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August 26, 2011

China rejects German official's criticism of its Africa farm investments

 by Chuin-Wei Yap

When it comes to famine in Africa, China seems an easy target for critics of its rising outbound investments. It’s not much of a secret that the Chinese have been swiftly stepping up their investment profile on the continent, including enough forays into Africa’s agricultural sector that a senior Chinese envoy in June took pains to reassure reporters that the government has not been encouraging Chinese farmers to move to the continent.

It’s one thing to invest overseas in search of energy or metals, the more usual remit of resource-hungry growing nations. Agriculture is far more sensitive ground, as it’s tightly bound up with a basic human need, land ownership and deep-seated suspicions of foreign control.

And so it was that a senior Beijing spokesman found himself responding, in scolding terms, to an apparent accusation by a German diplomat that Chinese land acquisitions have at least partly been responsible for famine in Africa. Shen Danyang, spokesman for the Ministry of Commerce, described the comments by Germany’s Africa policy coordinator as “nonsense,” and asserted that China’s investments in the continent were meant to help Africa raise its agricultural production capacity. “I can say that almost not a single grain of rice has been sent from Africa back to China,” he declared.

In an interview last month with a German newspaper, Guenter Nooke had suggested the causes of the catastrophe in Africa were partly man-made. “In the case of Ethiopia there is a suspicion that the large-scale land purchases by foreign companies, or states such as China which want to carry out industrial agriculture there, are very attractive for a small (African) elite,” he said.

Nooke said the Chinese farm investments were focused on exports – which he said threatened African smallholdings and livelihoods – but also added: “Not everything the Chinese are doing in Africa is bad… Chinese investment has perhaps an advantage: it will show how industrial farming in Africa can be carried out effectively.”

Taken as a whole, Nooke’s comments could be described as a broad criticism of cross-border land purchases as a matter of government policy. But he may have been on more shaky ground when singling out China as growing food for export from Africa land. Judging from official customs records, China in fact has consumed very little in the way of agricultural output from East Africa. According to customs statistics, China last year only imported 32,583 tons of a canola byproduct from Ethiopia – epicenter of the current famine – and hasn’t imported any farm product from any East African nation so far this year.

China does regularly import rubber from West African countries like Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone, and has significant trade deals in metals like iron ore and copper. But when it comes to grains from Africa, it appears Mr. Shen’s riposte was accurate, even if a tad shrill (his full comments also included details of China’s aid donations to the East Africa famine).

China’s practice of the public relations craft in Africa, a continent where many a global power has seen its reputation fall to ruin, has at best been patchy in recent years, running the gamut from rocky lows to more sophisticated heights. The Economist in a May article this year reckoned that “China is by far the largest investor (in overseas farmland purchases), buying or leasing twice as much as anyone else.”

With limited arable land and rising consumer demand likely to push China to purchase even more farmland overseas in the future, the fuss over its role in foreign land deals, whether justified or not, isn’t about to go away.

Wall Street Journal

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