Hunger and food security: Is Africa selling the farm?
Foreign investors see Africa as a breadbasket. Done well, investment could help with African hunger but create food security for the rest of the world.
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"But it was badly thought out, badly implemented, and it went south from there," says the businessman. "The farmers here have an unusual emotional attitude. It's not their land: It's their ancestors' land. If your mom is not from here, then you're not from here."Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Food security in Africa
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That sentiment becomes more apparent beyond the city limits of Antananarivo, where the tightly clustered homes give way to gentle rolling hills planted with vegetables, and where rice fields are often flooded knee-deep.
Farmers here close to the capital have advantages over their more remote brethren, such as the ability to sell cash crops like tomatoes and cucumbers for big-city prices.
It is beyond these areas, in the deep backcountry, where the farming economy doesn't work as well. There, explains UNICEF spokeswoman Sarah Johansson, rates of chronic malnutrition rival those of war-ravaged Afghanistan. She says UNICEF treated 11,000 Madagascan children in 2010 for severe malnutrition because they either did not have enough food or not enough variety in their diet. Many of the worst cases are in areas where most of the country's food is grown, adds Ms. Johansson, because subsistence farmers in Madagascar are quite conservative about trying out different crops and diversifying their diets with vegetables, choosing instead more reliable stomach-fillers like rice.
But farmers nearer the city face a host of perils, such as the greedy eyes of those with power. On the road from the capital airport toward downtown, a bare patch of ground that used to be a farm now sits idle, a spontaneous soccer field for village boys and a parking lot for trucks, surrounded by green rice paddies.
The land was confiscated from local farmers and sold off by the Ravalomanana government to a hotel developer. When the new government came in, the hotel project was canceled, but while courts work out appropriate punishments and compensation, the original owners must wait and are unable to start farming again.
The lives of elites who seal multimillion-dollar import deals in the restaurants of colonial-era hotels and a farmer like Rajaonary could hardly be more different.
Rajaonary says his political leaders simply don't understand how important land is to an ordinary Madagascan. It is one's cradle, table, home, workplace, and grave, he says.
"Land is holy," Rajaonary says, leaning on his hoe in the late-afternoon sun. "Land that I inherited from my ancestors – I couldn't sell it, because even now, after they died, it still belongs to them. They are watching what I am doing with the land. So I will do what they have done for me. I will pass my land along to my family, too."
This attitude – indeed, this gap in understanding within the culture here – helps to explain the extraordinary revolt of March 2009, which brought down the government. But it also makes any future foreign investment in Madagascar's agriculture sector very difficult.
"Nobody, no foreign investor, is going to come back here to go into farming," says the foreign businessman. "Emotionally, it would not be possible."
But while Madagascar has closed the door for now on big foreign investors, there is little sign in other parts of Africa that there's much holding back the great African land rush.
Whether motivated by altruism or by personal enrichment, African leaders increasingly see agriculture as an engine for growth and a ticket to prosperity.
IN PICTURES: Food security in Africa