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Who’s Grabbing Africa’s Land? U.S. Speculators, Including Universities

July 29, 2011
Color Lines

By Michelle Chen

When a massive tire corporation rolled into Nigeria’s Iguobazuwa Forest Reserve a few years ago, just one thing stood in the path of the CEOs’ plans to set up a rubber plantation: the communities that lived there. With cruel precision, the communities that got in the way were uprooted and displaced, their farmland devastated. As documented by Friends of the Earth International, the bulldozers of the French conglomerate Michelin sowed the ground for “increased hunger, malnutrition, poverty and forced migration, as food became harder to find or produce.”

“It was as if there was no reason to live again,” recalled a local woman. “Now, no land, no farm, no food.”

Land, farm, food—some of the few things that all societies hold sacrosanct, yet also some of the hottest commodities in financial markets. Land is up for grabs across the Global South, and U.S. investors are getting in on the action.

New research by the Oakland Institute, which monitors global agricultural trends, suggests that transnational land grabs in Africa—including Ethiopia, Mali, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Tanzania and South Sudan—are setting up a repeat of the 2007-2008 food-price crisis, which was fueled by a blend of financial, political and environmental factors.

“We see really vertical integration and control of the markets [by investors] who will be able to both influence prices and also decide on what the production will be,” warns Oakland Institute Policy Director Frederic Mousseau. “We have the food chain, which is pervasively and quite rapidly in recent years being under the control of financial groups.

China and Arab countries have generally been scrutinized in the media for their land deals, but much of the cash flow comes through U.S. and European investors, according to Oakland Institute—through established pension funds, agribusiness behemoths and even educational institutions.

Oakland Institute’s report on land-grabbing in Africa calls out several universities for their ties to land-grabbing.

Investors include not only alternative investment firms like the London-based Emergent Asset Management that works to attract speculators—including universities such as Harvard, who have maintained secrecy on such potentially unpopular activities, Spelman and Vanderbilt—with a primary motivation of economic access to agricultural land that will have high returns for the endowment.


Several Texas-based interests are associated with a major 600,000 hectares south Sudan deal which involves Kinyeti Development, LLC., an Austin, Texas, based “global business development partnership and holding company,” managed by Howard Eugene Douglas, a former United States ambassador at large and coordinator for refugee affairs.

For these investors, it’s just another lucrative transaction. An Emergent spokesperson, for instance, told the Guardian in June, “This is not landgrabbing. We want to make the land more valuable. Being big makes an impact, economies of scale can be more productive.”“

Being big does make an impact, but generally not the one that’s promised. Land is the object of a violent, but often unnecessary, tug of war between development and sustainability.

At the same time, multinational investors bank on humanitarian rhetoric by wrapping their land deals in the banner of “trade not aid.” But the land bubble in many ways poses greater danger than did the U.S. real estate boom: at stake are the fates of indigenous communities and the sovereignty of whole nations.

It’s also hard not to draw parallels with European colonialism. But the International Land Coalition, an NGO alliance, says “the new scramble for Africa” is taking place today on a far more complex political and environmental terrain.

One modern aspect to the new scramble is the expanding market in biofuel crops, which have been blamed for undermining and displacing traditional food crops—not to mention their role in creating water scarcity, global climate change and population pressures.

And while symmetrical land deals do carry the racial baggage of imperial history, land reform has also been a continual struggle since independence within many African countries. It has too often yielded policies that deepen existing patterns of segregation and inequality and encourage the displacement of farming communities that lack formal landholder status. That’s in part because land is a critical bargaining chip for political leaders who are courting foreign capital after years of failed development and agrarian reform initiatives. As ILC explains, “these acquisitions sit well with the new thinking among African political leaders frustrated by patronizing aid dependency and keen to forge relationships of trade with the developed world.”

But if parceling out prime real estate helps governments capture new investment, the land itself and its traditional stewards are withering away. Ecologically, the ILC says, “There is limited or no capacity in these countries to control or deter pollution of the air, soils, and groundwater by the heavy chemicals likely to be used in these ventures. Such pollution will add to the burdens of poor environmental health that rural populations already bear in many of these countries.” The use of aggressive industrial farming methods and genetically modified crops may further destabilize rural communities, since “many of these countries lack the capacity to effectively police the type of large-scale technological production envisaged over the large areas of land involved.”

Mousseau adds that despite promises of building new infrastructure and encouraging trade, the commodification of land portends the destruction of more sustainable, small-scale agriculture. “What they are bringing is what is required for industrial farming in large-scale plantations,” he explains. “Small-scale farmers in Ethiopia aren’t going to suddenly learn to drive a tractor and ride a tractor. It’s really about buying land in Africa.”

It’s too late to grab back the thousands of hectares already lost to global markets, but hundreds of civil society groups recently tried at least to reclaim the debate on land grabbing. Ahead of a G20 conference of agricultural ministers, the coalition rejected the centrist reform proposals for controlling agricultural investment and called on the United Nations World Food Program’s Committee on Food Security to “develop effective mandatory guidelines for land tenure that respect and protect peoples’ rights especially the right to food.”

Still, declaring a right is one thing; securing food in a wild global marketplace is another.

A report by Friends of the Earth International highlights examples of actions communities have taken to protect food systems from corporate predation. In Argentina, for instance, small farmers have staved off the the destructive impacts of monocultures like tobacco by encouraging more ecologically sustainable, traditional farm practices, supplemented by an agritourism initiative that markets local products.

In other regions, though, grassroots solutions are losing ground in the race to buy up rich soil in poor nations. This month, violent clashes in Nuagaon village in Odisha, India exploded as locals demonstrated against plans to build a giant steel plant, which is projected to displace thousands of families. To protect the “development” plans of the Korea-based firm POSCO, police reportedly arrested and brutalized demonstrators, not even sparing children and the elderly. Civil rights activist Mahtab Alam reported, “They are ready to give their lives but not their land for the project.” 

Sadly, corporate investors seem willing to sacrifice both more lives and more land for their projects—just another cost of doing business on the new global frontier.