Wednesday, 20 February 2013

AFRICA: ''Land Grabbing'': The new form of neo-colonialism and ''forced labor''

Foreign investors are buying or leasing vast amounts of farmland in Third World countries to profit from surging demand for food crops as a result of rapid population growth. "Land grabbing" amounts to a new form of colonialism that often runs counter to the interests of locals.

Land grabbing is the contentious issue of large-scale land acquisitions: the buying or leasing of large pieces of land in developing countries, by domestic and transnational companies, governments, and individuals. While used broadly throughout history, land grabbing as used today primarily refers to large-scale land acquisitions following the 2007-2008 world food price crisis.

There is nothing new about land grabs, although the age-old problem of powerful groups and individuals displacing communities from land that they have farmed for (usually) centuries has been aggravated by the rapid increase in the world's population in the past few decades, and the strong economic growth of populous nations such as China, India, Indonesia and others.

Foreign investment in land has been criticized by many civil society actors and individuals as a new realization of neo-colonialism, signifying a renewed economic imperialism of developed over developing nations. Critics have pointed to the acquisitions of large tracts of land for economic profit, with little perceived benefit for local populations or target nations as a whole, as a renewal of the economically exploitative practices of the colonial period.

A number of developing nations have sold or leased much of their farmland to foreign investors. The list is led by Liberia, whose arable land is 100 percent under foreign ownership, Ethiopia, both Sudan, Drc, Ghana, Somalia, Madagascar, Congo, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Mozambique and South Africa.

Investment in land often takes the form of long-term leases, as opposed to outright purchases, of land. These leases often range between 25 and 99 years. Such leases are usually undertaken between national or district governments and investors.

Large-scale investments in land since 2007 have been scrutinized by civil society organizations, researchers, and other organizations because of issues such as land insecurity, local consultation and compensation for land, displacement of local peoples, employment of local peoples, the process of negotiations between investors and governments, and the environmental consequences of large-scale agriculture.

The term "land grabbing" is itself a controversial issue. The phrase 'global land grab' has become a catch-all to describe and analyze the current explosion of large scale (trans)national commercial land transactions, and the popular term 'land grabbing', while effective as activist terminology, obscures vast differences in the legality, structure, and outcomes of commercial land deals and deflects attention from the roles of domestic elites and governments as partners, intermediaries, and beneficiaries.

Initially hailed by investors and some developing countries as a new pathway towards agricultural development, investment in land has recently been criticized by a number of civil society, governmental, and multinational actors who argue that it has had negative impacts on local communities. In many cases, the population suffers from this new form of colonialism, and the planting of monocultures tends to sap the soil.

The Ethiopian government's acceptance of cash crop-based land acquisitions reflects its belief that switching to cash crop production would be even more beneficial for food security than having local farmers produce crops by themselves. However local populations have been displaced, ignored for consultations and in most cases ''forced'' to work with low pay in their owns ''lands''.

In Ghana and elsewhere, governments officials often negotiated directly with investors without the input from other villagers, taking it upon themselves to sell common land or village land on their own. Most  communities were/are  rarely aware of their rights and, even in cases where they were, lacked the ability to interact with investors or to explore ways to use their land more productively.

The Sudanese government has been noted as having paid minimal attention to existing land rights and neglecting to conduct any economic analysis on potential projects. In addition, many countries, including, Congo, Sudan, and Ghana, have neglected to catalog and file even general geographical descriptions of land allocation boundaries.

In South Sudan, numerous large-scale land acquisitions have taken place in spite of the country's unresolved political and security situation. One of the most prominent, involving a former AIG partner named Philippe Heilberg, garnered attention in Rolling Stone for his provocative pursuit of land in conflict-ridden regions. Heilberg, who is planning to invest in 800,000 ha of land in partnership with many of South Sudan's top generals and civilian officials, attracted criticism with his remarks (regarding Africa and land grabbing) that "the whole place is like one big mafia — and I'm like a mafia head.

In Madagascar, the anger among the population about land sales led to violent protests. The South Korean corporation Daewoo was in the process of negotiations with the Malagasy government for the purchase of 1.3 million hectares, half of all agricultural land, to produce corn and palm oil. This investment, while one of many pursued in Madagascar, attracted considerable attention there and led to protests against the government.

In Drc, the ''land-grabbing'' process has displaced more people than the civil war. Drc's government has been found, in many reports, the ''most corrupted African government'' in history, simply brushes aside local lands owners, regardless their concerns and rights and without any compensation.

When not displaced, the conversion of local farmers into laborers holds numerous negative consequences for local populations. The number of jobs created varies greatly dependent on commodity type and style of farming planned. In spite of this volatility, guarantees of job creation are rarely, if ever, addressed in contracts. This fact, combined with the intrinsic incentives towards mechanization in plantation-style production, can lead to much lower employment than originally planned for. When employed, locals are often paid little: In investments by Karuturi Global in Ethiopia, workers are paid on average under $2 a day, with a minimum wage of 8 birr, or $0.48, per day, both of which are under the World Bank poverty limit of $2 per day.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist