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American Land Grabs Mirror Africa's Colonial Past

April 23, 2012
The Africa Report


While Africa may have celebrated the demise of colonialism, it seems the continent is sliding back to those days, as investors continue to push murky land deals.

In 1884, European and American politicians, at a meeting in Berlin, gathered to divide the African land amongst themselves and plan the future exploitation of the continent. In the second half of the 19th century, after more than four centuries of contact, the European powers finally laid claim to nearly all of Africa.

The land grab of Africa is not over. With world food security under threat, some governments have promoted land acquisitions abroad as a way to secure affordable food for their people, and Africa, again, presents a solution.

American speculators and academic capitalists began grabbing African lands in 2008. The continent has lost a significant percentage of its land over the last few years, a resource that is central to the livelihoods of millions of its people.

According to researchers at the California-based Oakland Institute, Harvard and other major American universities have been working through British hedge funds and European financial speculators to buy vast areas of African farmland in deals, some of which have already forced thousands of people off their land.

Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia, Tanzania, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Uganda, Zambia, DR Congo, Mozambique, Libya, Mali, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Madagascar have all been target of land deals by American speculators.

While some analysts argue that these land agreements can help African countries create jobs, increase export earnings and use more advanced technologies, others argue otherwise.

According to Oakland, the US universities exaggerated the benefits of the deals for the communities involved. The deals, most of which are characterised by a lack of transparency, pose profound implications to the consolidation of control over global food markets and agricultural resources by financial firms.

Some observers argue that these land agreements – many of which could be in place for 99 years – do not mean progress for local people and will not lead to food in their stomachs. These deals, essentially, benefit corrupt leaders and foreign investors.

Even where some of these land investments have relatively been profitable, analysts argued that it is often difficult to see how they contribute to poverty reduction. The jobs created are few, short-lived and low-paid - and public revenues are limited by tax exemptions.

The land grab by these universities may lead to insecurity in the global food system. The majority of Africa's poor still depend on subsistence farming, and these land agreements are forcing poor villagers off their lands and marginalising family farming. Land is up for grabs across the Global South, and US universities are getting in on the action.

But just like the Berlin Conference, these land investments by American universities in Africa, researchers say, often fail to deliver the promised benefits of jobs and economic development, and can lead to environmental and social problems.

Therefore, Africa's civil society groups have important roles to play - by demanding greater transparency from their governments and investors. It stands to reason that if land agreements and deals are properly managed, agribusiness can bring many benefits to Africa - including increased food production; access to improved agro-skills and development in rural communities, which, in turn, will curtail one of Africa's most pressing issues- the tide of urban migration.

Indeed not every African land deal with a foreign nation is a "land grab" – much, many would argue, depends the terms of the lease and whether it reflects the free, prior and informed consent of local landholders. Needless to say that if these land deals are executed properly, they can generate improved agro-skills and development in rural communities, and increased food production in rural areas; and ultimately address the tide of rural-urban migration, one of Africa's most pressing issues.