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AFRICA: Could Regulation Ease Fears Over Land Grabs?

STOCKHOLM, Oct 23 2009 (IPS) - The ‘land rush’ across Africa by international investors should be regulated to protect smallholder farmers from deals that could leave them landless and hungry.

Kenya's River Tana delta: 40,000 hectares of valuable land here has been leased to Qatari investors, potentially affecting tens of thousands of local farmers and herders. Credit:  R.A. Ward/US DoD

Kenya’s River Tana delta: 40,000 hectares of valuable land here has been leased to Qatari investors, potentially affecting tens of thousands of local farmers and herders. Credit: R.A. Ward/US DoD

Farmer organisations, civil society representatives and researchers at a debate at the European Development Days expressed concern about the impact of selling or leasing large tracts of land to foreign governments and companies. They fear it will harm Africa’s ability to feed itself by improving the productivity of its small holder farmers.

The Eastern Africa Farmers Federation (EAFF) says these land deals exclude farmers and threaten their livelihoods.

“We have seen land acquisition taking place in Africa and the trend has been accelerated by the food and energy crisis,” said EAFF president Philip Kiriro.

“The victims of land acquisitions depend on agriculture and we are worried about the acquisition arrangements. Who are the players? Government to government, private companies and government: it is not the people and government, and it’s not the indigenous private sector. Our priority is to ensure we have well-negotiated policies to govern land.”

Citing 2008 figures from Food and Agriculture Organisation, Kiriro said Africa is estimated to have in excess of 800 million hectares of cultivatable land yet only 197 million hectares are being farmed.

“Land acquisition is targeting the proportion of this land (that is) in government hands and those coming to access this land have a feeling that there is land we are not able to cultivate ourselves, but the situation is different. If we had the basic facilities and better capacity we would cultivate that land,” Kiriro said.

He said it was critical that there are checks and balances on land acquisition to prevent smallholder farmers from losing their livelihoods. He said in Kenya, for example, farmers had been pushed off their land in the Tana Delta in Kenya where 40,000 hectares have been leased to a Qatari investor.

A 2009 study titled “Land grab or development opportunity?” says there has been a build up of interest in agriculture lands fuelled by a commodities price boom. International investors have been leasing large tracts of land over the past 18 months, with a view to growing crops to export food to or produce biofuels.

The study, jointly produced by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the International Institute for Environment and Development, analysed land allocations of 1000 hectares or more between 2004 and 2009 from four countries, Ethiopia, Ghana, Madagascar and Mali).

According to the study, about two million hectares of land across the four countries have been signed over to foreign interests, including a 10,000-hectare project in Mali and a massive 450,000-hectare plantation for biofuel in Madagascar. IIED director Camilla Toulmin said it is often high value land that is allocated to investors.

“We have a number of concerns,” said Henk Hobbelink, coordinator of GRAIN. “There are clear trends where companies and corporations that have never been involved in agriculture are now massively starting to rating to lease or buy land elsewhere.”

GRAIN recently compiled a list of 120 corporations from the finance sector that Hobbelink said were speculating that land, water and resources are new commodities on which money can be made.

“Yes, we need investment in agriculture, but we need investment in a way that the majority of farmers in the world are being held (onto) and not thrown off the land. If we are talking about monoculture and big plantations, at least for Africa, we are heading in the wrong direction,” Hobbelink noted.

“Do we really want to put the fate of food production and the fate of agriculture in the world in the hands of these private companies, many of them being banks?”

Akin Adesina, vice president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), a partnership to boost productivity of small-scale farming supported by the Rockefeller and Gates Foundations, said the sale or lease of African land should be done in a transparent manner.

“The challenges of this so called land rush include the risk of moving towards large mechanised farms like in Latin America, the Green Revolution we are talking about in Africa is one that focuses on farmers and allows them to rapidly raise agriculture productivity and for them to do so in ways that are environmentally sound. Moving toward large scale mechanisation of in agriculture in my view will be a mistake.”

Participants at the roundtable debate discussed the potential of to create a win-win situation with land acquisitions by suggesting involving farmers at the start of negotiations for such deals. There was also a call for the development and implementation of a global code of conduct to regulate the land deals.

“There is scope for a code of conduct,” said Ishmael Sunga, CEO of the Southern African Confederation of Agricultural of Agricultural Unions. “However, it does not make sense to have a code of conduct for ‘land grabbing’. Rather, it should be for foreign investors, both from other countries in Africa as well as from outside the continent.

“Why should we regulate investment coming from outside Africa only when some of the deals being made by African investors could equally be bad?”

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