Much of Africa may be endowed with large tracts of fertile land and a favourable climate, but perennial hunger and malnutrition continue to plague 265 million of the 1,033,043,000 (1.1 billion) people on this continent.
A BBC Focus on Africa magazine article by Jonny Hogg quotes Dr Ward Anseeuw of the University of Pretoria in South Africa as saying that the farming sector of Africa has been neglected by African governments. Things are made worse by the weak land owning rights that make it easy for politicians to hand out large swathes of it to foreign investors in not so transparent manner.
Ethiopia, a country where 13.7 million people depend on foreign food aid according to a June 2009 report by Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, is on the forefront leasing out land; it is set to give away some 1.6 million hectares to Saudi Arabia and India in the hope of what Hogg calls opening the country up to technological and financial advancement.
Congo-Brazzaville has given out 200,000 hectares of land to some South African farmers on a 30-year lease. On its part, Kenya has leased out 100,000 hectares of the Tana River basin to the Qatar government for 80 years to grow food in exchange for the construction of a port at US$4.8 billion.
Uganda has leased land to Egypt in return for US$4.5 million; Egypt will grow wheat on this land. Egypt has also secured land on which to grow wheat in Sudan, rice in Niger, vegetables in Tanzania and maize in Zambia.
Ghana, Madagascar and Mali are other African countries that have since 2004 been allocating huge tracts of land to foreign investors.
While riots have taken place in Uganda over the government’s allocation of land to foreigners, Marc Ravalomanana of Madagascar lost the presidency over his decision to sell off large parcels of land to a South Korean company.
With African ‘leaders’ giving away land to foreigners, the hungry people they ‘lead’ will look on as food produced on their land by the so-called investors is exported.
Unfortunately for farmers in Africa, leaders and national governments have been all too willing to sell land already inhabited by citizens lacking land titles, often the product of communal customs, with the best land and water resources going free of charge to multinationals, often via secretive ‘development’ agreements.
In Kenya, for instance, the Government grafted a ‘build, own, operate and transfer’ provision in the Public-Private Property regulations to shield itself against potential legal questions. The new regulations were being implemented retroactively to justify and legalise the actions.
The inability of the voiceless to defend their interests and possibility of opening up the host countries to speculator-investors is attracting the world’s attention. While governments lease out large swathes of land, questions abound as to what happens to the monies earned as they are not even reported in the records of government treasury, or as part of income, for instance, in the national budget outlays.
Though food security is firmly behind every plan to invest in agriculture overseas, this is not the case with Africa where many people continue to die as a result of hunger. The escalated hunger for financial capital by its leaders implies that the continent will continue to rely on foreign food aid as the leaders are less interested in looking for ways to improve the agricultural sector.
With every country interested in leasing off public land for extremely long periods, the already catastrophic food crisis issue will continue to hound the continent.
Calling it ‘land grabbing’, Allyn Gaestel writes in Media Global that ‘To be considered for Saudi investment’, contracts must be long-term, and Saudi Arabia must have the decision-making power on what crops are produced.
Gaestel quotes Olivier De Schutter as saying, “Investment contracts should prioritise the development needs of the local population” and that “Arrangements under which the foreign investor provides access to credit and to improved technologies for contract farming, or obtains the possibility to buy at predefined prices a portion of the crops, produced may be preferable to long-term leases of land or land purchases.”
Gaestel’s conclusion is that these leases are resulting in “a loss of essential farmland without benefit to the local population. Even if the investors agree to put a portion of their harvest to market in their host countries’ hypothetically contributing to food security for host counties; such contributions could disrupt local markets and undermine local farmers ‘businesses by flooding the market with cheaper goods produced by agribusiness instead of small-scale farms.”
Observing that “Global food security presents complex problems for countries aiming to shield their populations from hunger,” Gaestel says giving away African land to foreign investors “makes for a delicate balance between co-operation and exploitation.”