Africa’s for Sale

African New Forests Company Worker
A worker for Britain’s New Forests Company measures the size of a eucalyptus in one of the businesses’s plantations.

New Forest Company Lumber
9000 Ugandan people have charged that they were forced to relocate after the New Forest Company arrived. This photo shows one of its products.

Africa’s for Sale
Large companies buy land to produce food for export while the locals go hungry
El País: África está en venta
José Miguel Calatayud, July 10, 2011

Imagine that Spain ceded a territory the size of Extremadura to a foreign business. Or that there were Spaniards who went hungry while foreign companies produced food in Spain for export to their countries of origin. It seems difficult to believe, but this situation is coming to pass in some countries of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Since 2001, the governments of developing countries have leased, sold, or negotiated the cession of 227 million hectares of land, or some 2.27 million square kilometers, according to the statistics of the Land Matrix Partnership, a group of academics, investigators, and NGOs cited by Oxfam in a report published some days ago.

Of this total, the majority of the contracts, the great majority of which involved foreign investors, have been signed since 2008. And since that year, more than 70% of those contracts have been in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to a report from the World Bank.

Mozambique, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Zambia, Liberia, Madagascar, even small countries like Uganda are ceding large swathes of land to firms of foreign origin. In the majority of these cases, the acquisitions require the expulsion of local communities from the land they inhabit. Afterward, they are used for commercial ends like the production of biofuel or palm oil, or they are used to cultivate basic foods like cereals or rice which are exported to other countries. The situation seems even more nutty when one considers that in some of these countries, like South Sudan and Ethiopia, part of the population requires humanitarian assistance to keep from going hungry.

These sales reached their peak in 2008. According to experts, the increase was motivated by the rise in food prices. From then, large private investors, the majority from the West or countries like China and India but also including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and South Korea, launched efforts to buy land abroad for food production or some other commercial use.

It seems that the investors have found the most appetizing bites in Sub-Saharan Africa, precisely the area of the world which has the most undeveloped arable land. Handing it over to foreign firms would seem, in principle, to be a positive solution. However, what could be a path to technological modernization and development of local business has in practice not benefited local communities because their governments don’t know how to negotiate the cessions.

The few studies on the subject show that, in practice, almost all cases of land cession to foreign investors have ended very badly for local populations. These cases are called land hoarding, but what does that phenomenon consist of?

“Land hoarding is the seizure of rural areas by international investors for commercial use with the simultaneous denial of access to this land to the people who traditionally use it to make a living,” summarizes Michael Ochieng Odhiambo, author of the report Commercial Pressure on African Land by the International Land Coalition.

“It’s called hoarding precisely because they do not consult the people who normally use the land and don’t take their interests into account,” adds Odhiambo, who is also an environmental lawyer and executive director of the Institute for Conflict Resolution through Reparations based in Kenya.

The international firms which invest in African land reject this terminology and counter that their actions contribute to the development of unproductive areas. The British firm New Forests Company, which Oxfam accused of provoking the forced evacuation of 20,000 Ugandan people, wrote in a statement sent to this newspaper that it is “a company with an impeccable trajectory in social investments and in development, which in its short life has not only created more than 2000 jobs in remote rural communities in Uganda but also has increased their access to sanitation, education, clean water, and fuel.”

As these investors say, the acquisitions of these large tracts of African land not only have positive consequences but also are necessary because they contribute to social and economic development in these countries.

“No one denies that these lands could be put to better use, and no one is suggesting that investing in land is bad in itself; the question here is the process it follows,” responds Odhiambo. “Normally, the rights of indigenous communities whose sustenance depends on this land are ignored. If the objective is really to benefit local populations, then these people should be included in conversations and decisions, so their interests will be taken into account,” he adds.

Yet in many occasions, those who end up working on the new plantations are not people from the local communities. Odhiambo points out that in some cases, Chinese firms bring their own workers, who displace local farmers.

According to data from the World Bank, Sub-Saharan Africa is the region which has the most unused or insufficiently productive arable land in the world. But the experts see a second reason that the majority of large land acquisitions are made precisely in this area: corrupt governments and the absence of laws and adequate regulation.

“No African country requires by law the free and informed consent of a territory’s residents before awarding that territory to an investor. Requirements to consult the local population are rare, and when they do exist, their implementation tends to be less than what would be expected,” says a report on these contracts by Lorenzo Cotula of the International Institute for the Environment and Development. “Very little is known about the exact terms of land transactions in Africa, as the negotiations usually occur behind closed doors.”

Many African governments’ relative lack of democratic credentials and the paucity of even de jure regulation of work conditions or damage to the environment and to local communities seems to contribute to the special interest that foreign businesses and rapidly-developing countries have in African lands.

In addition, in the majority of African countries, the landlord is the state, which usually does not recognize a community’s customary right to land in which it has lived and worked for generations.

“Fundamentally, it’s a question of bad governance, because the executives of these African nations do not account for their people and do not consult the affected; there are many government officials seeking to make money off these contracts…” enumerates Odhiambo. “And in order to protect this arrangement, these governments do not want any kind of discussion about how to establish adequate policies or institutions.”

So, if conditions were ideal, that is, if local populations were consulted and had voices and votes, if the governments looked after the interests of the communities that live in the lands in question and if processes corresponded to democratic norms, could the cession of large territories be a solution to developing African agriculture and ending many countries’ dependence on foreign aid?

“The thing is that this hypothesis has not been put into practice. Nearly none the massive acquisitions that have been made have taken these prerequisites into account,” responds José Antonio Osaba, general assessor of the World Rural Forum, a statement in keeping with the few studies that have analyzed these contracts.

“We propose a 20-year moratorium on these massive land acquisitions; during that time we can prioritize family and national agriculture to produce food for African people. We could also make a serious and profound analysis of what these massive acquisitions mean for people and what consequences they have,” says Osaba, who adds, “That Africa, which is going hungry, is feeding the people of other continents is unheard of.”

Odhiambo, who is more moderate, believes that if, well-made and adequate regulations are put into practice, land cessions could be part of the solution to hunger in Africa: “international standards should be established to govern these transactions so they can be done correctly.”

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