Land investment deals in Africa: Say no way

Published on Pambazuka News, by Anuradha Mittal, Jeff Furman and Frederic Mousseau, June 30, 2011.

Food insecurity, loss of food sovereignty, the displacement of small farmers, conflict, environmental devastation, water loss, and the further impoverishment and political instability of African nations – these are among the consequences of large-scale investments in land in Africa, a special investigation by the Oakland Institute has revealed. Pambazuka News spoke to Anuradha Mittal, Jeff Furman and Frederic Mousseau about what prompted their research and what they discovered … //

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: The reports state that major African rivers, including the Nile, the Niger and the Zambezi, are tapped by these land grabs. Hence, the land grabs are actually often ‘water grabs’ intended to stabilise not only food supplies but also water access in other countries. What can be done to protect watersheds and ecosystems that often cross national boundaries and jurisdictions from this assault?  

ANURADHA MITTAL: We tend to talk about investments in land as just land grabs but what our research shows is that it is really about resource grabs and especially water grabs. For instance, the CEO of a fund operating out of South Africa boasted at an agricultural investment conference in Geneva, ‘Internally we call our land fund/water fund.’ This fund is active in Zambia that has 54 per cent of the SADC region’s water. Or Emergent’s EmVest project in Mozambique; they can use as much water as they want. They don’t have to pay for the amount of water used. The payments are minimal based on the acreage that they have. In Mali, Malibya has the assurance of the government to have access to all the water they need, while only 5 per cent of the country’s land is arable.

JEFF FURMAN: Agreements are being negotiated where the host countries are being obliged to provide water to foreign investors. And that is when you have to question, in terms of economic development, what do these countries and regions get back? And when you do the cost benefit analysis for the resources that have been offered to the foreign investors, it’s a win-win for the investor, not for the country or the communities.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: You have posted announcements on your website for conferences for investors at which high-level officials from the FAO and UNEP are making presentations. In what ways are United Nations agencies and aid institutions facilitating or hindering the Great Land Grab?

FREDERIC MOUSSEAU: Yes, FAO officials, UNEP officials, World Bank officials are at these meetings. And it’s not about food, it’s not about communities. It’s about markets, it’s about arbitrage opportunities. It is about promise held by the ‘ag fundamentals.’

This is only the first phase of the release of our reports. Our work, which is based on documents that come from these agencies and foreign investors, demonstrates that though land deals are being promoted as a development paradigm, after you add up the benefits that are provided to investors – tax holidays, the right to repatriate their earnings, the right to hire ex-pats in countries, or the right to have all kind of holidays from paying profit taxes, (and taking into consideration) the price of land, and the water rights, basically the numbers don’t add up to provide concrete gains for people on the ground.

ANURADHA MITTAL: I was in Zambia in February where the government is launching a farm block scheme that is being touted as a scheme to end poverty and bring economic development. In a meeting with a very high official in the ministry of agriculture, I asked what the purpose of the scheme was and he said, ‘Economic upliftment and poverty alleviation.’ And I asked, ‘How do you plan to do that? Are you asking investors for a lot of money for the land?’ And he said, ‘No, you have to put in $5,000 for putting in your tender; the land is really cheap.’ So I asked him, ‘Are you asking to put in infrastructure?’ ‘Oh, no, the government is putting in the necessary infrastructure.’ ‘OK, are you asking for a specific number of jobs that need to be created by these investors so we know that livelihood expansion happens?’ And he said, ‘No you can put in some general language around employment creation. We don’t ask for hard numbers’. So I asked him, ‘Will you help me understand how you will meet this objective of poverty alleviation and economic upliftment of the country when you are not asking investors for anything.’ And he comes close to me, smiles and says, ‘You and I both know that there is no such thing as a good foreign investor.’

FREDERIC MOUSSEAU: Malybia in Mali took over 100,000 hectares of land. They say they will provide jobs for a thousand people. Research has showed that when using irrigation in this region of Mali, two hectares of land are enough to provide for a family that depends on agriculture for their livelihood. So if it is 100,000 hectares it means 50,000 families, and if you count at least four or five people in a family, you can do the math. How many people can be sustained? And we know over and over again from UNEP and other UN agencies that the way to improve food security for Africa is through smallholder agriculture. If the kind of support and investments that are being provided to foreign investors was provided to African farmers, we would have a very different Africa.

We also know that industrial agriculture is responsible for anywhere between 16 to 30 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions. And instead of dealing with climate change what we are doing is rushing to Africa to set up the same huge industrial style agriculture.

And in some cases, like in Mozambique and Zambia there is funding from UNFCC to ostensibly combat climate change because the projects are for biofuels.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: What does your experience with the reaction to the launch of the report tell us about strategies needed to confront the Great Land Grab?
What actions would you recommend that farmers and peasants in Africa take in the light of your findings? And what kind of actions would you want of the readership of Pambazuka News?

ANURADHA MITTAL: Communities on the ground who are being impacted by these land grabs have been fighting back in ways they can. In some places they can be very vocal in other places they cannot. The Oakland Institute took on the task of getting this information out because we believe information is knowledge and knowledge is power. What is evident however is that this issue confronts all civil society groups working on climate change, water issues, land rights, hunger, GMOs,etc. We can no longer stay focused on one single issue without working on the larger political environment.

FREDERIC MOUSSEAU: Our partners amidst the Ethiopian diaspora, in Sierra Leone, Mali, Tanzania, and other countries are taking on the biggest challenges, taking on their local and national leaders. It is important for the international civil society to push and support those national mobilisations. National groups in these countries are demanding public hearings, moratoriums on these deals. And internationally we need to be backing and supporting those efforts.

JEFF FURMAN: And we need to determine where our pension funds and university endowments, sovereign wealth funds invest. These cannot be guided by merely high returns; it has to be about quality of life, and livelihoods of people. This has to be about not once again colonisers rushing in to Africa to colonise at the expense of the people and environment of Africa. We simply must say we cannot invest in schemes like this that are promising 25 to 40 per cent returns. Student groups, faculty organisations, pension funds should be saying, no way! (full long text).

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