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May 31, 2009

Congo Republic delays finalizing South Africa farm deal

by Christian Tsoumou

The Republic of Congo will delay finalising a multi-million hectare land deal with South African farmers until after a planned July presidential election, Congo Republic's minister of agriculture said.

AgriSA, South Africa's main farmers union, has said it had been given tax breaks and rent-free access to arable, poultry and dairy farming on 10 million hectares of Congolese land for 99 years in what would be one of the largest such deals in Africa.

Congo Republic's President Denis Sassou-Nguesso is likely to win re-election for another seven years at the head of the central African nation that, apart from a bloody five-year period of conflict in the 1990s, he has dominated since 1979.

"At this stage, we have not sold a single square metre to the South Africans," Rigobert Maboundou, Congo Republic's minister of agriculture said.

Maboundou said the agreement his government had signed with AgriSA was not legally binding but it was "simply a declaration of intention."

The minister also put the amount of available land at just over eight million hectares, not 10 million hectares, and said the South Africans had been joined by farmers from Italy, France, Turkey, China and Israel in the hunt for farming deals.

"The date of the signing (of the final agreement) has been delayed and we have proposed that the signing ceremony should take place after the presidential election that is due in July," he added.

South Africa has one of the most developed agriculture sectors on the continent and is Africa's top maize grower and No. 3 wheat grower. South African farmers are also looking to farm in numerous other countries across the continent.

Congo Republic has long exported oil from its shores on the Gulf of Guinea but, like most other sectors in the country, agriculture remains chronically under-developed and large amounts of foodstuffs are imported, making them expensive.

Despite grinding poverty Sassou-Nguesso has a tight hold on the country and, analysts say, there is little chance of him being dislodged during the elections, which are due in July.

As well as free land, AgriSA said in April that it had been promised a tax holiday for the first five years and agricultural inputs and equipment would not be taxed on import.

For its part, the government aimed to become self-sufficient in food production within five years, the company said.

The Congo Republic land deal is part of a trend that international agricultural organisations estimated last week had seen 2.5 million hectares of farmland in five sub-Saharan countries bought or leased over the last five years.

Advocates of the deals say they can be motors for development at a time of rising fears over food security. Critics, however, warn of a "land grab" and have called on African countries to defend local people's rights.


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