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?

Barry Malone/Reuters
For years, farmers like these in Ethiopia have tended small wheat plots. Now they work next to huge commercial farms as foreigners buy up tracts of land.
Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters
Laborers in Nigeria gather sugarcane. Critics worry about small farms being squeezed out by large foreign-owned operations.

In Western eyes, Africa is a land of hunger – a place of famines and starving children, emaciated limbs, and desperate United Nations feeding campaigns.

Soon, however, the United States and Europe might be forced to change this view. Thanks to a rush of outside investments, Africa is poised to become the world’s next breadbasket – a situation prompting sharp debate among many international aid and food agencies.

Over the past year, dozens of private investors and foreign governments, including those of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, South Korea, and China, have snatched up hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland in Africa. Though their goals vary, many involved with the acquisitions say they want to secure farmable land to protect their home countries against what they see as inevitable
future food shortages.

And when it comes to open, arable land – and governments willing to make a deal – Africa is the world leader. Saudi Arabian investors, for instance, have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into farmland in Ethiopia, according to groups like GRAIN, a nonprofit that supports small farmers and has been tracking these international land acquisitions.

China has invested $800 million in rice production in Mozambique, and Jordan has secured tens of thousands of hectares for livestock and crops in Sudan. In September, the South Korean government announced that it will develop 100,000 hectares of farmland in Tanzania, at least half of which will go to South Korean businesses raising grains and producing processed food such as cooking oil and starch.

Corporate investors are also getting involved. London and Wall Street firms have shown new interest in farmland investment vehicles. Given the state of the global financial market – and the 2008 food crisis during which wheat and other food staple prices soared to record highs – food and land seem safe long-term investments, says Devlin Kuyek, a researcher with GRAIN.

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.

“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.

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