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The Scramble for African Land

October 22, 2012
Agri Africa


According to the author of the book, "The Land Grabbers" Mr. Fred Peace, of all the agricultural land, none is as accessible as the Guinea Savannah Belt; a great expanse of grasslands half the size of the United States, occupying an arc of 25 countries between the rainforest and the deserts - through west Africa to Sudan, then south through Kenya and Ethiopia to Zambia and Mozambique in the south. The World Bank calls these 1.5million square miles the 'world's "last large reserves of under used land."

Considering its tortured colonial history of land dispossession, none of this explains why Africa's governments are so readily giving land for foreign investment. "I've argued that what is happening in Africa is a new scramble for the continent.

But in this present case, it is the state that's grabbing the land and giving it to investors" says Ethiopian researcher, Dessalegn Rahmato, quoted in the July 2012 edition of the African Report.

Most disturbing is the posture of African governments as they open up their agricultural hinterlands. The land deals are sealed in capital cities with little consultation with the affected communities. Investors argue that those lands are scarcely populated and they tout the benefits of technology transfer and increased employments.

But, Ethiopians for instance, have been in dire need of food for decades. With this land lease, Human Rights Watch estimates that 1.5 million Ethiopians will eventually be forced from their land, thus putting even more people at the risk of starvation!

In May this year, during the World Economic Forum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, announced that in addition to the millions of hectares his government had already made available, there was a further 4m hectres on offer.

This new investment agenda works well for the federal government in Addis Ababa, which regards the long - neglected regions in the west, south and east as ripe for exploitation. But as the new projects force local communities off their ancestral lands, destroy forest and eat into the game reserve in central Gambela, the Amak and Nuer communities are rising in protest.

Since the election in Liberia of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2006, more than one - third of the country's arable land has been granted to investors for agriculture, logging, forestry and mining operations. According to the World Bank's "Rising Global Interest in Farmland" report in 2010, Liberia has one of the highest rates of land concession in Africa.

Studies conducted by Columbia University's Centre for International Conflict Resolution on the impact of four companies on communities in Liberia found evidence of "land grabbing," desecration of sacred sites and negative food security.

Much of the new investment moved towards timber, for carbon credits, and agricultural land in Mozambique. According to the Oakland Institute's seven - country study of land deals in Africa, Mozambique granted concessions to investors for more than 2.5m ha between 2004 and the end of 2009. This is 3% of the land area and 7% of the country's arable land.

More than a million hectares went to foreign investors, 73% for timber and 13% for biofuels and sugar.

One interesting country is Uganda, where there is also a rising clamour over state - backed foreign investor - driven land grabs. An example of the new coalition of interests is emerging in the north - eastern region of Karamoja. Designated a closed district under British colonialism, Karamoja and its pastoralist people are still assigned the role of "backward native" occupying a desolate place and caught up in a cattle - rustling culture.

For Karamoja today, "development" means the deployment of the Uganda army and Special Forces for "disarmament"exercises. The appointment of a minister for Karamoja Affairs has followed that.

The minister, Janet Museveni, is the wife of President Yoweri Museveni and mother of the Special Forces Commander, Col. Muhoozi Kainerugaba. Pastoralists have since been driven off as much as 60% of Karamoja's fertile land after Janet Museveni has described "nomadism" as "a danger we have to fight like other social ills."

African leaders keep forgetting some important lessons in touting the benefits of large - scale commercial farming. It is actually the continent's millions of small - holder farmers who are the real backbone of agricultural development.

So many of these peasant farmers are being moved because their lands have never been valued, they are being leased out to foreign investors for almost nothing. And, at a time when agriculture requires more state intervention and management, it is being liberalized.

However, according to Professor Sam Moyo of the African Institute for Agrarian Studies based in Harare, Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe land redistribution has lifted a lot of people out of poverty. People now produce, not only export crops such as maize, they produce beans, vegetables and other nutritious crops on a small scale, which they trade locally or sell to relatives in the towns. They get food at a lower price than if they were buying them in a supermarket supplied by large farms.

Since land redistribution began in Zimbabwe in 2000, more than 170,000 families got land that was in the hands of 4,000 white families. Of these, about one thousand black Zimbabweans got bigger farms, including a couple of hundreds who are multiple farmers.

At the same time, as export crops like tobacco start to recover, the income from these crops is now shared by 60,000 small farmers and families. Last year, tobacco farmers earned a total of $400m. That is now shared among these 60,000 people, as opposed to among 700 white tobacco farmers in 2000.

Zimbabwe's land redistribution is a major revolution which white South Africans next door have cause to be afraid of.

Fifteen years ago, there were 70,000 white farmers in South Africa. Today, there are still 45,000 growing 80 percent of what is produced locally. In Zimbabwe, inequitable growth consequent upon structural adjustment policies, built the foundation of a radical movement for land reform.

The conditions are not exactly the same in South Africa, but there is a similar situation. However, Zimbabwe's experience has taught one major lesson: Never underestimate the social mobilization and demands for change. History is always on the side of the oppressed.