Saint Louis — Senegalese smallholder Doudou Sow is furious. Over the last 10 years, he says, farmers have been squeezed out by an influx of private investors acquiring fertile arable land in the Senegal River Valley where he has worked as a farmer for the last two decades.
"I do not understand why hundreds of hectares are being given to outsiders when the priority should be to make land available to our own farmers," protests Sow, a native of Saint Louis Region in the north of Senegal.
A liberal land regime in Senegal over the decade has favoured large-scale acquisitions of arable land by both foreign and local investors. Dramatic changes in ownership have coincided with serious food shortages in the sub-region, a global financial crisis and a growing emphasis on the promotion of bio-fuel, with Senegal heavily promoting the planting of the controversial Jatropha tree, the seeds of which are used for the production of fuel for diesel engines.
Between 2000 and 2010, over 657,000 hectares of land, around 17 percent of Senegal's arable land, was allocated to 17 private firms. Ten of the firms are Senegalese and the rest are foreign, according to the regional pressure group Pan-African Institute for Citizenship, Consumers and Development (CICODEV).
Ex-President Wade's agricultural legacy
Under the previous administration of Abdoulaye Wade, the government pushed high profile schemes like the Return towards Agriculture plan (REVA) and the Grand Agricultural Drive for Food and Abundance (GOANA), with an emphasis on promoting agri-business and bio-fuels.
"These initiatives have led to a glut of private operators, including religious leaders and senior state officials moving in on land in rural areas," complains Mariam Sow, coordinator of the Natural Protection Programme of international NGO ENDA.
In a May 2011 report, the Agricultural and Rural Prospective Initiative (IPAR), a sub-regional NGO which aims to provide "strategic analysis" of rural and agricultural issues, highlighted the volume of land deals in northern Senegal.
IPAR drew particular attention to the case of Mbane in Saint Louis Region, where it said 232,000 hectares had been distributed to politicians, religious leaders and private operators with strong political connections under the GOANA project. The IPAR report noted that, at the time of writing, much of the land acquired had yet to be exploited.
Sow says the loss of farmland in areas like Gandon is sapping farmers' morale and not bringing the hoped-for benefits. "In losing their land, peasant farmers lose a part of their identity," Sow argued. "With the amount of land allocated, the local population feels squeezed while only a small proportion of the land area is actually cultivated. The promises on creating jobs and infrastructure are not kept."
Other farmers strongly echo these concerns. In Fanaye in the department of Podor, some 430km north of Dakar, the grassroots-based Fanaye Land Defence Association has expressed strong concern about changing patterns of land ownership.
The Fanaye farmers say they need a more supportive approach from the state towards local farmers, while registering disappointment about the new owners' failure to make more of the land provided.
Points of conflict
Rosnert Alissoutin of Gaston Berger University in Saint Louis says there are obvious points of conflict between traditional land arrangements and modern legislation on land allocation. "Legislation passed at national level gives the state control over all land in the country, while the peasant farmer is convinced that the land he exploits is inalienably his, inherited from his ancestors," he told IRIN.
Inevitably, situations arise where the acquisition of land by private investors, although legally authorized, is at odds with the customary legal rights demanded by local farmers, the majority of whom do not have title deeds.
"It is not a question of opposing private investment in our land for the sake of it," argues Lamine Thiaw, a Fanaye Land Defence Association member. "But we need to see the investors adding value to what they have acquired."
The question of "adding value" is not straightforward. The main land legislation in Senegal dates back to July 1964 and stresses free access to land and the importance of communal ownership under state control. The law argues against land being re-appropriated by private owners. Land is awarded to members of the community on the understanding that the concessions granted are properly developed. But the laws give little indication of how the development can be properly evaluated.
Among the large-scale private sector operators to encounter strong local resistance has been the manufacturing conglomerate Senhuile/Senethanol, backed by Italian investors. It acquired 20,000 hectares by presidential decree near Fanaye in 2011 with the stated intention of cultivating sweet potatoes to produce ethanol and later sunflower oil for export.
The project had its supporters, particularly those hoping it would bring jobs and generate wealth. But local communities bitterly resented the loss of pasture. There were outbreaks of violence in October 2011 in which two people were killed. The project was later relocated from Fanaye to Nguith, near Lake Guiers, some 300km northeast of Dakar.
Waiting for jobs
An obvious problem for investors has been the high expectations of jobs and other benefits by local communities. But the jobs do not always materialize.
Younouss Ball, also a Fanaye Land Defence Association member, said the Senhuile/Senethanol project exacerbated social tensions and did not deliver the expected job opportunities.
"The company had promised thousands of jobs, but as of today there are only 30 people from the community on Senhuile's payroll," Ball points out. "Given such conditions, young people do not have a reason to stay and so they leave for the towns."
Senhuile/Senethanol representatives were unavailable for comment.
Pastoral communities have also raised concerns about the extension of cultivated land disrupting transhumance in northern Senegal. They warn that traditional routes are being lost. "There is less space for pasture for animals," Ball complained. "There is nothing left to feed on. Our food security is under threat."
World Bank project under fire
While the tensions are serious in the Senegal River Valley, Jean-Philippe Tre, an agro-economist at the World Bank, assures smallholders that the growing presence of agribusiness does not mean a series of "land grabs". Tre prefers to talk about "commercial agriculture".
The government of President Macky Sall has been highly critical of the agricultural policies of the previous administration and has talked repeatedly of reviewing land ownership issues. The launching of the National Land Reform Commission in October 2012 signalled the government's readiness to address issues that have not been reviewed properly since 1964.
Despite its own criticism of Wade's high profile agricultural projects, the current government has strongly championed the Programme for the Inclusive and Sustainable Development of Agro-Business in Senegal (PDIDAS) which has US$86 million World Bank funding.
With operations based in the Ngalam Valley and around Lake Guiers in the Saint Louis Region, PDIDAS is meant to be a partnership between the state, private investors and rural communities. It has already faced strong criticism from civil society groups both inside and outside Senegal, with the US-based Oakland Institute accusing the World Bank of "promoting agribusiness at the expense of small-holder agriculture".
But World Bank's Tre says the project can be of benefit to all - smallholders, the government and Senegalese and international firms.
"An equitable solution has to be found. We need an inclusive strategy that brings smallholders and big investors together where everyone can see their own interest defended," says Thiaw of the Fanaye Land Defence Association.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]