Land Grabbing in Africa II

Robin Palmer Mokoro Ltd

In February 2007 Oxfam GB retired me and simultaneously abolished the post of Global Land Adviser which I had held. It did this at precisely the moment when land was becoming a global issue in ways that very few, myself included, could have predicted. As I came to read and learn more about the phenomenon of global land grabbing and its impact on Africa, I felt it important to try to raise awareness of the issues involved. One way of doing this has been to post bibliographies and a commentary on Oxfam’s Land Rights in Africa website.

The phenomenon worries me because of the nature, scale and secrecy of land grabbing, the power imbalances involved, the muted responses to it, and the seemingly limited capacity of anyone to do much to either halt or modify it.

Some questions

At the African Studies Association of the UK (ASAUK) conference in September 2010, I organised a series of 6 panels on land rights. On land grabbing, I wrote a paper, Would Cecil Rhodes have signed a Code of Conduct? In my presentation, I asked these questions:

Why do so many individuals and organizations shy away from calling land grabbing what it is, and either put it in inverted commas or trot out such euphemisms as ‘responsible land-based investment’, ‘commercial pressures on land’ or ‘large-scale investment in land’?

Why are researchers who have worked on land grabbing so apparently timid and complacent in their conclusions, so desperately eager to seek magic, painless ‘win-win’ solutions, and so quick to retreat to ‘each case is different, the devil lies in the detail’ formulations. Could it be that they fear to antagonize their donors?

Why is such an enormous amount of effort, time and resources being invested by organizations such as the World Bank, FAO, IFAD, IFPRI etc, in the drawing up of international, but always voluntary, codes of conduct in an attempt to regulate land grabbing? These will increase the likelihood of poor people losing their land and it will be impossible to bring to account companies which violate them. I agree with Ian Scoones that such principles are ‘doomed to failure, given the lack of capacity, failures of institutional authority, corrupt practices and so on’ highlighted in the World Bank’s September 2010 report, Rising Global Interest in Farmland. Advocates of ‘win-win’ situations argue that many of these are ‘paper deals’ which may never come to fruition. I think that misses the point entirely. Are those whose land rights are threatened expected to sit patiently and wait to see what happens?

Finally, why, given that the long term impact of global land grabbing on many African rural communities could well be catastrophic, does there appear to exist an almost total conspiracy of silence on the subject? Although I sense that this may at last be beginning to change a little.

Why Africa?

Parts of Africa are being targeted because ‘African farmland prices are the lowest in the world’ and ‘it is the last frontier’. Many African leaders, and foreign investors, peddle the myth that there is a vast amount of vacant, unused land, owned by no one – and hence available to outsiders. One suggested that pastoralists in Ethiopia ‘can just go somewhere else’, another that Zambia has well over 30 million hectares ‘begging to be utilised’, yet another that 36 million hectares of arable land in Mozambique could be used for biofuels without threatening food production!

So, with the willing consent of many such African leaders, there has been extensive acquisition of land, usually in the form of long leases, across the continent, especially in Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique. No one knows how much land is involved or how many people are being affected. The Global Land Project cites a minimum of around 10 million hectares in each of Mozambique, DR Congo and Congo, and in 27 African countries screened, it noted 177 deals covering between 51 and 63 million hectares. Liz Alden Wily memorably depicted this situation as Whose Land are you giving away, Mr President?

The World Bank, in studies in 14 countries, found ‘several cases’ of investors circulating rumours to ‘create the impression that the investments had been finalized and had already been approved at a higher level, either strengthening the investor’s negotiating position or allowing the investor to strategically co-opt local leaders.’ Researchers noted ‘an astonishing lack of awareness of what is happening on the ground even by the public sector institutions mandated to control this phenomenon’, while ‘a key finding from case studies is that communities were rarely aware of their rights. All this implies a danger of a “race to the bottom” to attract investors… the risks associated with such investments are immense…land acquisition often deprived local people, in particular the vulnerable, of their rights without providing appropriate compensation. In a number of countries, investors are treated more favourably than local smallholders.’

At a meeting of the Africa APPG at the House of Commons in January 2010, I asked the Tanzanian High Commissioner, Mwanaidi Sinare Maajar, ‘what if, at a time of great food insecurity, a foreign company working in your country exported food back home?’ She replied ‘we would not allow it; we are in the process of drawing up a code of conduct which would prevent such a thing happening, and if any company refuses to sign it, they won’t be allowed to operate.’

We must fervently hope that she is proved right.

You may also be interested in Lorenzo CotulaLand grabs in Africa

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2 thoughts on “Land Grabbing in Africa II

  1. After reading Robin Palmer’s report I thought you may be interested in this short report that I circulated to participants and interested parties after a meeting on 18th January 2011 here in Blantyre, Malawi:
    Last night I was one of a small group of persons concerned about the implications of Government’s proposals  who met with a group of World Bank experts who are in the country on a mission to assess Government’s proposals for a 42,000 hectare gravity-fed irrigation scheme taking 55 cumecs of water from the Shire River at Hamilton Falls from an average river flow of 400 cumecs. Also in the group were local World Bank representatives and regional representatives from both the African Development Bank (ADB) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the commercial investment wing of the World Bank Group (WBG). Co-ordinating the meeting was a person who consults for Illovo, Malawi’s only sugar miller with a  major presence in the proposed project area. At present they and Press Cane at Chikwawa, are the only commercial concerns to have shown any interest in being part of the project. No ESCOM representative was present. However, earlier in the day a senior engineer at ESCOM confirmed to me that the extraction of 55cumecs above their existing Kapachira generating station would have a negative impact on their ability to generate at full capacity especially because  low seasonal flows coincide with maximum demand for irrigation water. The World Bank team will have separate meetings with ESCOM.
    Concerns expressed by most of those invited centred on the adverse environmental effects on Majete Wildlife Reserve and Lengwe National Park. Others, of which I was one, expressed concern over land issues, population dispersal, commercial viability under various scenarios, sensitization, training and management.
    There is no point in going into all these areas in detail. It became obvious that the WBG, ADB and other players consider as inadequate the current proposal documents upon which  the Ministry has based its plans. For proper assessment prior to any agreements to fund the project they would need to commence the whole process afresh.
    Concerned individuals and organizations should take comfort from the self-imposed standards used by the WBG, IFC and ADB. What this means is that all of us with such concerns should be assured that, should these organizations fund the project, the project will go ahead with all justifiable concerns already taken care of. There are certainly many apparently irresolvable issues to be overcome! My own personal opinion, for what it is worth, is that the outcome will be: ‘Not feasible’.
    That would not necessarily be good news. The people of the Valley are at the mercy of erratic rainfall and experience failed crops and slow yields. As one of the participants noted:
    Doing nothing may not be a wise choice.
    It is obvious that the Valley has massive potential but how to develop it and who to  benefit? That is the puzzle for Government to ponder. While the project as currently envisaged may not be viable that does not mean that other ways of improving the lives of the people of the Valley should not be considered.
    As for Government’s prior announcement that they were to go ahead with the construction this year – it would appear that the senior staff in the Ministry of Irrigation and Water development have ‘jumped the gun’. Why they should have done so is a matter for speculation – unless they decide to tell us more!
    Those who have not read any of the documents to which I have pointed them may care to go to:
—Keeping-them-honest-or-the-Great-African-Land-Grab A collection of relevant documents including the basis for my initial concerns
    This is the WBG’s own report on the Land Rush: Rising Global Interest in farmland. Can it Yield Sustainable and Equitable benefits?
–INVESTMENT-IN-AGRICULTURE-The-Role-of-the-International-Finance-Corporation-in-Land-Grabs  This is a report by the Oakland Institute critical of the LFC’s activities.  Can also be accessed from their website Lots of related material on this site.
    World Bank report on land grabbing: beyond the smoke and mirrors. A critical assessment by the NGO GRAIN whose database was extensively used by the World Bank in its investigations.
    NOTE: I HAVE POSTED QUITE A LOT TO A SEARCH ON THE WEBSITE “Shire Valley Irrigation – Keeping them honest” should bring them all up.
    Should there be any interest in learning more I would be happy to respond to emails.

  2. Pingback: Article: The Global Food Crisis & Land Grabs in Africa « The Sojourner Project

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