African govts give away continent’s natural heritage, acre by acre

Friday March 21 2014

A look at recent mega land deals in Africa reveals a trend dubbed a ‘dangerous grab’ of the resource upon which the continent’s poor people depend for survival. Photo/FILE

African governments are in the spotlight for their role in the continent’s land grabs which has seen millions of acres end up in the hands of private investors.

A look at recent land deals reveals a trend seen by some land experts and economists as a “dangerous” grab of the basis upon which the continent’s people depend for survival.

Latest reports by a US-based think-tank, Oakland Institute, show that Western transnational corporations and Eastern countries such as China and India have played a big role in massive land acquisitions in Africa.

“Although Indian firms are active in countries like Ethiopia, the Oakland Institute’s investigation shows a major role of Western firms, wealthy US and European individuals, and investment funds with ties to major banks such as Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan,” says the report, Land Deals in Africa.

The report also attributes the phenomenon to alternative investment firms like the London-based Emergent Asset Management and universities such as Harvard, Spelman and Vanderbilt, whose “primary motivation (is) economic access to agricultural land that will have high returns for the endowment.”

Land grabs could be creating mass anger and may be setting up different parts of the continent for conflict.


“Lack of consultation, growing food insecurity and threats to livelihoods and land rights are generating conflicts and pose a grave threat to peace and security in the region,” said Anuradha Mittal, Director of Oakland Institute.

President Uhuru Kenyatta recently commissioned some agricultural schemes on one million acres in the Tana Delta in Kenya’s coast.

Although the government offered information on the different types of agricultural uses to be put to the land, it was silent on the identity of the investors and the details of the investment agreements that may have been made on the land. It was also silent on whether (and if so, on how) the rights to the land held by the local people will be safeguarded.

“This puts to question whether the dishing out of massive amounts of land to investors by Kenya and other African countries has been working for the long-term benefits of the people in the continent,” said Kahindi Lekalhaile, a researcher from Samburu County.

Mr Lekalhaile accuses the government of taking advantage of a lacuna in the law that allowed trust land to be dished out to well-connected people, including foreign firms.

The continent has shown renaissance and growth. But experts believe that even before Africans have started to benefit from the growth, the dishing out of land under the guise of economic development has the potential of creating multiple crises.

READ:It may not look it, but this is a ticking time bomb

Fomenting conflict

In cases where people are not kicked out of the land targeted for leasing out to companies, other methods used include fomenting conflict between ethnic groups inhabiting the lands.

In cases where a number of communities live, their cultural differences are exploited to bring about conflicts that result in the displacement of the people. Kenya’s Tana Delta, for instance, experienced a bitter conflict between two ethnic groups, Pokomo and Orma, which led to the killing of more than 100 people in late 2012.

Although the media attributed the violence to traditional and cultural differences between the two communities and retaliatory attacks, there was suspicion that local and foreign commercial interests played a role.

This became public during a fact-finding mission by officials of the Canada-based Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention.

In its report, Sentinel cited the Canadian firm, Bedford Biofuels, saying that it had leased a large tract of land in the area for its operations, “thus causing environmental damage and depriving Tana Delta residents of its use for agriculture.”

It also accused wealthy and powerful Kenyans and foreigners of having armed the two ethnic groups or “set them to drive the other off the land so that it can be freed up for commercial exploitation.”

As they lease the land to foreign companies, governments in Africa rely on the fact that most local people do not have formal ownership documents of the land.

READ: Land issues plague Africa as states lease out community land to foreigners

For instance, over 60 per cent of Kenya’s land is not adjudicated. Although the Constitution has now abolished the trust lands tenure system and replaced it with community lands, which may provide communities with clearer rights to enter into third-party leases that benefit them, land grabs have not abated.

A report, Mystery Shrub Jatropha: Joy for Farmers or Ploy to Grab Land? published in a Kenyan magazine, The Diplomat, said 50,000 hectares of woodland in Malindi off Kenya’s coast was leased to the Kenya Jatropha Energy Ltd, a subsidiary of a Milan-based company. The latter had planned to generate biofuel from jatropha for sale in Europe. But local people expressed fears that the project would displace them.

The Oakland Institute says that Africa accounts for 134 million hectares of reported land deals that took place all over the world between 2000 and 2010, and that deals under consideration amount to 203 million hectares.

Although the land grabs have been taking place across the continent, it appears that five countries — Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Sudan, Mozambique and Tanzania — have attracted much of the interest.

READ: Tanzania leads East Africa in secretive land sell-offs

World Heritage Sites

In West Africa, reports show that Mali is most affected. A large part of Mali is a wetland, the Inner Niger Delta. It has floodplains, lakes, pockets of forests and several historical cities, some which are on Unesco’s World Heritage Sites’ list. Others are part of the global network of Ramsar sites with huge colonies of birds unseen anywhere else in Africa.

Here, as many as a million people live relying on the delta’s resources for their survival. But the delta had also attracted big investments from Libya which joined hands with Mali to start a joint venture dubbed Malibya that secured a 30-year lease for 100,000 hectares of the land for commercial farming. This is expected to adversely affect livelihoods of millions of local people who depend on the delta for fishing, farming and grazing.

The Liberian government had leased to investors about one-third of the country’s arable land for logging, agriculture, forestry and mining since 2006. In 2010, the World Bank rated Liberia as having one of the highest rates of land concession in Africa.

ALSO READ: World Bank hits back over land grab report

Mozambique, the Oakland Institute says, granted concessions to investors for more than 2.5 million hectares between 2004 and the end of 2009, which is 3 per cent of the country’s total land area and 7 per cent of its arable land. Of this, more than a million hectares went to foreign investors, 73 per cent for timber and 13 per cent for biofuels and sugar.

Most of the mega deals on land in Africa are done behind the scenes.

“At the country level, the absence of democratic debate and lack of information in the public domain is the rule. Often, international investors who are involved in the deals are not accountable to anyone,” said Mittal.

Critics also say that a big number of the deals are sealed in capital cities with little consultation with the affected communities. This holds true in Ethiopia where the Human Rights Watch estimated that 1.5 million people would eventually be forced from their land, thus putting them at the risk of starvation.

ALSO READ: New UN laws to protect farmers in land grabs

Curiously, the official story has been that the deals are good for the victims.

“A major argument put forward by governments, investors, and international institutions is that agricultural investment will spur economic development, create jobs and infrastructure in poor countries,” said Mittal.

But he added that the largely unregulated land acquisitions are resulting in none of the promised benefits for local people.

World’s poor

“Through our research, we have learnt that investment in agriculture does not necessarily translate into food security or livelihoods for smallholder farmers who form the bulk of the world’s poor.”

This is supported by Olivier de Schutter, United Nations Rapporteur on the Right to Food, who says “the issue is not one of merely increasing budget allocations to agriculture, but rather that of choosing from different models of agricultural development which may have different impacts and benefit various groups differently.”

Land grabs have been taking place in areas that are home to large numbers of people and diverse animal and plant species. Generally, people and wildlife have been losing out whenever investors acquire huge tracts of land for large-scale farming.

Land grabbing may be the biggest threat to wildlife and environment conservation in Africa.

“In fact, it makes it much worse (because) whenever communities lose their land, pressures on natural resources increase,” said Fred Nelson, Executive Director of Maliasili Initiatives. Mr Nelson believes that this has subsequently worsened marginalisation of communities.

Have African governments shown any willingness to strike a balance between the need for additional land for agriculture and the need to conserve the life-support systems Africans have relied on over the ages? There are those who say that it is understandable for governments to choose agriculture as a rational land choice.

“What is not legitimate is when governments enter into lease agreements with mostly foreign commercial operations without taking into account or involving the customary rights of use and occupancy that may exist on the relevant land,” said Mr Nelson.

Fighting back

Land grabs do not respect local land rights and interests. When this happens, the affected people are left with the choice of moving out or staying back to fight. But fighting back results in a lot of suffering for the victims.

For instance, in Tanzania, Loliondo area has seen a long-running dispute between the local Maasai people and Ortello Business Corporation (OBC), a company owned by the royal family in the United Arab Emirates which runs hunting parties for the high and mighty.

On July 4, 2009, when they refused to move after the authorities issued a notice, the government sent paramilitary police to evict the residents of the eight villages bordering the world-famous Serengeti National Park.

The villages had been established there in accordance with Tanzania’s Village Land Act of 1999, and the government was accused of disregarding the law when it ordered the residents to vacate the area, ostensibly to protect it as a wildlife migration corridor.

More than 200 homesteads were burnt down, leaving 3,000 people homeless.

Reports show that the government is yet to rescind the decision of getting about 30,000 Maasai people to leave the area.

Solutions on offer

In a meeting held in London in March 2013, which was organised by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), the International Land Coalition, the Zoological Society of London and Maliasili Initiatives, experts painted a grim picture of land grabs in Cameroon, Uganda, Chile, Kenya, Ethiopia, Liberia and other countries but also offered some solutions.

Dilys Roe, a senior researcher at IIED said: “It is in the interests of both the conservationists and communities to tackle the land rush.” According to Roe, this can partly be resolved if those involved secure or strengthen local land rights in ways that bring both conservation and development benefits.

Mr Nelson said secure land tenure ought to be made a foundation of community-driven conservation efforts around the world.

Other experts have underscored the importance of linking people involved in conservation and human rights to government officials so that land-grab schemes that are passed off as poverty reduction ventures would reflect not just the concerns and survival interests of the local people but also their ancestral rights to the lands.