Protecting investors, but what about the people?

Published on Pambazuka News, Issue 480, by Joan Baxter, 2010-05-06.

The large-scale acquisition for industrial agriculture in African and other developing countries has been described as a global land grab, ‘threatening food, seed and land sovereignty of family farmers, social stability, environmental health and biodiversity around the world’, writes Joan Baxter. While it is understandable that investors deny that this kind of agricultural investment is a ‘land grab’, says Baxter, what is perplexing is that ‘the same kind of rhetoric is coming from some whose job it is to protect Africa’s farmers’ rights and their farmland from exploitative foreign takeover’. 

On 25 April 2010, representatives from a host of organisations and nations with the clout to shape policies and millions of lives around the world gathered for a Roundtable at the headquarters of the US Millennium Challenge Corporation in Washington. Among them were representatives from the World Bank Group, Japan, the US, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), African governments and the African Union Commission. Their stated aim was to ‘facilitate a dialogue among government representatives, multilateral agencies, civil society, and the private sector to further explore progress and advancement of ongoing work related to principles for responsible agricultural investment.’[1]

Others prefer simpler language. They describe the form of agricultural investment under discussion at the Roundtable, which involves large-scale land acquisition for industrial-style agriculture in African and other developing countries, as a global ‘land grab’. They say there is no way it can be ‘responsible’ because it threatens food, seed and land sovereignty of family farmers, social stability, environmental health and biodiversity around the world.[2]

… Given the chronic lack of resources in Sierra Leone for monitoring other extractive industries – particularly its diamond sector – one has to ask if it’s realistic to believe that the government will be able to carry out the requisite independent and credible monitoring of the Addax project [26] … //


The Addax Bioenergy project in Sierra Leone is just one example of the agricultural investment on-going in that country, where at least three more European companies are each seeking to lease 40,000 hectares for palm oil for agrofuel for export. And it is just one relatively modest case in Africa where hundreds of large land deals have already been signed and sealed, giving foreign investors and nations control over many millions of hectares of African farmland.

But the Sierra Leone case does reveal much about the way the land deals are being made, the contradictory information being given out about them, what local people are actually being told (and not being told) about the high stakes involved. It also reveals the powerful machinery of the World Bank Group at work inside African governments that promotes the land deals, and the considerable powers of the investors awash in capital to sway government and public opinion.

Most importantly, it helps explain why, even if it is the obligation of African governments to protect their own people from exploitative investment – as Egypt’s minister of investment says – instead some seem intent on protecting the investors who are coming to their countries to ‘exploit and extract.’ Protection for local people, their land, soil, genetic resources and their water, has been whittled away piece-by-piece under the tutelage of the World Bank Group and its donor partners.

Until African governments recognise the immense potential of their own farmers and their sustainable, diverse family farming systems, that are so desperately in need of genuine ‘responsible’ agricultural investment to assure food and seed sovereignty and access to micro-credit and markets, it seems likely they will continue to protect and favour the powerful investors – and that their own rural populations will pay the terrible price of the land grabbing.

Notes 1 to 26: … (full long text).

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