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June 12, 2011

The great African land rush

by Drew Hinshaw

Hours into the interior of Senegal sits a cabbage, onion, sorghum, and lettuce field the size of Gibraltar that once belonged, it is said, to the villagers of Keur Moussa. They may never get it back.

In 1999, a well-to-do religious leader managed to acquire the title for the 1,500 acres of farmland that this village had long held in trust. Since he nabbed it, the plot has sprouted sheds, power lines, a water tower, tractors, and pick-up trucks that give it more the look of Iowa corn country than a Senegalese lot. Village women who used to grow, sell, and profit off its produce are now trucked in and out daily, tilling their grandparents' soil like migrant workers. It earns them two to four dollars a day.

"It's better than nothing," one of the women, Maty Ngom said.

Across the dirt road, the president of Senegal's Senate holds a 250-acre stretch, while a second religious leader claims another 2,200 acres. There is also the mystery businessman -- one "Baba Diop," a Senegalese name as generic as John Smith -- whose title to 285 acres, village gossip says, is a front for a foreign investor. A Lebanese, Ngom claims.

Whoever this land once belonged to, it's just a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of square miles of farmland that have been procured -- some bought, some leased, some stolen -- from the villagers of the tropics. The speed and scale at which ground in the developing world is being auctioned up is extraordinary: between 2008 and 2009 alone, the World Bank catalogued 174,000 square miles of land acquisitions in poor countries -- an acreage the size of Sweden. The lion's share of it, 124,000 square miles -- the size of Norway -- sits in Africa, in nations like Sudan, Ethiopia, Madagascar, and Mali. All are famous for their famines. None, not incidentally, are famous for good governance.

Neither China nor the U.S. is driving the land scramble: Saudi Arabia and its neighbors are. Demand for arable land is growing, while supply is shrinking.

Those 174,000 square miles, meanwhile, are only the plots the World Bank could confirm. The local religious leader in Keur Moussa -- whose minders chase away camera-wielding journalists -- may or may not be on the list. Colonel Muammar Qaddafi is. The Brother Leader boasts a 99-year lease on a 386-square-mile, Dallas-sized plot of Malian corn land, plus a chicken farm in Togo. That puts him in the company of such landholders as Saudi Arabia's Sheikh Mohammed al-Amoudi, who holds a century-long lease on Ethiopian rice valleys; Indionesia's Sime Darby, a conglomerate that charters 850 square miles of Liberia's palm oil marsh; the South Korean government (Sudan, wheat); and a host of hedge funds that scout out the cheapest rents left on the meager eight percent of the planet that is arable land.

This is the fire sale of a continent lurching from the farm to the factory. At the turn of the century, Africa is trying once more, as it did in independence days, to industrialize. It's an endeavor that will set it back a fortune. In the past decade, governments like that of Guinea or the Democratic Republic of Congo have swapped billions of dollars worth of mining rights in return for ports, dams, and railroads. Normally possessive governments are selling off their biggest assets -- like Nigeria's electric company -- and taking out historically large bonds to borrow whatever start-up cash the World Bank won't front them.

In Senegal's capital, a two-hour drive from Keur Moussa, the government is calculating ways to boost its $2.3 billion in state revenue by $500 million a year. And it needs $1.2 billion beyond that -- ten percent of its economy -- just to buy the petrol and grid improvements to power low-level industry, never mind its mammoth cement and car factories. To raise that colossal sum, the state is hiking visa fees, piling on new phone taxes, bullying customs agents into stricter suitcase searches, and has asked everyone from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to one of Rahm Emanuel's brothers for help.

Failing all that, Africa's industrial hopeful's like Senegal can sell land, the one resource -- more than mines or high-profile foreign assistance -- each has in abundance. And that, three years after China became a net food importer, and two years after catastrophic spikes in food prices, is a resource worth selling.

The world's largest continent, despite or perhaps because of its poverty, is also its fourth largest food importer. Yet unlike, say, Japan, Africa's dependence on foreign food has nothing to do with a lack of terrain. It has more to do with the fact that a car mechanic like Cheik Gueye can't afford nice things. Born in Keur Moussa, Gueye quit his five-year stint fixing fenders in Dakar to return home and attempt his own land grab -- on a mechanic's budget. The cheap, used irrigation gear he could finagle leaks more than it irrigates, leaving mosquito pools that qualify this farm as malarious. Because his 500 acres sits on a lousy patch on the water table, every well he drill has to go deeper than the last one. Gueye worries that his workers spelunking his latest well to rev the pump-powering generator 15 meters down will asphyxiate on its diesel fumes, fall, and die trying to lift recalcitrant groundwater from a crummy well.

And Gueye is one of the few lucky villagers who even has electricity. The rest, like Ndiaga Ndiaye, use buckets to water garden-sized plots of vegetables. Ndiaye works the sandy floodplain on the edge of the religious leader's 1,500 acre lot. His bucket-fed sandtrap cabbage farm yields a pretty pathetic crop.

Africa holds half of the land that will be made arable before 2030

"We just work here to eat," he said. At 3 p.m., he changes clothes, and starts his shift as a taxi driver.

Ndiaye's plot is the only land being farmed in view. All around him, land is owned, but unused, as is most of the land investors have acquired in Africa in the past five years. "Only 12 percent of it is actually being farmed," Oxfam Senegal's Head of Economic Justice Lamine Ndiaye said. "The other 88 percent is just sitting there. It's just for speculation. You buy it, and three years later, you sell it at a higher price."

Ndiaye wants to farm the unused plots, he said. "I have the experience -- years of experience -- and if I had the means, I could exploit this land," he said. But the last time he tried, he got chased off.

However bizarre a circus of villager frustration and arcane property deals Africa's land scene may be, it's hard to image a safer investment in the third millennium than soil. China is losing 1,400 miles of the stuff to desert every year, according to the Earth Policy Institute. Texas and California have each lost fifteen percent of their irrigated area since the 1990s, the group's president said.

But neither China nor the U.S. is driving the land scramble: Saudi Arabia and its neighbors are. The Persian Gulf's water reserves are diminishing, and in 30 years they may be kaput. In the gulf, and elsewhere, demand for arable land is growing, while supply is shrinking.

Africa holds half of the land that will be made arable before 2030, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. It's not bad land. Rice paddies in the Senegal valley, for example, yield 50 percent more than the global average -- and, unlike Asia, this chunk of the tropics has yet to see its green revolution. A Saudi Arabian company called Foras says it's here to bring about just that. The land acquisition fund is looking to acquire "large" amounts of land in Senegal, Benin, and Mauritania, according to spokesman Momar Gueye. "What we are trying to do here is raise the quality of rice that's being produced locally," he said. "We bring new technology, like new seeds to improve production."

Gueye said the company will sell much of its Senegal-farmed rice in local markets, instead of exporting it all back to Saudi Arabia. A persistent complaint about companies like his is that ship the precious food they sow in a poor state like Senegal away to wealthier shores. But Foras is under no obligation to sell to anyone other than the highest bidder. Should the price of rice spike, it's hard to fathom why they wouldn't.

And while Gueye declines to comment on it, Reuters reported last year that the company is already negotiating for a 99-year lease on a 770 square kilometer stretch of Senegalese farmland. The lease is just half of the 1,500 square kilometers Reuters reports that the country's Agriculture Ministry is looking to rent to Saudi investors.

That's a stretch of turf four times the size of New York City. The question isn't just where in Senegal the Agriculture Ministry found that land, but where the people undoubtedly living on -- and off of it -- will go.

"There is no elsewhere," Ndiaye, the Oxfam researcher, said. "The myth that's brought so many investors is this thinking that there is so much empty land in Africa. The land is not empty. They're being occupied by the community, it's just that they're not recognized as owners of that land."

The Atlantic

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