Africa: from famine to the world’s next breadbasket?
Foreign interests buy up cheap agricultural land across Africa to grow tomorrow’s food. But will any of it benefit Africans?
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Proponents of the land deals say this spate of investment is a global win-win. Land-scarce countries in the Gulf, Asia, and elsewhere have a new way to protect themselves from food shortages, and Africa gets much-needed capital and expertise to turn its rich agricultural potential into actual food. And recently the UN and the Washington D.C.-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) have given lukewarm backing to the land acquisitions, as long as both sides follow codes of conduct.Skip to next paragraph
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“Foreign investment can provide key resources for agriculture, including development of needed infrastructure and expansion of livelihood options for local people,” Jachim von Braun, IFPRI’s director general, wrote earlier this year.
But Mr. Kuyek and others are skeptical. To them, the land rush seems like yet another wave of African resource extraction – one that will benefit foreign governments and large corporations at the expense of Africans and small farmers.
The International Institute for Sustainable Development and the World Bank have backed reports showing that “the most reasonable and most appropriate way to invest in food systems is to invest in small farmers,” Kuyek says. “But here, we’re just getting big industrial agriculture.”
Others worry about the impact on human rights. The details of the land deals – made among high-ranking government officials with little consultation of local peasants – are often murky. And in many cases, land that officials have said was “unused” was actually managed in traditional ways.
“Outsourcing food isn’t new,” says Alexandra Spieldoch, director of the trade and global governance program at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. “There are all sorts of historical examples of foreign direct investment. In the colonial era, there were cash crops in colonies. What’s particularly disturbing is the scale of the more recent investments – large tracts of arable land are being bought up with these ridiculously long leases – 50 to 99 years ... in countries that are already unstable.”
Tensions related to a South Korean land purchase are blamed for the ousting of Madagascar’s government earlier this year. More recently, African civil society groups and a number of African leaders have spoken out against what they call land grabs.