Leadership (Abuja)

9 August 2012

Nigeria: The Scramble for African Land (I)

Just like more than two-thirds of the human body consists of water, the earth is 75 per cent water. Land is therefore a precious finite resource that is just a quarter of the earth's surface. No wonder it has been a source of many conflicts and wars over the centuries.

The Arab conflict that is over half a century now is about land. For thousands of years now, land is only being reclaimed through complex, expensive processes but is not being created. Over the centuries, the struggle for freedom and dignity is expressed in the struggle for land. Apart from human beings, therefore, land is the greatest asset for any society.

The total population of Africa is a little less than a billion people. But, in terms of land mass, Africa is one of the most endowed.

The whole of China, Europe, America and India combined can be put in Africa and land will still remain; this is to give you an idea of the size of Africa as compared to the other places. But today, all patriotic Africans are weeping when they see how African governments are giving out African lands, dispossessing the African people of their ancestral land, for practically next to nothing, in the name of attracting foreign investors!

Let me quote Mukoma wa Ngugi in his latest column entitled "On Dry Land" in the July-September 2012 edition of BBC Focus on Africa magazine: "what gets under my black skin is the incredible amount of cynicism, myopia, greed and the blatant disregard of history, and the future, that it takes to lease arable land to foreign investors to grow food or biofuels at the direct expense of Africans. Colonialism seized both land and people. African leaders are now offering cheap land and labour to foreign investors".

"The consequence is the pauperization of already poor African farmers who will become indentured workers on land they used to own. I urge you to come with me to Limuru, my hometown in Kenya, and I will show you land that used to belong to my grandfather but was eventually stolen from him by a local elite... I will regale you with stories about another uncle who was in the Kenya land and Freedom Army (Mau Mau) and how my grandmother once hid bullets for him... This land is personal.

The land is memory! But equally important, it is the source of people's livelihood... Yes, Africa generally is becoming more democratic... as we celebrate democracy we have to be careful that it does not become just another way for the elite to legitimize theft," continued wa Ngugi.

Africa has experienced unprecedented pressure from foreign investors seeking cheap agricultural land over the past decade. A review of data from several national reports, together with surveys by the African Union, the United Nations and the World Bank, suggests Africa has effectively given away some $100bn of land since 2000. Although the figures are imprecise, collated by activist groups without verification from state authorities, but they point to the scale of the problem.

The trade in land and agricultural commodities is becoming the last frontier for buccaneer capitalism with growing activism and laws in Africa and beyond constraining the operations of mining and oil conglomerates.

The International Development Law Organization in a recent report found that, globally, "in 2009 alone, transactions covering at least 56.6m ha were concluded or under negotiation, more than 13 times the average amount of land opened to cultivation annually between 1961 and 2007. Most of 2009 deals were in Africa, where 39.7m ha changed hands - more than the cultivated areas of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland combined".

Global food prices have trebled because of harvest failures and the growth of biofuel production, which has displaced food crops. Reinforcing these pressures, according to journalist Fred Pearce in his book, The Land Grabbers, was the credit crunch of 2008. Between 2003 and 2008, notes Pearce, investment in commodity exchanges rose from $13bn to $300bn.

At the same time, according to many analysts, some Asian countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, China and India went looking for cheap farmlands in Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines and Africa to grow food for their domestic markets.

The Maghreb region of Africa has been particularly attracting Gulf investors keen to secure food for their parched desert kingdoms. The Moroccan agriculture minister, Aziz Akhannouch, promised in 2010 to lease 30,000 ha of land per year: "not selling land but leasing it long enough, for 20 to 40 years, to give investors the visibility they need".

Tiris EURO Arab Investment Fund, which is based in Abu Dhabi, UAE, has since signed a lease to farm 700,000 ha of land in the Tadla-Azilal region in the centre of Morocco. Citrus and olives, among other crops, will be exported to the EU and Middle East. Keen to attract investment, Morocco allows investors to export 100% of their crop.

In Tanzania, foreign investors have leased more than 1 million ha of land since 2006, according to estimates by the non-governmental organization, GRAIN. "Most have direct links to the government when they arrive in the country," says Bernard Baha of the Action Aid Tanzania. Former politicians and well-connected bureaucrats often form joint ventures with foreigners.

They bypass legal time frames in some instances, and pay local leaders to convene urgent meetings, says Baha. Focused around the Rufiji Basin, some of the bigger deals include more than 300,000 ha under negotiation by India's Karuturi Global, which also operates in Ethiopia.

Even before its independence, Africa's newest country, South Sudan, was parceling off tracts of land to foreign investors. A subsidiary of Wafra Fund, Concord, run by Egyptian private equity firm Citadel Capital, got a 25-year lease on 105,000ha of land to grow cotton, maize, sorghum, sugar, sunflower and wheat in 2009.

Former warlords are advising foreign-owned firms elsewhere. In January 2009, Virgin Islands-registered Jarch Management - on whose board South Sudanese General Paulino Matip sits as vice-chairman - bought control of 400,000 ha of farmland and claims to have started its agric business operations.

Even if the indigenous communities do not lose their land at gunpoint, as pointed out by Frederic Mousseau, policy director, Oakland Institute, San Francisco, US, the loss of grazing lands, the rivers and the forests on which their livelihoods depend, to make room for plantations, is a devastation very hard to recover from.

The Oakland Institute research findings demonstrate that there is little hope that large-scale agricultural investments will actually benefit the local population. Investing in small farming and agro-pastoralism is really the way to reconcile economic growth with human development, concluded Mr. Mousseau.

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