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New rules needed for African farm investments, Oxfam report says

The Oxfam report says private investments in Africa have forced tens of thousands from their lands, taken land out of production, and reduced food security, especially as investors focus on bio-fuels.

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New Forests Company employs 1,500 people, and has planted 12 million pine trees, just the sort of green investment that a country like Uganda would be expected to approve. But to complete the project, New Forests Company needed to evict some 22,500 people, Oxfam says. (New Forests has said these people were illegal squatters, without title, and were only 15,191 in number.)

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Ugandan government forestry officials, contacted by the Monitor, say that attracting investors like the New Forests Company to the country was vital for both the country's economy and its environment.

"In this country we are losing a lot of forest cover – around 80,000 hectares – each year and this deforestation is starting to affect the country so badly," Moses Watasa, a spokesman for Uganda's National Forestry Authority, says, citing increased flooding and landslides as examples.

Mr. Watasa says that currently an estimated 400,000 people are living illegally in areas designated as forests and that despite its vast potential, Uganda is forced to import timber from abroad.

"These sorts of investments are very important, and we should be doing all we can to attract them and to make things as smooth as possible for them when they get here," Watasa says.

He denied that the evictions carried out by authorities had been violent and said that most people moved out voluntarily.

But analysts warned that while attracting investment to the country is key to Uganda's development, the government needs to take into account the demands of the local population.

"We need investment, but it is also important that if an investor is being given land that people are helped to resettle and given an alternative form of livelihood," Lawrence Bategeka, principal research fellow at the Economic Policy Research Centre in Kampala, says.

Given Uganda's booming and still predominantly rural population that lives off subsistence farming, Mr. Bategeka says that unless the government works out plans such as urban development there will be more conflict over land in the future.

"With the growing population and without a clear development strategy there is going to be more pressure on the land and more people thrown off their land," Bategeka says.

Oxfam’s Offenheiser says that changing the system to boost food production will require compromises from all sides. Business advocates will need to change their attachment to large agricultural projects. “We hear that large is good, large is beautiful, and that small holder farms are not productive,” Offenheiser says. “But we’re bringing our fossil fuel industrial model to developing economies which may not be sustainable anyway.”

The aid community will have to change too, he adds, to accept the positive role that the private sector can play in development.

“Foreign aid as a percentage of foreign direct investment has been going down; it’s under 10 percent now, and it’s likely to go down further,” Offenheiser says. “So we have to focus on the other 90 percent that comes from the private sector. Can they be more pro-poor and pro-development? At times we’ll be adversarial, but we will encourage companies to do the right thing.”

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