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September 09, 2009

Congo Republic seeks changes to South Africa farm deal

by Christian Soumou

Congo Republic wants to amend the terms of a multi-million hectare land deal with South African farmers, a top aide said in August, saying the current accord would deprive its own farmers of land.

Congo had delayed finalising the accord, part of a scramble for land on the continent by rich countries seeking to secure their food supplies, until after a July poll which as expected returned President Denis Sassou-Nguesso to power.

Bernard Ngoulou, adviser to Agriculture Minister Rigobert Maboundou, said past meetings with the South African side had resulted in a “misunderstanding” that the accord could give the South Africans access to eight million hectares of arable land.

“No - it is impossible, even our own farmers would not have enough land to cultivate. The project is still on, we just have to re-clarify certain things,” Ngoulou said, adding Maboundou was planning to travel to South Africa to discuss the matter.

South Africa’s largest farmers’ union said Brazzaville had proposed changing the lease terms of the deal from three phases of 35 years to either one term of 60 years or two terms of 35 years.

“I don’t yet have a mandate from our members of what to negotiate it to, but I would be in favour of that kind of change,” said AgriSA Deputy President Theo De Jager.

He made no reference to the extent of land that any deal would cover and stressed the union would be unwilling to accept changes to clauses on the protection of farmers’ investments.

“The expropriation clause, the protection of investment clause…those are the issues on which we feel very strong. For the rest…as long as it’s viable, and as long as it makes the investment worthwhile then we have no problems,” he said.

The land deal is one of several political matters on hold in Brazzaville while Sassou-Nguesso puts the finishing touches to a government reshuffle due to be announced soon.

In a swearing-in speech in early August, the president emphasised the need for Congo to modernise its antiquated farming sector as part of efforts by the central African country to cut its dependence on food imports.

South Africa has one of the most developed agriculture sectors on the continent and its farmers are looking to expand into other countries. They are joined in the scramble for land by rivals from Italy, France, Turkey, China and Israel.

Analysts point to potentially huge financial rewards in investing in farmland as the world population grows, while many see climate change and the growth of biofuels choking off the supply of arable land.

Advocates of such land deals say they can act as a motor for development of the farm sectors of poor countries, while critics warn of a “land grab” to the detriment of local peasant farmers.


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