According to a new analysis published in January by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), African nations are allowing investors access to large areas of land in deals that are often secret and biased heavily in favor of the investors. IIED Investigators analyzed 12 recent land leasing contracts and found that most are unlikely to provide any real benefit to some of the world’s most impoverished and famine-ridden African nations.
As world market prices for crops such as grain and soybeans have risen, governments in countries that import food have realized they can no longer depend on the market for supplies. At the same time, predictions that food and water shortages are being exacerbated by climate change and expanding populations have convinced countries such as China, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and others to buy large amounts of land in poor countries such as Africa.
Agribusinesses, government agencies, and investment funds alike have been acquiring long-term leases over significant areas of land in Africa, including more than 50 million hectares (acres) of land in countries such as Sudan, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Cameroon, Senegal, Mali, and Mozambique. But in many cases the contracts are just a few pages long, and the land is sold for less than a dollar per hectare.
These so-called “land grabs” are water acquisitions as well; some contacts even include turning over water rights without a fee. And since most of the leases are for up to 100 years, the local population often loses the rights to its land and water for generations. In many African countries hunger and malnutrition are rampant, and some depend on the World Food Program (WFP) for a portion of their food supply. Yet in 2009, Saudi Arabia received its first shipment of rice produced on land it had acquired in Ethiopia, a country so poor that the WFP is helping feed nearly 5 million people.
Why are the governments in these African countries signing such fragile deals? Poor African nations hope to gain jobs and infrastructure development. Yet many local farmers living on land sold to foreign entities stand to lose much as most of the contacts to acquire the land were completed without local participation or notification.
IIED report author, Lorenzo Cotula, was quoted in a press release saying, “Even in the better-negotiated contracts, the gap between legality—whereby the government owns the land and can allocate it to investors—and legitimacy—whereby local people feel the land is theirs—exposes local groups to the risk of dispossession and investors to the risk of contestation.” And Madeleine Bunting, writing for the Guardian, opines that the land grabs prompt “visions of a dystopian future in which millions of the hungry are excluded from the land of their forefathers by barbed wire fences and security guards as food is exported to feed the rich world.”
The report does point out that there are exceptions; for instance some contracts negotiated by Liberia are shorter in duration with more specific commitments on jobs, training, local processing and procurement, and greater attention to local food security.
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