The thriving market for land for commercial agriculture in East and West Africa is now seen as a threat to food security as rural populations are pushed off prime land.
Critics of the fast growing trade in land by governments on the continent fear that some of the companies involved in the deals that drove the global recession by inflating real estate prices through risky financial manoeuvres are doing the same with the world's food supply.
The expansion of land investments is happening in tandem with increasing population leading to land scarcity.
A study conducted by Worldwatch Institute in 25 sub-Saharan countries reveals that Western companies involved in land deals are growing crops for biofuels production as opposed to food for consumption.
For instance, a Swedish company is growing crops for biofuel production in Mozambique. Prominent American universities and pension funds have also been named among those purchasing huge tracts of land in Africa.
In Madagascar, South Korean company Daewoo wanted to lease half of the country's farming land to grow food crops and biofuel for its markets, a move that raised public protests.
Earlier studies by Oakland Institute shows that Sudan leased over a million acres to South Korea and Syria while Tanzania leased arable land to Saudi Arabia. Libya leased land worth $30 million in Liberia for rice production.
Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Japan are all competing for Africa's arable land for food crop production like rice and wheat. Even then, they are producing for their home population and not for Africans.
"Investors claim that land grabs can help alleviate the world food crisis by tapping into a country's 'unused' agricultural potential, but such investments often do more harm than good, disrupting traditional land use and leaving small-scale farmers vulnerable to exploitation," said Danielle Nierenberg, a researcher at Worldwatch Institute.
Land for foreigners
In Ethiopia's Gambella region, for example, the "unused" agricultural land is a livestock corridor, travelled by herders and often left to fallow. It is also used for hunting and gathering by local people. These traditional land uses are easily dismissed without property rights.
The rural population in sub-Saharan Africa depends on agriculture for food and livelihood. Unfortunately, they are being displaced by their own governments to create land for foreigners to carry out commercial farming, a move that is threatening food security of the host countries.
Ironically, some African governments entice the investors and even give attractive incentives including tax holidays. For example, Malian Investment Promotion provides Western companies with access to land as well as the freedom to move profits out of the country. Similar arrangements can be seen in Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Zambia and Tanzania.
The International Food Policy Research Institute reports that some 15-20 million hectares of farmland were the subject of deals or proposed deals involving foreigners between 2006 and mid-2009.
Initially, the massive investments for agricultural land in Africa got support from international organisations like the World Bank and Food and Agriculture Organisation because of the potential to bring in money to countries, improve infrastructure, provide employment, and improve food security and agricultural exports. These benefits tempted some African governments to support the deals that are turning out to be undesirable.
Incidentally, the investors are taking advantage of the weak land laws in many African countries; Worldwatch recommends that countries need to refine the laws, taking into consideration the interests of the poor and the general economic benefits.