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July 17, 2011

Beware of “land grab” by foreign investors

by Niyi Akinnaso

 Watch out! A dangerous development may be coming to your country or a country near you. It is what the international media has described as “Africa land grab.”

It is the ongoing craze by Western investors to acquire huge portions of land in Africa. Even some top American universities, including Harvard and Vanderbilt, are participating in this new “scramble for Africa,” using their huge endowment funds to purchase land as part of their investment portfolio. It is a dangerous development that has the smell of Africa’s colonial history.

Like traditional rulers of old, who were involved in the sale of fellow Africans as slaves to Europeans or in the ceding or annexation of their land to Western powers during the early colonial period, some corrupt African leaders have been involved in the sale or lease of land to foreign investors. So far, the beneficiaries of this development have been the two parties involved in the transaction, leaving African farmers and land owners dispossessed. With leases going up to 99 years in some cases and outright sales in others, these land deals could well be the beginning of the re-colonisation of Africa.

According to a detailed country by country study by the California-based Oakland Institute at least seven African countries have participated in these land transactions. They include Ethiopia, Mali, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Zambia. Within the past five years alone, the size of land involved in the deals is said to be between 37 and 50 million acres. In 2009 alone, about 60 million hectares of African lands were purchased or leased.

Imagine an area the size of France being carved out of Africa every now and then, where Africans themselves would be regarded as trespassers. That is what is happening in countries whose governments are selling or leasing their citizens’ patrimonial land without ever consulting them.

It is not clear how much money has changed hands in these land deals as neither the investors nor their clients are releasing details. Nor are the African governments selling or giving out their people’s land. Nevertheless, we are talking billions of dollars in monetary transactions. For example, the American Investment Corporation, AgriSol, has been working with the University of Iowa on a project worth $700 million in Tanzania, involving at least 325,000 hectares of land and 162,000 residents.

So anxious are some African governments to participate in these land deals that some are even giving out their land for “free.” An example is Mali where a foreign investment group was able to acquire 100,000 hectares of fertile land for a 50-year term for free. We know, of course, that free does not always mean free where African governments are involved in transactions of this size.

The issue is not so much the size of land involved in these deals, although that is in itself troubling enough. Rather, it is the social, political, economic, and environmental consequences of the release of so much arable land to foreign investors, without any commitment on their part to the local populations. They neither observe labour and environmental rules nor are they required to create jobs for the local populations for their acquisitions. What is even worse, many of the lands were purchased under the guise of agricultural production but they are being used for the production of biofuel and other non-food products. Moreover, the lands are often sold or leased along with whatever mineral resources they may contain.

In the process, the local populations often lose virtually everything to these investors. For example, 162,000 residents lost habitation, farmlands, and livelihoods in the Tanzanian deal mentioned above. Similarly, according to the Guardian newspaper of London, tens of thousands of farmers are being relocated from their traditional lands by the Ethiopian government while it negotiates land deals with foreign firms.

The Ethiopian case is particularly worrisome. Here is a country noted for famine, hunger, and poverty. Yet, its dictatorial government has been busy dislocating farmers in favour of foreign investors whose primary goal is to make money by exporting their products to countries where buyers could afford them. Here is how the Oakland Institute characterises the Ethiopian problem: “Instead of using these land investment deals to increase the well-being of the Ethiopian people, this regime and its cronies are personally profiting through control of every sector of society. This includes this fast-paced leasing of large segments of agricultural land to foreign and private investors; without consulting the people even though it will affect their lives and livelihoods for years to come. Hundreds of thousands of people will lose their homes, crops and land.”

There is a big lesson here for Nigerians and the Nigerian government. Do not sell or lease any portion of Nigerian land to these foreign investors under the guise of producing food. Instead, state and local governments should begin to pay attention to agricultural production for local consumption and export.

Professor Akinnaso teaches Anthropology and Linguistics at Temple University, Philadelphia, United States.

Punch Nigeria

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