In recent years, the trend of land grabbing in Africa has increased exponentially. Land grabbing is the contentious issue of large-scale land acquisitions: the buying or leasing of large pieces of land by domestic and transnational companies, governments, and individuals. These land deals see local African governments allocating or leasing out large tracts of land nation-states or multi-national corporations, usually on a long-term basis, in a bid to increase direct foreign investment or profit themselves.
Nations such as China, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Abu Dhabi have taken advantage of Africa’s cheap land and weak governmental systems and have bought land to meet their agricultural demands. While multi-national corporations in Britain, US, South Korea, and Australia have viewed Africa as the perfect place to manufacture biofuels, palm oil and mining. There has been a particular uptick in land grabbing in countries such as Sudan, DRC, Uganda, Mali, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Madagascar, and Mozambique. The International Land Coalition estimates that about 201 million acres of arable land has been acquired by investors between 2000 and 2010.
The practice of land grabbing was sparked by the world food crisis of 2007 which saw global food prices increase by 78% and led to an increase of global farm prices. This was coupled with increased interest in the production of biofuels and limited natural resources and lack of amicable climate conditions in the Middle East. Foreign investors viewed Africa as a solution to their problems as the continent had land at cheap prices, advantageous climate, and low-cost local labour.
Many international economic organizations such as the World Bank viewed it as a beneficial, lucrative practice that will enhance the lives of African people. The investments are said to increase employment rates, develop infrastructure, promote GDP growth, increase food production, and introduce new technological advancements. Land grabbing has had disastrous effects on local communities and the environment.
The environmental effects of land grabbing are prominent. In Mali, farmers have noticed that the foreign companies are causing irreversible environmental damage along the River Niger as they siphoned large amounts of water for farmland. In Uganda, small scale farming and forestry that protected unique wildlife, and heritage has been converted to palm oil wastelands that only profit a few. These companies are using local resources in unsustainable ways which result in the deterioration of the environment.
Land sales have proven to cause mass displacement, food insecurity and poverty. Many African communities that have lived on ancestral land for centuries do not have formal legal rights to it or the lease is government owned. This has led to exploitation and loss of income. In Senegal, several farming families have been displaced from their land by presidential decree. The land was approved for the extraction of zircon by Australian company, MLD.
Other land acquirers opted to own land without cultivating it, hoping to sell it for profit or grow biofuels instead of crops. USA’s Wall Street and international banks such as JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs are heavily involved in this new land gold rush. New York based private equity firm, NCH Capital, leased a million acres of land in South Sudan.
The forced removals, subsequent poverty and food insecurity have led to land conflicts between the local populations, governments, and transnational corporations. In Madagascar, the deal between the government and South Korean company, Daewoo, which saw the company purchase a third of the country’s arable land, led to a violent uprising that caused the removal of President Marc Ravalonamana.
The acceleration of the trend of land grabbing places Africa’s future in disarray. This neo colonial practice siphons African resources to enrich foreign actors and increases the likelihood of more African people suffering from homelessness, poverty, food insecurity and unemployment. It may lead to more violent conflicts on the continent that will cost lives. As the effects of climate change worsen, the lack of access to land and water will ensure that indigenous populations may not survive. It is time for African governments to look beyond short-term gains of corruption and marginal economic growth and protect their citizens from the legitimate dangers of foreign land acquisitions.