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Members of the Collectif pour la Défense du Ndiaël, 2019.

A Decade of Struggle to Reclaim Land from Foreign Agribusinesses in Senegal, ft. Ardo Sow from the Collectif pour la Défense du Ndiaël

For Land & Life

“We need our land back. We will never stop, we will continue to struggle. Even if we die our sons and our daughters will continue to struggle to get our land back and we will get our land back. We will get our land back.”

Andy Currier (AC): Hello and welcome back to For Land & Life — The Oakland Institute Podcast. My name is Andy Currier and today I’m your host. On March 31, 2022, US-based holding company African Agriculture Inc. (AAGR) filed an initial public offering to fund a large-scale agribusiness project in Saint-Louis, in northern Senegal. AAGR bought the Senhuile farm, now renamed Les Fermes de la Téranga (LFT), from its Italian owners for US$7.9 million in 2018. AAGR maintains that through this purchase it acquired the land use rights to the 20,000 hectares granted to Senhuile by the president of Senegal back in 2012.

However, communities who depended on this land for their livelihoods prior to 2012 claim the land was leased to the company against their will. Being deprived of their land, community livelihoods have suffered and their attempts to reclaim their land have been continually ignored. In their initial IPO filing, AAGR made no mention of the communities’ opposition to the project and their more than 10-year long struggle to reclaim their land. Months later, when an amended filing finally recognized that there were claims their operations had and would have a detrimental impact to local communities, they remained wildly understated and AAGR took efforts to cast doubt on the resistance to the project.

On May 30, 2022, the Collectif pour la Défense du Ndiaël — representing 37 villages and over 10,000 people — sent a letter to AAGR Chairman and CEO Alan Kessler, demanding the immediate return of their land as well as adequate remediation and compensation for the harm and economic loss inflicted upon communities by ten years of occupation of their land by the project. In his response to the letter, Kessler ignored the communities’ demands and instead highlighted a number of actions by his company in their favor, including contributions for the celebration of Ramadan and Eid holidays and distribution of fodder to a few herders.

I’m joined now by Elhadji Samba Sow also known as Ardo, speaking on behalf of the Collectif pour la Défense du Ndiaël. Welcome and thank you again for joining me today, Ardo. To begin, can you tell us about the Collectif pour la Défense du Ndiaël?

Ardo Sow (AS): This collective was founded in 2012, bringing members of the community in the surrounding area together. We started to struggle against the land grabbing in our area, led by an Italian company growing sunflower to export as biofuel.

AC: And before we get into the land grabbing by Senhuile, what was the importance of this land to support traditional livelihood activities?

AS: We have more than 37 villages, 9,000 people, and more than 100,000 cattle, goats, sheep in this land. And as you know, in the north of Senegal, where we first developed cultivating rice in the delta of the Senegal River, it was experimented there. And most of the land is taken now for the rice cultivation. And now this reserve was just a place, it's like an island for the traditional breeders to be able to herd their cattle and live in this place. So all the 37 villages used to live in this place. And it was a reserve classified and protected by an international agreement in Senegal. It's really very important for our community. And it's our main source of living. We use this place for the pasture. We use this place for also our traditional things. We have our cemeteries there. We also use them to collect the medicine of plant. So it's a traditional land, we were not able and we was not authorized to do agriculture in this place because it was a protected forest, we just called pasture. Our cattle can take the pasture and graze, its grassland. And we used to stay in this area. So one day in 2012, this land was removed as a forest and given to an international company.

Women collecting water
Women of Ngnith collect water in the early morning in Ndiael, Senegal where access to water was restricted by Senhuile activities © Davide Cirillo

“But we didn't understand how could our government take 20,000 hectares of land and give it to an international company to grow sunflower for biofuel?”

AC: And so once the international company you mentioned (Senhuile) arrived, what was the impact of this project on community livelihoods, specifically around water access?

AS: So in 2012, four days before the presidential election, our former president signed a decree to declassify this land as a forest and give 20,000 hectares of land to this international company, an Italian company. The company wanted to remove all those trees, the traditional trees, the medicinal plants, all the pasture that we use to use for our cattle, our goat, our sheep — all those places. They wanted to remove all this and cut the trees and plant sunflowers. And those sunflowers were supposed to be exported to Italy, for biofuels. And at the same time, our government in Senegal was investing a lot of money to import food from Asia, to import food from Europe, to import food from USA or from Brazil, to feed the Senegalese people. And we have land, we have water. We have the human resources, the workforce, to do agriculture, to grow everything, all the crops that we want. But we didn't understand how could our government take 20,000 hectares of land and give it to an international company to grow sunflower for biofuel? And what happened also, those who were living in this place — my parents were not authorized to grow seeds to grow millet or to grow rice. This land was taken from them and given to Senhuile. We can't imagine that.

AC: I understand the frustration, especially as you said, not allowing communities to fully use this land, and then allowing a foreign company to come in and not only use it, but use it for primarily exporting crops while so much food is still being imported to Senegal. So obviously communities were upset by this and they've been opposing the project. Can you talk about the resistance and how the company responded to this opposition?

AS: So we started our struggle with a mobilization — protesting and press conferences here in Senegal. The government didn't say anything. After the election, the new President Macky Sall came and stopped this project. But in August, 2012, he signed another decree to give away the land. We didn't understand what happened in between March and August. We met the president and told him about this land grabbing case. And what they said as the government we will find a solution, but they never found a solution. And the company, they promised to hire more than 2,500 workers. They promised roads, they promised hospitals and schools to the community. And then never, never, ever built nothing in this place. So for us, it was just lies. So what they say, the company say, “it's our land. It's signed by a presidential decree so it's our land, we are not going to leave it.” We continue to struggle in the field to face those who was working, when they started to work on the land.

Canals that divert water
Open canals that divert water to the Senhuile-Senéthanol plantation © Davide Cirillo

“They promised roads, they promised hospitals and schools to the community. And then never, never, ever built nothing in this place. So for us, it was just lies.”

We faced them in the field, and they couldn't proceed. And they stopped and Senhuile left in 2017. They left in 2017 or 2018. They left because they couldn't grow anything and they lost a lot of money. Their CEO was also arrested. Because he did very bad things inside the company. We heard it from the news. And so we just found with the help of and the support of international organizations, like Oakland Institute or GRAIN who investigated.

AC: You mentioned the work done by the Oakland Institute and GRAIN over the past 10 years. And for listeners we'll have links to this work that really chronicles the continued struggle by communities as well as some of the practices of the company. So in 2018, an American company called African Agriculture purchased this concession from the Italian owners, and they're planning on establishing commercial farming for initially producing alfalfa for cattle feed in Senegal, and for export. Now, they're currently filing an initial public offering, and they seek to raise US$40 million to run their operations. Now, I think it's interesting, before the sale, communities were not giving an opportunity to reclaim their land and in the initial public offering, and the company made no mention of this decades-long struggle by communities to reclaim their land. What was your and the community's reaction to this latest development?

AS: We just recently had the information about African Agriculture, they want to introduce Les Fermes de la Teranga. And because they changed the name it was Senhuile before under the Italian company and once they sold the company, they changed the name which means hospitality in Wolof in Senegal, in the local language, which is not true. It's not hospitality it's inhospitality, because they are taking our land. And that's what we will never agree, we will continue to struggle against them. So when we have the information, it was really sad because we know the one who is behind this transaction. His name is Frank Timis who was in trouble here in Senegal. And now the problem is he's trying to buy our land 20,000 hectares and more than 20,000 hectares because in a municipality near us, he has the 5,000 hectares and what they want is to grow alfalfa for cow feed to export it or to sell it in Senegal. They are growing things in our place. And they are selling it to us. How can this be possible? We can't imagine, you give land to someone who will do the same that we were doing, we were not authorized to remove the trees, you was not authorized to have canals and bring water in the place. You sell the land to an international company, who are trying to use this land to raise lots of money in the United States, while our cattle, sheep and goats are dying here, because there is no rain, because we don't have the land for the pasture. We can't imagine that.

AC: And that really strikes me — it's a new company but we're seeing the same pattern, a foreign company coming in, producing primarily export crops while local communities are pushed out and not able to use their land to the full potential. It could support livelihood activities and lead to development. And that must be incredibly frustrating. Now, in the letter that communities sent to African Agriculture, what were some of the demands included and how did the company respond?

“Just leave our land. And we will manage this land to produce what we want to feed ourselves, to feed our cattle, and to feed our community — to feed our country.”

AS: So we sent them a letter to inform them that we need our land back, just to inform them, and we will never stop struggling. Even if we die, our sons and our daughters will continue to struggle to get our land back and we will get our land back. We will get our land back. So we informed them and they didn't respond and the first time, and I sent another email to Alan Kessler. He sent me back an email and he said that “We help people in this place. We helped them during the Ramadan.” So what does that mean? You take 20,000 hectares and at the end of the Ramadan, you give some food here, some food there, and you say that you are helping people. Just leave our land. And we will manage this land to produce what we want to feed ourselves, to feed our cattle, and to feed our community — to feed our country. We can do it. So that's what they said. And now we know their position. They want to grow this in this place to sell it to the breeders, here. And it's very, very expensive. It's not cheap, we can't afford it. And they want to export. So why are they growing things to export it in Saudi Arabia or in Dubai or in Qatar?

AC: You've clearly laid out that allowing a foreign company to take your land for export crops, despite claims companies will make about the benefits it'll have for communities, you know, you've shown that's not the case. So what kinds of investments would actually be helpful in your region?

AS: Well, we just say that we are not against investment in Africa. When investors come, we want to set up a discussion between the communities, the land owners and the investors to discuss the plans. That's what we think because we are supporting the small family holders, the small farmers, we are supporting the small farmers. Because as you know more than 78 percent of the people in the world are fed by the small farmers. So if we just support the agribusiness, the large agribusiness it is not good. What we say as an organization (ENDA PRONAT) is we don't say no to investment, international investment or foreign investment. But when they come, they have to set up a clear discussion between the land owners. There is a difference between legal land holders or legislative land owners, you can own land legally, because you can have a title in my land or the land of my ancestor. And I will never let you grow something in this land. Because it's my land, I have my culture, I have my life, I have my past and my history in this way. I will never let you grow something until we have a serious discussion. So, what we are asking is to stop all this, all those projects of foreign investment which are taking land on a large-scale because they have failed.

AC: Powerful closing words Ardo. Sometimes, when communities push back against projects like this, they're called anti-development. Our work has certainly been criticized that way in the past. What you've made so clear today is the question: who is this development for? The companies call it development, but at the end of the day, they're the ones benefiting while communities lose access to vital land for their livelihoods and really, really suffer. For true development, we really need to implement solutions proposed by communities that you've already mentioned today. For over 10 years, the Oakland Institute and Grain have been working to help support this community struggle in northern Senegal, and have published numerous reports with more background information (see links below). This is also still developing, so be sure to subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on social media where we'll post any updates and further work that's done on this. Once again, thank you so much for listening. Until next time.