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia, for example, only some 12 per cent of arable land is actually cultivated.
A recent study by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), a research group based in the UK, estimated that nearly 2.5 mn hectares of African farmland had been allocated to foreign-owned entities in only five countries — Ethiopia, Ghana, Madagascar, Mali and Sudan. Chinese enterprises are reportedly negotiating to lease 2.8 mn hectares in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to grow palm oil and a further 2 mn hectares in Zambia to grow jatropha (a crop used for biofuels). Sudan has agreed to lease 690,000 hectares to South Korea to grow wheat. By some estimates close to 6 mn hectares of African farmland could be transferred to foreign control on a continent marked by chronic hunger and malnutrition. That tally does not include the Republic of Congo’s proposal to a South African farmers union to lease 10 mn hectares for a variety of food crops and livestock.
Weighing opportunities and risks
The prospect of large scale land transfers offers both opportunities and dangers, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier de Schutter told Africa Renewal. In June Mr. De Schutter wrote that while such investments provide certain development opportunities, they also represent a threat to food security and other human rights. “The stakes are huge,” he said. Unfortunately, “the deals as they have been concluded up to now are very meagre as far as the obligations of the investors are concerned.” He also noted that agreements for thousands of hectares of farmland are sometimes just three or four pages long.
Yet for African countries, the potential benefits are attractive. While African agriculture rarely attracts significant investment or external aid — and the current global economic downturn has made external financing even more scarce — leasing unused land to foreign investors can seem like a good way to boost production and create jobs. But many analysts warn that much of the land is not as unused as it might seem and actual returns on agricultural investment can be far lower than expected. The political and economic realities for African governments, they note, could be very sobering. These include the risk of undermining domestic efforts to increase food production and the potential loss of land rights for local farmers
Towards a strategic approach
They advise African governments to be strategic in their approach to foreign investment in land by placing it in a wider context of overall rural development. Both sides need to be rigorous and realistic in their assessments of the feasibility, benefits and costs of particular schemes. To help African governments avoid the pitfalls Mr. De Schutter argues that land deals should include:
the free, prior and full participation and agreement of local communities concerned — not just their leaders
protection of the environment, based on thorough impact assessments
full transparency, with clear and enforceable obligations for investors, and
measures to protect human rights, labour rights, land rights and the right to food and development.
Agreements, backed by necessary national legislation and enforcement principles could make them “win-win” propositions for all concerned. But, as the IIED study points out, there is already a large gulf between contractual provisions and their enforcement. The gap between the statute books and the reality on the ground may entail serious costs for local communities.
A code of conduct for host governments and foreign investors could help ensure that land deals are a “win-win” arrangement for investor and local communities alike, but Mr. De Schutter is sceptical that such a code can be negotiated or enforced. He instead emphasizes that existing human rights laws can be applied to large-scale land acquisitions and used to get governments to meet their obligations to citizens.
Either way, experts agree that African governments must have the will and the ability to apply laws. “Strengthening the negotiation capacity is vital,” Mr. De Schutter argues. Local communities must also be empowered and national parliaments must be involved. Achieving that, many fear, may be the most difficult gap to bridge.
Mr. Roy Laishley is a writer for United Nations Africa Renewal magazine.