Is ‘Land Policy’ the Solution to Land Grab in Africa?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015
By: Stephane Nanga

The debate over large scale land investments in Africa is shifting its focus away from the disastrous impact of land grabs on the social fabric of the communities to the need for African governments to deal with citizens’ outrage over land expropriation by developing a ‘land policy’.

At the November 2014 Addis Ababa Land Policy Conference, officials from the United Nations, the African Union, and the African Development Bank called on African governments to implement the “Guiding Principles for Large Scale Land Based Investments in Africa,” (GPLSLI). Even the World Bank went so far as to consider “Integrating Land Governance into the Post-2015 Development Agenda” during its 2014 annual conference on Land and Poverty. New concepts of development have emerged out of these conferences including “empowering women through land tenure,” “land policy and development,” and “land policy as an opportunity for Africa’s structural transformation.” Although catchy, this new development vocabulary veils an attempt to institutionalize land grabs by foreign investors at the expense of local communities and farmers.

Land policy is not the magic bullet that the so-called development experts are promoting it to be. Compliance to the GPLSLI will ensure the inclusiveness of local communities in land investment deals, but there is very little evidence that such deals will lead to sustainable development on the African continent.

Many of the agricultural jobs that result from land investments are seasonal and yield incomes that amount to two to ten times less than the income of the average smallholder. These deals take land away from African farmers and prevent them from expanding their operations to create jobs in countries whose major source of employment is agriculture. In addition, food production that results from such land investment deals is by and large exported to other continents while many African countries remain food insecure and continue to rely on food aid from the West to prevent large-scale famines. Similar to foreign investments in African natural resource sectors (e.g. oil, diamond, copper, etc.), land investments are designed to extract African resources and further increase the development gap between Africa and the rest of the world.

For sure, African governments need to implement policies that protect the rights of local populations over the land. Forced displacement of local communities from their land destroys livelihoods as well as the spiritual bond that exists between the people and the land. Land expropriation may also lead to conflicts. For example, the decision by the Ethiopian government to forcibly displace the Suri people from their land to lease it to foreign investors has exacerbated tensions among ethnic groups in the country. A land policy based on tenure only will not address these issues effectively.

African governments need to support their farmers rather than forcing them off their land. As demonstrated by Teresa Smart in her latest book Zimbabwe Takes Back Its Land, land redistribution coupled with government’s technical and financial assistance strengthened the capacity of Zimbabwean farmers. This initiative enabled farmers to consistently increase their food production and create jobs in the process. In Cameroon, a recent agroforestry program enabled farmers to organize collectively and establish groups to strengthen their bargaining power. Farmers were also able to take out small loans through a Farmer Enterprise Development Initiative to expand their operations and increase their revenue. African governments must empower their farmers to harness the land and improve the livelihoods of their communities.

Many challenges lie ahead for the African continent. According to the United Nations, Africa’s population will increase by nearly 1 billion over the next 35 years. Large-scale land investments will not create enough jobs for the millions of young Africans projected to be on the continent by 2050. It is pertinent that African governments must develop a bold development agenda that leverages the availability of arable land to expand domestic production and ensure food security on the continent.


Stephane Nanga, an Intern Scholar at the Oakland Institute,  is a 4th year undergraduate student majoring in Political Science and minoring in Public Policy at University of California, Berkeley. His research interests include land investments in Africa, the politics of development, economic inequality, and international trade policies.