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.
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.
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 Cotula – Land grabs in Africa