Foreign land grabs continue to remain a hotly debated issue in global affairs. Across the world, fertile land is being sectioned off, sold and cultivated by foreign countries and corporations, a process which has hit the African continent especially hard. This issue has been brought back into the limelight this week, as countries are expected to meet one day after “World Food Day” at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO) in Rome, Italy on 17 October 2011, to adopt strong measures that would protect local communities affected from such vast land purchases. In the insatiable quest for new land, African countries have been attacked on multiple fronts, with speculators eyeing farmland as a safe investment bet, whilst foreign governments, who are concerned about their own future, look for new places to secure food sources.

Additionally, new quotas from the United States and the European Union have forced companies to find cheaper and greener sources of energy, the result of which has seen large multinational corporations search far and wide for vast tracks of land, as well as precious water resources, in order to produce crops that can be converted into so-called sustainable fuels. Land grabs such as these have been increasing in recent years, in 2009 alone, nearly 60 million hectares of land were purchased or leased throughout the world, with 70% of such purchases coming from the African continent. In 2010, the World Bank reported that 56 million hectacres had been sold to foreign investors, again the majority of it coming from Africa. All of this, of course, has become a recipe for disaster for many African countries who, following independence from European nations in the twentieth century, have strived for sovereignty and for the control of their own commodities.

Despite the severity of the issue of land grabs, it was not until the global food crisis of 2008 that attention was drawn to the problem, and even still, foreign land grabs have continued on the African continent and are unlikely to stop any time soon. From 2004-09, foreign investors, which include wealthy countries from the Gulf region, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, have bought up vast tracks of land in various parts of Africa. Countries in the Asia Pacific region have also joined in the mix, reaping the benefits of a world economic system shifting in the East’s favour. The combined investment of these countries has resulted in the buyout of nearly 2.5 million hectares in Ethiopia, Madagascar, Ghana, and Sudan, according to a UN FAO report. Although Africa has seen some promising returns on the foreign investment, as a whole the continent has had to endure its nasty side effects, including the addition of extremely low paying jobs that do little to nothing to decrease the rate of poverty. Additionally, critics claim that foreign investors often do not take into consideration the country from which they are operating, including doing prior political risk assessments or learning about the country’s culture or environment, and as such, frequently fail to build local relationships and mismanage the country’s ecosystem either by decimating the local wildlife population, mismanaging the area’s natural resources and water supply or relying too heavily on non eco-friendly fertilisers. Other critics claim that foreign land grabs have contributed to increased famine in the African subcontinent as resources are diverted away from much needed locally-based food production, toward projects that benefit only investors. In this international drive for more profits and resource security for already developed nations, some of the most sought after countries as shown below include Ethiopia and Mali.


In late 2010, it was reported that the government of Meles Zenawi had decided to lease around three million hectares of land over the next five years. Meles decision follows years of unpopular land policy laws, in 1991, after he first took power, he set about a process of decollectivisation of farms and redistribution of lands at local levels. Zenawi was also rumoured to have leased Ethiopian land for up to ninety-nine years to foreign businesses and governments, including Indian and Chinese companies, without prior approval from local citizens which undoubtedly by would be most affected by such an overreaching plan. In 2010 it was reported that the Saudi Government is looking to produce nearly million tonnes of rice per year with most of it heading directly to Saudi Arabia. Despite concerns, Zenawi has gone ahead with such plans and as a result, the country has seen 1.2 million hectares of land lost to foreign businesses and countries from 2004-2010, according to a report from the World Bank, which found that most of these deals returned little to no net investment for the country and saw limited job growth. The Ethiopian Government’s decision to continue to allow foreign actors to take control of its vast land resources further complicates the political situation in a country that is frequently beset by violence, corruption and food insecurity. Despite receiving billions in foreign aid every year, Ethiopia remains one of the poorest countries in the world as nearly one out of every six citizens is on food assistance. Currently, Ethiopia’s fertile regions of Afar, Gambella, Ogaden and Benshangul-gumuz all remain the most attractive lands for foreign investors, the transactions of which come at a heavy price to the local population who often become dislocated. In 2010, reports indicated that 225,000 people were misplaced from Gambella as a result of foreign land grabs. In a sense, it is a colonialisation all over again, except this time the Ethiopian Government is allowing it to happen.


Like Ethiopia, Mali has also been one of the most hard-hit countries in Africa in terms of foreign land grabs. Ségou in particular has been most sought after, with buyers from China, a country which has recently set up 100,000 hectare irrigation project, as well as foreign companies buying thousands of additional hectares in what is considered Mali’s breadbasket. This has of course become a huge problem for a country that has one of the highest population growth rates in the world, and where 80% of local people depend on farming for their own subsidence. In Mali, most investors with holdings in the Office du Niger (a government-run company established in 1932 that oversees, among other things, hydroelectric dams, irrigation canals and agriculture projects) intend to cultivate crops that would be used for so-called sustainable agro fuels, including sugarcane. Although investors have claimed that such projects will bring about huge job opportunities for locals, research has shown that these claims are overstated. In Mali, reports indicate that recent land deals to foreign actors could have supported more than half a million people. Instead, the land has been lost to a group of about twenty investors and is expected, at best to only create a few thousand jobs.


Overall, the political situations facing Ethiopia and Mali only begins to scratch the surface of the continent’s continuing uneasy relationship with its former colonial past and the current issue of foreign land investment. Compared to Latin America, African leadership has traditionally welcomed foreign purchases, believing it as an asset its economic development. However, as famine continues to wreak havoc across the Horn of Africa, especially in drought-stricken Somalia, many African leaders are reconsidering their colonial legacy and are poised to take a different approach, one that could mirror the tough stance of Latin America. Foreign countries and governments are expected to face further condemnation by NGOS and the UN who are under pressure from local communities to address this issue. As such, as the world gathers to draw further draw attention to this international issue, foreign companies and countries are advised to do a proper analysis of the countries from which they are working from and should study local environments and peoples before making huge investments in land.

(Image: Reuters)


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