Land deals raise food security hopes

Published on Food Crisis and the Global Landgrab (first on Congo Brazzaville and on South Africa, by IRIN, June 8, 2011.

By handing over 80,000 hectares of untilled land to a few dozen South African farmers, authorities in the Republic of Congo are confident they will greatly improve domestic agricultural expertise and reduce the country’s chronic dependence on food imports.

“In terms of nutrition, we are in a constant state of need,” said Minister of Agriculture and Livestock Rigobert Maboundou. “This is why we are giving over these lands, to employ local labour and benefit from the South African expertise.” He said it was essential to surrender the farmland to those who could invest in it.

“Congo has been waiting for an investment initiative like this, the creation of thousands of jobs. More than anything else, the country is expecting abundant food since the South African farmers will produce crops and raise livestock,” said Minister of Land Affairs and Public Domain Pierre Mabiala. 

The 40 farmers are leasing government-owned land for 30 years, with the provision to extend it for two terms. The farmlands include 63,000ha in Niari and 17,000ha in Bouenza, in the southwest.

There are 10 to 12 million hectares of land with agricultural potential in Congo, according to government data, but only 2 percent is farmed, mostly with rudimentary tools. “It’s difficult to achieve food self-sufficiency like this,” said Maboundou.

Wynand du Toit, vice-president of the Association of South African farmers who signed the deal, dismissed suggestions that it was really a covert land grab, with production aimed at the export market. “Our understanding with the government is that we are here to help the country’s food production – we plan to set up an agricultural college and train local farmers,” he said.

Our priority is to help produce enough to feed the country – we are not looking at exports for at least two or three years”Our priority is to help produce enough to feed the country – we are not looking at exports for at least two or three years and then only if we produce a surplus which we cannot sell to the domestic market,” he said. “If we do end up producing more than we can sell here then we might consider selling to neighbouring Gabon and the Central African Republic.”

Du Toit said since not all of the land was arable, the farmers would receive about 1,000ha apiece. South African ambassador to the Congo, Genge Manelisi, said they would focus on raising livestock as well as rice and vegetables.

Congolese officials said the policy of granting land to investors was aimed not just at combating the food crisis, but also diversifying a national economy that was too dependent on oil, which contributes more than 80 percent of the state budget.

Concerns: … (full text).

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