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Why You Should Care About Land Grabs

September 1, 2011

By Agazit Abate


How Do You Grab Land?

The recent phenomenon of aggressive land takeovers, also known as land grabs, has resulted in the taking of enormous portions of land throughout Africa. In 2009 alone, nearly 60 million hectares of land was purchased or leased throughout the continent for the production and export of food, cut flowers, and agrofuel crops.

Land grab was in part spurred by the food and financial crisis of 2008 when international bodies, corporations, investment funds, wealthy individuals, and governments re-focused their attention on agriculture and food as a profitable commodity. As outlined by theOakland Institute reports, land grabs increase food insecurity, environmental degradation, community repression and displacement, and increased reliance on aid.


Meet the investors

While media coverage has focused on the role of countries like India and China in land deals, the Oakland Institute’s investigation reveals that western firms, wealthy US and European individuals, and investment funds with ties to major banks such as Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan are also implicated in the grabs. Investors include alternative investment firms like the London-based Emergent that works to attract speculators, and various universities like Harvard, Spelman, and Vanderbilt.

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. A key player in the largest land deal in Tanzania is Iowa agribusiness entrepreneur and Republican Party stalwart, Bruce Rastetter.

US companies often orchestrate these deals below the radar, using subsidiaries registered in other countries, like Petrotech-ffn Agro Mali, which is a subsidiary of Petrotech-ffn USA. Many European countries are also involved, often with support provided by their governments and work with embassies in African countries. Swedish and German firms have interests in the production of biofuels in Tanzanian. Addax Bioenergy from Switzerland and Quifel International Holdings (QIH) from Portugal are major investors in Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone Agriculture (SLA) is actually a subsidiary of the UK based Crad-1 (CAPARO Renewable Agriculture Developments Ltd.), associated with the Tony Blair African Governance Initiative.

As the media has reported, Indian firms are involved in land grab, particularly in Ethiopia. Food insecure nations like those of the gulf region are also participating in these land deals to secure food to feed their home countries.

Economic development?

A major argument by land grabbers is that these schemes will lead to economic development for the host countries. The Oakland Institute reports reveal however that the land transactions are either for free (in the case of Mali) or very cheap (in the case of Ethiopia and Sierra Leone). These transactions are largely unregulated with no stipulation or guarantees that they will help the local populations or create infrastructure. While land grabbers focus their rhetoric on foreign direct investment as justification, there is no evidence to show that no substantial foreign direct investment will come in to the countries.

Most of these deals come with huge tax breaks and other investment incentives, a great deal for the investors, but this means less money coming into the country that could possibly go to infrastructure or social services. For instance, Sierra Leone allows 100 percent foreign ownership; there are no restrictions on foreign exchange, full repatriation of profits, dividends and royalties and no limits on expatriate employees.

Another justification for the land deals includes the idea that they will increase employment. Again, research reveals that this is overstated at best and completely untrue at worse. The Emvest Matuba investment project summary and staff at Emergent and Em Vest promise job creation with majority employment from the local community. Emergent’s recent head count reveals that currently only 17 permanent positions are in security (36 staff). In Mali, the area targeted by recent large land deals could easily sustain 112,537 farm families (over half a million people, 686,478). It is instead in the hands of 22 investors and will create at best a few thousand jobs.

To make matters worse, the limited employment created by these land deals are low wage, seasonal and primarily benefit the investors who want cheap labor to compliment cheap land.

Community displacement

While those involved firmly contend that communities are not being forcibly removed from their lands and if they are asked to moved are being compensated, the opposite proves true. Ethiopian government officials, for instance, have stated that the lands being leased are unused or abandoned. Meanwhile, 700,000 indigenous people who lived in a land that was targeted for land investment were relocated.

In 2010 in Samana Dugu, Mali, bulldozers came in to clear the land and when the community protested, they were met by police forces who beat and arrested them. In Tanzania, AgriSol Energy is setting its sites on Katumba and Mishamo refugee settlements. The MOU between AgriSol Energy and the local government stipulates that these settlements, which house 162,000 refugees that fled Burundi in 1972 and have been farming the land for 40 years, have to be closed. In June 2009, Amnesty International reported refugees being pressured to leave camps. Some of them lost their homes to a fire set by individuals acting under the instructions of the Tanzanian authorities to get them to vacate the camp. Refugee leaders who have attempted to organize have been arrested and detained.

Investment sites in various African countries visited by the Oakland Institute revealed a loss of local farmland where the lands held a variety of different uses and social/ecological value. Some of the lands that are claimed to be unused are those where the communities use the land for pastures, and considered communally used areas.

Forests and national reserves, that are home to vital animal, fish and plant species and where communities have found alternative sustenance in times of food scarcity, have been burned and cleared out. These lands are being destroyed without an understanding of their local significance.

Many of the communities interviewed stated that there was no prior notification of the land investments. They only realized what was happening when the bulldozers arrived in their communities.

Food insecurity

While most of the countries and regions targeted suffer from food insecurity, these land deals focus on producing export commodities, including food, biofuels, and cut flowers for foreign consumption. In Mali, half of the investors with large land holdings in the Office du Niger intend to grow plants used to produce agrofuels, such as sugarcane, jatropha, or other oleaginous crops. In Mozambique, most of the investments are geared to growing timber and agrofuels rather than food crops. Food crops represented only 32,000 hectares of the 433,000 hectares that were approved for agricultural investments between 2007 and 2009.

In Ethiopia, much of large scale land deals are for the purpose of growing food for a foreign market. Because land grab throughout Ethiopia has cleared communal lands and plots used for cultivation as well as forests, the communities primary sources of sustenance are threatened. Additionally, commercial farming on these lands will affect fish habitats, wildlife, and grazing lands leading to even more food insecurity.

Water is of a particular concern as runoff from commercial farms will contaminate and reduce of water supplies. Dam construction, such as the proposed Alwero River dam, spark additional concern about access to water for local and downstream communities. No clause has been found in the lease agreements that discuss water use and there is no evidence that water use from commercial agriculture is managed, monitored, or regulated.

In Ethiopia, not only is there no clause in any of the lease agreements that require investors to improve local food security conditions or make food available for the local populations, the federal government has actually provided incentives for those investors that grow cash crops for a foreign market. Abera Deressa, federal minister for the ministry of Agriculture stated, “If we get money we can buy food anywhere. Then we can solve the food problem.” A major concern of the communities the Oakland Institute interviewed is that they believe the government is intentionally creating a situation where communities must rely solely on the government for their food, in an attempt to marginalize and disempower them.

The environmental factors

Environmental degradation is a major concern in these land deals because they have limited transparency and environmental impact regulations.

Forests have many uses for the local communities including as food, medicine, fuelwood, and building materials. Forests also hold cultural and historical significance. Expected outcomes of clearing the forests include, loss and degradation of wetlands, decrease in wildlife populations and habitat, proliferation of invasive species, and loss of biodiversity.

These environmental concerns are exemplified in Ethiopia’s Gambela National Park where the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority (EWCA) estimates that 438,000 hectares of land have been leased in the vicinity of the park. While the park boundaries are not set, lands that the local population considers a part of the park have been cleared by large-scale investors, including Karuturi and Saudi Star. Wetlands have been altered and forests have been cleared. According to recent surveys, the Gambela National Park is home to 69 mammal species, valuable wetland habitat, hundreds of bird species, and 92 fish species.

To compound matters, industrial agriculture will increase toxicity, disruption of its system of pest control, create new weeds and virus strains, decrease biodiversity, and spread of genetically-engineered genes to indigenous plants. Additionally it will put these countries at a disadvantage to adapt to climate change.

For many of these land deals, Environmental Impact Assessments are not widely used or enforced, making this situation all the more alarming.

The verdict and a way forward

Investment in agriculture is crucial to combating hunger, fighting climate change, and ensuring the livelihoods of farmers. However, as pointed out by Olivier De Schutter, United Nations Rapporteur on the Right to Food, the issue is not one of merely increasing budget allocations to agriculture, but rather, “that of choosing from different models of agricultural development which may have different impacts and benefit various groups differently.”

In December 2010, the United Nations came out with a report stating that the benefits of agroecological methods over traditional industrial farming. It added that we can double the world’s food supply if we support small farmers. The research of the Oakland Institute echoes the same conclusion. For instance, in Mali, where the System of Rice Intensification has been adopted along the Niger River near Timbuktu, farmers have been able to attain yields of 7 to 15 tons per hectare per year, for an average of 9 tons per hectare. This is more than twice the conventional irrigated rice yield in the area, and more than the previsions of the Moulin Moderne du Mali, one of the major investors. This irrigation system involves plots of 35 hectares of land, shared by as many as 100 farmers, meaning each household has access to only one-third of a hectare. Still, from that piece of land, they are able to earn $1,879 – more than double the average annual per capital income of $676.

While research proves one thing, government officials and investors do the opposite. Instead of supporting small farmers, these land deals support industrial agriculture while displacing and disempowering the very people that have the ability to shift their communities from insecure to sustainable . Land grab puts these countries on a path that will surely lead to increased food insecurity, environmental degradation, increased reliance on aid, and the marginalization of farming and pastoralist communities. The issue at stake is not only one of increased food insecurity, but an attack on food sovereignty or peoples right to produce their own food.

Land grab is irrational at best and violent at worst. It’s a violent act to take away peoples right to food, access to their ancestral land, their social and historical ties, and their overall right for human dignity. It’s a violent act to strip them of their future and the land of its fertility.

While land deals are going on behind closed doors, communities are resisting. The 2008 food uprisings, the revolt in Madagascar against land grab, and the recent protests in Guinea, all show communities who are standing up for their right for food sovereignty. In fact, in all of the countries visited, the land deals were met by community organizing. Knowing what we know, resisting these land deals on all fronts and working towards investments in sustainable agriculture and empowering local populations points to the only rational and humane way forward.

Agazit Abate, is a 2010-2011 Intern Scholar at the Oakland Institute and based on the research and publications of the Oakland Institute. She received her BA in International Development Studies and MA in African Studies from the University of California Los Angeles. Her areas of interest include food sovereignty, farmers’ rights, climate change, sustainable development, social justice, cultural production, and narratives of resistance. To learn more about land investment deals in Africa, visit the Oakland Institute website,