Land Grab in Africa

Published on Current Concerns, Source: Radio DRS, Das Tagesgespräch, by Emil Lehmann with Ruedi Küng, 19 May 2010 – Translation Current Concerns, July 2010.

mw. Today, states and global companies buy up enormous areas of land in the poor countries of this world for little money, in order to produce food for the nutrition of the wealthier peoples or for the production of bio fuel. This is especially offensive in Africa: the local farmer families are driven away from their very small pieces of land that had enabled them, in the best case, just to survive.  Now they are impelled to produce fruit for our cans or agricultural fuel for our cars on huge plantations. The authors of the “World Agriculture Report” 2008, who urgently call for maintainance and support of small-scale agriculture, because the increase of hunger can only be stopped that way, are to a large extent ignored. 

A man, who does not remain indifferent about this inhuman action is Ruedi Küng, “Schweizer Radio DRS” (Swiss Radio DRS) correspondent for Africa. In a radio interview he talked about his journeys to Africa, about his observations and his discussions with people. When listening to his reports, you can feel the emphatic qualities of this journalist. In each sentence he draws our attention to the injustice that is done to the poorest peoples of this world, to ensure that the pots and gasoline tanks of the rich remain filled. “Current Concerns” reproduces the interview with some abbreviations … //

… Half of the land purchases known up to date take place in Africa:

You, Ruedi Küng, said countries and privates are buying land. Who is involved?

We have some information from the World Bank report: It concerns the countries with agricultural difficulties or great populations, for example in the Arab and Asian areas, also China, but interestingly African countries, as well. Moreover there are financial institutions, Swiss ones, as well, buying land as money investments in order to produce something there. According to the information of the World Bank half of the land purchases known up to now are performed in Africa, but also in Latin America, in Russia, and also Australia, which also offers farmland for sale. In Africa countries like Sudan, Ghana and Madagascar are offering land for sale, as well in Asia Philippines and Indonesia. The main players among the buyers are China, Great Britain, then Saudi Arabia.

Are the states themselves the buyers or do companies from these countries buy the land?

Both are actors. May-be there are joint ventures of both states concerned, contracts between the investor and the offering state. Mostly, there are no purchasing contracts but long-term leasing contracts, lasting 50 to 99 years. It probably doesn’t make much sense to talk about prices, because the land prices in Africa for example are not comparable to those in Switzerland. I learned from the Federal Office for Agriculture that prices there are forty times lower. This is confirmed by Grain, one of the most active institutions, but if you consider that, according to the World Bank, 50 billion dollars are at stake up to now, according to Grain it is even 100 billion, it becomes clear that big profits can be expected – perhaps there are also risks, but profits, above all. You must keep in mind what is happening, when – for example – 1,5 millions hectares of land are let out for lease for 99 years.

Wheat is cultivated there, not for the Sudanese population, but for Saudi Arabia, or vegetables for Jordan, or sorghum, a kind of millet – by the way a staple diet in Sudan – to feed the camels in the United Arab Emirates – this is really crazy!

Lorries loaded with food, transporting the goods abroad, are passing the hungry:

You mean, the lorries loaded with food are driving by the starving people, transporting the goods abroad?

Imagine, this is happening in Darfur, for example, where 2.5 million people are living in so-called refugee camps – absurdity is most obvious here. Another example is Sierra Leone, a country struck by a terrible civil war for many years, now. There, a company based in Switzerland, Addax Bioenergy, produces biodiesel for Europe. Knowing what conditions prevail in Sierra Leone, knowing that it has not yet come to its feet up to this very day – in this small country, overpopulated, where humans go hungry – something is produced which later fuels the cars in our countries afterwards.

Who actually leases the land? Are they local elites?

Studies have been conducted examining how such decisions come about. Kenya is such an example, where the Emir of Qatar and President Mwai Kibaki signed an agreement concerning the sale of land in one of the most fertile regions – the delta of the river Tana. Basically, Kenya finds itself in a comfortable situation with respect to the media: journalists investigate. Nonetheless, nothing has come of it. There is dead silence. This means, decisions are made within a small circle of people who are profiting by them. Ethiopia is another example, where a gigantic project of 3 million hectare has already been fenced in.

This is about the size of Switzerland!

This is enormous! Considering the fact that, for years now, thousands and thousands of people have been receiving  daily  food aid in Ethiopia, one has to come to the conclusion that something is going wrong.

In other words, one might assume that some people are doing quite well by it. If Switzerland’s Bundesrat should be wanting to sell an area of the size of the canton Thurgau to Qatar, this would not be easy at all, because there are land registers in Switzerland and I know that this land once belonged to my father and now it belongs to me. The law of the land is clearly regulated. – Are there no such regulations in Africa or do governments bluntly ignore what is right or wrong?

Yes, unfortunately the latter is the case. There are, of course, some laws originating from former times. Often, the land belongs to the state and quite a lot of mechanisms are in existence as to who is allocating which part of the land. In Kenya e.g. approximately five families own nearly 40 per cent of the arable land, because the government as the one to allocate, first allocated the land to themselves. Then, there is also community land, which is being allocated by sub-authorities. Then again, there are community laws, stating the right of land of each individual. But finally, once the deal with the foreign country is decided upon, no one is asked by the prime minister in Ethiopia. Money is washed into the pockets of the ruling party or the state, respectively. This is all that counts. The legal means cannot entirely be made use of. From the legal point of view, one would have to look to the actors of the companies and states in order to be able to find out whether they might be involved. The EU and the UN are trying to put forward rules for such acquisitions of land. Hence, with responsible acting such an agrarian investment could also have a positive effect and be of use to the public … (full text).

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