For Freedom of Movement & Fair Development!

The Great Land Grab

By Yves Niyiragira (06/09)

(AfricaFiles)—Uganda’s parliament reacted when it heard about some 840.000 ha of land being leased to Egypt. Sudan has offered huge chunks of land to Arab countries. A US hedge fond persuaded a former warlord in Southern Sudan to provide over 400.000 ha for agricultural development. The Director General of the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), Jacques Diouf, called such land deals a type of ‘neo-colonialism.’

Why this latest ‘scramble’ for land in Africa and elsewhere? Three factors play a role: the financial crisis, the food crisis and the energy crisis. In the wake of the financial melt-down investors who burned their fingers in housing have discovered land as a safe investment with promising returns. Investment funds are scouting the world to snap up fertile lands to start large-scale agricultural projects.

Food-importing countries suffered greatly when in 2007-2008 the world market prices for basic commodities like maize, rice and wheat more than doubled. They realised how little they can rely on the world-market to feed their people. Countries like Saudi-Arabia, the Emirates, Libya and scores of others which depend on food imports are now planning to grow crops to feed their own population themselves and look everywhere for places with fertile soil and plenty of water.
Finally there is a worldwide rush towards ‘bio-fuels’. When the world-market price for crude oil reached almost $150 last year the search for renewable sources of energy became more intensive. The visible effects of climate change also forces humanity to look for alternatives to burning fossil fuels. Producing ethanol from sugarcane and maize, or bio-diesel from palm-oil or jatropha-seeds seemed the God-given answer. The industrial nations use much fuel, but do not have enough land to grow sufficient ‘agro-fuel’. The EU target is to get 20 per cent of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2020. That means importing ‘bio-mass’ from the developing world. Companies are looking for land to grow ‘energy-crops’.

Why are African governments keen to lease land?
It is hard to understand why politicians should want to give away land, the most precious resource of any nation, often free of charge. Bribery and corruption surely play a role. But more often it is the idea that investments are always good and will automatically stimulate development and create jobs. There is also the hope that companies will improve the infrastructure, build roads and harbour facilities for their exports, which will be for the benefit of the country as a whole.

What’s the problem?
Land is an extremely sensitive issue, especially in Africa. One has only to remember the land issue in Zimbabwe and other countries in Southern Africa. Much of the post-election violence in Kenya turned around old land conflicts. Even the peaceful Malagasies reacted violently when they saw their land been given away to foreigners and created a national crisis. Politicians seem to give little thought to future generations. Even where there is still spare land today, it will be needed for future generations in countries that double their population every 25 years.

Whenever land is given in large quantities for commercial farming the people who lived on that land are driven away, most often without adequate compensation. They lose their livelihoods and have no choice but to move into the overcrowded slums of the mega-cities. Large-scale agricultural investments aim mainly at export-markets. Food production for the local market goes down, food prices go up and more people go hungry. By handing over fertile lands to foreign investors governments endanger food security for their own population.

Land is such an important resource for the future of any country that giving away large chunks of it should be a question of public debate. In reality, big deals are negotiated secretly without the knowledge of parliament or the general public. If the Church is serious about being ‘the voice of the poor’, it must bring this hidden agenda out into public discussion and defend the land rights of traditional communities against corrupt leaders and greedy investors. Already the first African Synod reminded government of ‘the binding duty to protect the common patrimony against all forms of waste and embezzlement by citizens lacking public spirit or by unscrupulous foreigners.’ (Ecclesia in Africa 113).