April 2, 2012

Land grab in Africa: demystifying large-scale land investments

By Marta Messa

Local African governments, amongst others, depict the recent acquisitions (or leases) of millions of hectares of land by wealthy foreign investors as an engine for growth. They claim these direct foreign investments will revitalize a stagnant agriculture, generate jobs, increase purchasing power and improve food security. What is striking is that the most fertile lands and water resources are being sold away at very low costs for the production of cash crops for exports in a continent marred by food insecurity.

Take the example of Ethiopia. It is one of the world’s largest recipients of humanitarian aid. In 2010 it received more than 700,000 tonnes of food and more than two billion Euros in aid[i]. At the same time its government offered three million hectares of virgin land to foreign corporations. At a first glimpse, this could sound like good news: large investments, improvement in infrastructures, technology transfers, higher food supplies, improvement in food security. But is that the case?

A report published by the International Institute for Environment and Development analyses the contracts behind land deals[ii].It highlights that these documents are often short, unspecific and grant long-term rights to extensive areas, in exchange for little public revenue and with no guarantees of local investments and jobs. They do not regulate access to water or even grant priority rights over its use[iii]. In many African countries the customary landownership of local people is not recognized under national law, marginalizing out of land deals the communities affected by land transfers. Moreover, deals are sealed in legal contexts where law enforcement is weak or non-existent.

The land transferred is often claimed by governments to be wasteland currently not used for food production. Precisely out of the need to deal with food insecurity, African communities developed over centuries systems to combat it. For instance in Ethiopia, farmers cultivate along riverbanks and practice shifting cultivation on higher ground, to provide for a buffer in case of poor harvest[iv]. Pastoralist communities move their herds across many square kilometers, looking for fresh pastures and at the same time letting the environment recover. The current land deals with foreign investors result in the relocation of communities or the limitation of their living space.

Governments claim that agricultural foreign direct investment will improve local food security. But what is grown by foreign companies are cash crops (e.g. cotton, sugar cane, rice) and biofuels to be exported. Esayas Kebede, director of the Ethiopian Agriculture Ministry’s Agricultural Investment Agency, is a case in point. He claims that food exports will support the import of necessary items for food production and, in turn, will boost food security[v]. Such a claim disregards the risks that the country will face by making itself vulnerable to the price volatility of cash crops as well as to the volatility of oil prices – which can dramatically increase food prices in food import dependent countries.

Olivier de Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur for the right to food, claimed in an interview:

“The countries targeted by these deals, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa (…) will produce more food, but this food will be exported. This is one of the things we saw during the global food crisis of 2007–8. Countries that are the least self-sufficient and most dependent on international markets have been most severely affected by increasingly volatile prices.”[vi]

It is deceiving to say that the current land deals aim to improve local food security. These deals are in fact land grabs driven by increasing demand for cheap food crops in food insecure countries following the high and volatile prices seen in 2007-2008, and by investment in land for biofuels crops motivated by alternative fuels mandates in the US and EU[vii]. Land grabs cannot be depicted as a means for growth, when in fact they impair local government and jeopardize the livelihood of local communities.



  1. Great piece! It is important for the public to know about the dangers to the local population that land investments may bring, especially violating their right to food.

    Comment by FIAN International (@FIANista) — April 2, 2012 @ 11:31 am | Reply

  2. Very true… Please continue spreading this message.

    Comment by Mtu Flani — April 12, 2012 @ 2:05 am | Reply

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