South2North, Redi Tlhabi debates the new scramble for Africa. Are land grabs an opportunity for Africa? We ask if land investments on the continent represent a solution to food insecurity or a new form of colonialism.
“It’s not long ago that Africa was perceived as a continent of famine and war. Now it’s being hailed as the answer to the world’s food shortages,” says Tlhabi at the start of the show, which is broadcast from Johannesburg. “Escalating energy and food prices have triggered a global scramble for Africa’s land and water resources. Eager to feed their growing populations, countries are buying up prime farmland in Africa at rock-bottom prices. Land eight times the size of the United Kingdom has already been bought up. Many see the investments as a great opportunity for Africa. Others call it a tragedy, saying local populations lose their livelihoods to make space for new land-owners.”
Tlhabi is joined by former Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano; Nigerian politician and Oxfam trustee Nkoyo Toyo; and Philippe Heilberg, a land investor from the United States.
Chissano says, “The scramble for Africa has never been good… But investment is welcomed if it is done in a win-win situation where the people benefit from this investment.”
Toyo adds, “We hear that at least 33 million square hectares of land… have been acquired in just less than 10 years.” She says that, with 60% of this land now being cultivated for export, these investments “are increasingly not addressing the needs of the continent.”
Heilberg argues that the statistics from the UN are highly distorted; he says that his own figures have been doubled in some accounts. While he admits that there have been some clear land grabs, he believes that in those African countries with small populations and large territories there can be win-win situations.
“Land is cheap in Africa, but there are many reasons why it’s cheap,” he says. “In many parts of the continent there is little to no infrastructure whatsoever… The frontier markets offer incredible risk-reward opportunities if you’re willing to take that risk, because when the growth happens it’s exponential. I like situations like that.“
He particularly targets post-conflict countries. “When they come out of conflict, they need investment; they need to build. And to me, those opportunities are phenomenal.”
Toyo warns that much of the new scramble for Africa has not benefited the local population. “We are seeing incidences of violence; we are seeing incidences of forced evictions; we are seeing incidences of homelessness, farm lands being taken away…”
She says one of the challenges is that many of the victims are not involved in the sale process in any way. “Most of the grabs that are going on, the owners don’t even know about them, so there isn’t even a basis for that conversation to happen. The negotiations are happening sometimes with powerful people in secret negotiations. These non-transparent processes are depriving people down the line.”
She calls for the The World Bank to pause its funding of land deals in Africa until governments have put the framework, rules, regulations and principles in place to guide these kinds of investments. “We are saying to them, ‘You need to put a moratorium on this whole process,’” she says.
Chissano says the governments have a key role to play. “The government is very much responsible,” he says. “They have to do their best to protect the people. In Mozambique, we don’t sell land. In Mozambique, we cannot buy land. We put it like this: ‘The land belongs to the people and it is managed by the state on their behalf.’ The challenge here is how do we make sustainable use of land?”
He points out that, while Mozambique currently only utilises about 20% of its arable land, “We have to think of the generations to come… We will need this land in 100 years time.”
He believes that government should put food security for their people first and also negotiate for the processing of food to remain in Africa.
But Heilberg warns there are limits to how far governments can push investors. “If you make the process onerous – and Africa is already a complicated place to do business – the investors won’t come.”
As they explore Africa’s transition from hopeless continent to investment darling of the world, the group discusses Africa’s history of food dependency, the role of NGOs on the continent, and the ability of small farm owners to expand their businesses and provide food for the continent.
Watch on South2North – Are land grabs an opportunity for Africa?
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Catch up on last week’s episode, where Redi discussed the right to health: