Agricultural land shortage has become a worldwide issue with global population approaching seven billion and resources becoming increasingly stretched. The ‘African land grab’ phenomenon of recent years has seen foreign investors vying to aquire African land to produce commodities for the international market.
Labelled as the ‘second scramble for Africa’, classed as neo-colonialism, and with headlines asking whether the surge in demand is creating ‘food security or economic slavery’, the latest land-grab is causing controvesy. A century ago, colonialists burst into Africa and began arbitrarily seizing land, claiming boundaries, and displacing and enslaving vast swathes of people. Critics are drawing a comparison with Africa’s agriculture today.
Many African nations are eager for cash injections to secure their future, but such large land acquisitions have the ability to damage local efforts towards short-term food sustainablility. Land is often taken away from local farmers in favour of multinational corporations, farmers who are then forced on to marginal land as they lack legal proof of ownership.
Nonetheless, some countries like Ethiopia and Kenya are keen to receive foreign investment today, in place of foreign aid tomorrow. These countries lack the financial means to mechanise their farming methods and cannot sustain their population, so they gladly accept offers from large overseas companies to work the land.
Kenya has been negotiating a deal with South Korea to allow Daewoo to lease 1.3 million hectares for a coal-burning power plant, that will significantly increase Kenya’s power output. An Indian company, Karuturi, has targetted Ethiopia and runs a large farm, employing local people and selling the produce within Ethiopia, so creating wealth and feeding the nation. But a dilemma remains. Local people have less food today because Karuturi has taken over the land they used to farm, while the average wage for working at Karuturi is only around 50 pence per day.
A community of at least 22,000 people were evicted from their homes and farms in Uganda to accomodate a timber plantation owned by UK based ‘The New Forest Company’. Oxfam travelled there in 2011 to further investigate the case and released this video showcasing what they found:
Africa is a melting pot of big business, international interest and seemingly has land in abundance. For African governments, foreign investors competing to buy under-cultivated land is an attractive proposition. Despite the forceful relocation of many farmers, some governments are counter-arguing that continued investment from foreign companies gives economies the opportunity to grow and become self-sufficient, halting the need for foreign aid.
In a world needing more food but costing less, and with companies willing to subsidise production, the question remains: will African governments hungry for investment leave their own farmers on the sidelines?
Click here to read the UN’s special edition on agriculture for 2014, as part of its African Renewal magazine.