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The Invasion of Foreign Land Grabbers

January 27, 2012
Newswatch Magazine


By Modupe Ogunbayo-Tona   


African countries are losing their choice lands to foreign business interests through dubious deals with political and traditional authorities in the continent

One hundred and thirty one years after a process of invasion, occupation, colonisation and annexation called Scramble for Africa in 1881, and 98 years after another race for the redistribution of the continent’s wealth and resources after World War 1 in 1914, Africa’s land and resources are still eagerly eyed by foreign interests. Despite its independence from land-grabbing imperial masters towards the middle of the last century, Africa still remains vulnerable to their interest. Now, they have rekindled their quest for the continent’s land. Recent reports by US-based organisations have revealed a dubious mass project of buying up or leasing of lands in Africa for the capitalist gains of Western powers.

The countries affected are Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and parts of West Africa like Sierra Leone. In Ethiopia, it is reported that foreign investors, in collusion with Ethiopia’s government, have been forcing tens of thousands of people off their land so it can be leased to foreign interests under a scheme called “villagisation programme.”

Human Rights Watch, HRW, an American non-governmental organisation, NGO, said Ethiopian people were being forcibly relocated to new villages that lack adequate food, farmland and facilities to allow foreign companies to use the lands. Under the programme, Ethiopia has leased out more than 3.6 million hectares or 8.8m acres of land which is an area equivalent to the size of The Netherlands. The NGO said it has proof that some 70,000 indigenous people were forcibly relocated against their will to new villages that “lack adequate food, farmland, health care and educational facilities.” The group said it spoke to more than 100 people in May and June 2011, to investigate the report.

Ethiopian authorities, however, denied the allegations. “Human Rights Watch has wrongly alleged that the “villagisation programme” is unpopular and problematic,” Bereket Simon, government’s spokesman, said, adding: “there is no evidence to back the claim. This programme is taking place with the full preparation and participation of regional authorities, the government and residents,” he said.

At the take-off of the programme, the Ethiopian government promised that all the moves would be voluntary, that the new villages which people would be moved to would have adequate infrastructure and everyone who moved would be given assistance to ease their transition to a new life.

But HRW has countered this claim, saying that many of the new villages have no access to government services at all and people were arriving at the worst time of the year, the beginning of the planting season, to discover that the land has not been cleared and prepared for growing. “The government’s failure to provide food assistance for relocated people has caused endemic hunger and cases of starvation,” HRW says.

Who are those buying up the land? In a report, the Oakland Institute, a US think-tank group, said hedge funds companies were behind the “land grabs” in Africa, and their goals is to boost their profits in the food and biofuel sectors. After getting the land, foreign firms then farm the land to generate outputs that will consolidate their control over global food markets. Besides, they also use the land to “make room” for export commodities such as biofuels and cut flowers. Such firms include Addax, a Swiss-based bio-energy company. “This is creating insecurity in the global food system that could be a much bigger threat than terrorism,” the report said.

The agency even made further damaging revelations that these American and European hedge fund companies and other foreign firms involved in the deal acquired many acres of African land, often without proper contracts. It agreed with HRW that the acquisitions had displaced millions of small farmers.

The companies successfully preyed on the ignorance of the Africans in these communities to achieve their aim because many villagers who work on these sugarcane plantations which are used for biofuel are totally unaware of the full ramifications of the deals, the controversy surrounding biofuel production or that they are undermining Africa’s food security by helping foreign owners of the farms to achieve their goals. Many even have a deep sense of gratitude to these firms for providing them with employment.

It added that some firms obtained land through deals with naive traditional leaders or corrupt government officials. “The research exposed investors who said it is easy to make a deal, that they could usually get what they wanted in exchange for giving a poor tribal chief a bottle of Johnnie Walker (whisky),” said Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute. “When these investors promise progress and jobs to local chiefs, it sounds great but they don’t deliver,”  he said.

The report warned of grave consequences, “The same financial firms that drove us into a global recession by inflating the real estate bubble through risky financial manoeuvres are now doing the same with the world’s food supply.”

However, not all companies named in the report agreed that their motives are similar as suggested. They also denied claims that their presence in Africa is harmful. EmVest Asset Management, one of the companies, strongly denied that it was involved in exploitative or illegal practices. “There are no shady deals. We acquire all land in terms of legal tender,” Anthony Poorter, EmVest’s Africa director, told the BBC. He said that in some instances, the company’s employees earned salaries 40 percent higher than the minimum wage. The company was also involved in development projects such as the supply of clean water to rural communities. “They are extremely happy with us,” Poorter said.

But, some other groups are voicing out their reservations that these corporate social responsibility schemes are mere tokens because the deals are very exploitative. They said the contracts gave the hedge fund investors a range of incentives from unlimited water rights to tax waivers to the detriment of the locals. “No-one should believe that these investors are there to feed starving Africans. These deals only lead to dollars in the pockets of corrupt leaders and foreign investors,” said Obang Metho of Solidarity Movement for New Ethiopia, a US-based campaign group.