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Friday, 4 September 2009

Land deals, 2nd Edition

An interesting article in the latest MS Zambia Newsletter on the question of land grabs. In parallel to lobbying government, it advocates greater CSO support for land titling as a viable measure to protect the vulnerable.

Land Grabs : A direct infringement on Land Rights, MS Zambia Newsletter, Michael Muleba, Commentary:

The international hunger for farmland is causing unrest around the world as farming has become a serious business with an estimated 800 million people going hungry by the end of 2008 (Robyn Joubert, 2009). Countries with surplus money are pushing to find land, water and good climate. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that about 3 billion hectares of additional land will be required to meet projected food demand in 2050 – and nearly all of this will be in developing countries. Africa, with only 14% or 184 million hectares of its arable land under cultivation, is a prime target for such land grabs. Angola, Mozambique, Tanzania, Madagascar, Sudan, Senegal and Zambia are all good examples of where foreigners have invested in these agricultural resources. Land grabbing is happening through various ways including: land purchases, long term leases, and large investments in existing farms as well as barter-type principles. Major drivers of current land grabs are the increasing global food insecurity, petrol dollars, agro-fuels and the current credit crunch. The people suffering from this land grab phenomena are the poor – therefore we need to protect them through communal land titles while pushing for sound land policies.

The hunger for foreign land

To feed the world we have to double global food output in 21 years, says Dr John Purchase, CEO of Agricultural Business Chamber – South Africa. Expanding food production at the same rate as demand will be difficult as global farm land is disappearing rapidly, making this target harder to achieve. About 50 million acres (over 20 million hectares) vanish each year to urbanization, population growth and economic and industrial development. In Iraq, 30% of farm land is expected to be lost through upriver damming in Turkey. Vietnam lost 1.2 million acres (485.623 ha) of farm land from 2001 to 2007 through developments including over 100 golf courses. In China and India many of the most fertile areas are being developed for roads and factories. “There is a new wave of investment in land by developed countries like the US and developing countries like China, as a result of the pressure to satiate the world’s energy and food requirements in the long term” says Dr Purchase.

Neocolonial land grabs

In October 2008, the global food security-focused NGO Gran issued a report citing over 100 examples of what are termed neocolonial land grabs. “Africa is the last region with potential for considerable horizontal expansion in terms of commercial agriculture”, says Dr Purchase. And Dr Mohammed Karaan, Dean of Faculty of Agri-sciences at Stellenboch University, points out that many countries have been pushed to invest in good natural resources, which are becoming increasingly scarce.

Dr Karaan says until now, the US has led foreign purchasing, although its forays were mostly into South America. “Japan is also active and to some extent, Taiwan. But China has probably taken the lead in terms of investing in foreign farm land because it has the most available cash. China is a giant in terms of consumption and it needs resources to feed itself.” The country has widespread interests in African continent as well as in Burma, Laos, Russia and Kazakhstan.

Petrol Dollars for land

Another investor that should not be ignored is the oil rich, water-poor Middle East, which has surplus cash and is looking to secure food supplies. Gulf Cooperation Council countries are expected to import 60% of their food by 2010, according to the FAO. Arab investors are increasingly attracted to Africa’s agriculture, construction and telecom sectors and are viewed by African states as a useful counterweight to China’s influence.

Sudan is already attracting its share of petrol dollars. United Arab Emirates has farms in several Sudanese provinces, growing wheat and maize. Oil producer Abu Dhabi announced plans in July 2008 to develop 70.000 acres (28.328 ha) of farm land to grow alfalfa for animal feed and possibly maize, beans and potatoes in Sudan.


The world is not only short of food, it’s also short of fuel. The World Bank development Report (2008) on agriculture states that over the last decades, the number of the poor in Africa doubled to 300 million, comprising more than 40 percent of the continent’s population. Yet the demand for agro-fuels seems to be insatiable, more global corporations are looking at Africa in a different way, not seeing the hungry, but rather, noticing the extensive land mass.

Africa is an obvious target for agro-fuel developers with its large land mass and relatively cheap labor. Fifteen African countries – nicknamed the Green Opec – have a combined arable land base larger than India available for agro-fuel crop production.
This has led to an expansion of agro-fuel and non-food oil plantations in developing countries. “There’s no doubt the need for oil and energy is another key driver of foreign land buying” says Dr Purchase. Europe for example, is establishing jatropha plantations in Mozambique and Zambia. The Mozambique government favors jatropha and the country has seen a rash of bio-fuel investment – seeing European Company Bio-diesel Africa build two refineries in that country.

Japan and the US are also very active, working their agro-fuel interest into various aid, trade and investment agreements with the African continent. Brazil has cut deals for ethanol imports and technology transfer with several African Countries including Senegal, Nigeria, Mozambique and Angola. China has secured a long-term deal for Nigerian cassava for its domestic ethanol distilleries.

China recently requested 2 million hectares for jatropha cultivation in Zambia, the biggest lease of land in a country which faces a food shortage following flooding and droughts. UK-based D1 Oils has planted more than 156.000 ha of jatropha in countries across Africa including Swaziland and Zambia as well as India and Southeast Asia. Germany’s Flora EcoPower is investing 77 million US$ in Ethiopia. Also, Swedish ethanol producer Sekab group plans to produce 100 million liters of ethanol a year in Tanzania by 2012. Also about to jump on board is British-based energy firm Cams Group, which last year bought 45.000 ha in Tanzania to produce 240 million liters of ethanol a year from sorghum. British firm Sun Biofuels also plan to grow jatropha in Tanzania to supplement yields from its other plantations in Ethiopia and Mozambique.

The fine print

The terms of these land deals vary according to requirements. Some involve land purchases, others long term leases, while some require large investments in existing farms. Others are based on barter-type principles. For example, in May 2008, the Libyan government gave Ukraine an oil and gas contract in exchange for 247.000 ha of Ukrainian land to produce its own food. Some East African countries, like Ethiopia, lure investors by leasing their arable land at minimal cost. The hope is that the resultant job creation, access to capital, agricultural know-how and investment in farming infrastructure will be compensation enough. But it does not always work that way. There are numerous examples of investors using the country’s land and water resources and bringing in outsiders to supply fertilizer, seed, specialized labor and tractors.

A few years ago Libya snatched up an offer to acquire control of 100.000 ha in the office du Niger, Mali’s main rice producing area. As part of the deal, Libya agreed to improve local infrastructure including enlarging canal and improving a road. But when it came to awarding these contracts and to finding a supplier of rice seeds, local firms were snubbed in favor of Chinese and Libyan ones.

Land grabs by foreign countries has become a serious issue in Africa. In one of the most controversial deals, South Daewoo recently acquired a 99-year lease on 1.3 million hectares of land in Madagascar to grow palm oil and maize. The agreement represented half the islands arable land and caused widespread anger, fuelling revolts which led to the death of 135 people and the downfall of President Marc Ravalomanana.
See Chart detailing the amount of land coveted by agro-fuel investors in African States (word doc)

Populations protest, but governments are in charge
The Seychelles recently cancelled a large new hotel development by an international investor which was zoned for 20 ha of prime agricultural land. This followed strong objection from local residents worried about food security. In Pakistan, small scale farmers protested in January 2009 against the government’s plans to invite foreign investors to establish large scale farms, cultivated with heavy machinery. Investors would be allowed to repatriate the all crop. Pakistan already suffers from a food shortage and imports wheat every year, and farmers fear foreign investors taking a share of the country’s production would worsen food security.

In the face of credit crunch, activities by many governments will drive many deals – Angola state media recently reported that Beijing has granted the country a US$ 1 billion agricultural loan. In February, the Chinese president went on a four-nation tour to cement ties with African countries. This month (July 2009), President Barrack Obama was in Ghana, proposing ‘Farm Aid’ for Africa – what does this mean especially on land issues; will we see more land deals?

The question for Zambia is, how are we going to manage and protect our land? What should be the role of the civil society in protecting the poor who are/will be loosing land to foreign investors?

The way forward

The land grabbing has become very sophisticated and the poor are bound to suffer. While we continue lobbying government for policy change, we need to sensitize and assist the poor access and legally own land.

The advertising that agro-fuels will assist small scale farmers is only accurate if decisions about the use of land remain decentralized within the country. The farmers can then decide how to plant xx kilometers of Jatropha tree fencing to produce oil for lamps or soap or bio-diesel for their own vehicles. But this scenario is not the one that global corporations are setting, theirs is the usurpation of huge tracts of African land for overseas consumption, and if they ruin the ecosystem, they will move on.
We therefore need to build the capacity of small scale farmers and their organizations to be part of the new agribusiness dispensation through direct investments as well as in partnership with foreign investors. We need to empower the rural communities’ access and communally own land through ‘Community land titles’ to protect them in the future land concessions.

FOSUP’s interventions in partnership with Nyimba District Farmers Association is about to provide titles to over 150 poor farmers in Mitilizi Resettlement Scheme through ‘Communal Land Title Acquisition Approach’. So far, meetings and agreements have been reached between FOSUP, Ministry of Lands, Department of Resettlement and Ministry of Agriculture.


  1. We therefore need to build the capacity of small scale farmers and their organizations to be part of the new agribusiness dispensation through direct investments as well as in partnership with foreign investors. We need to empower the rural communities’ access and communally own land through ‘Community land titles’ to protect them in the future land concessions.

    There is an interesting book (really a paper) by Ambreena Manji, The Politics Of Landreform In Africa.

    Her basic theme is that the IMF is interested in land title reform, not land redistribution, when it comes to 'land reform'.

    I have been saying all along that an African agriculture has to be in the hands of African farmers, and that present day subsistence farmers have to be helped to become smallscale commercial farmers. This is the most secure way to distribute income over the population, secure the food supply through decentralisation, and keep food production local.

    The average farm in the EU is 90 hectares (100 hectares is 1 square kilometer). That is the area of land that can be farmed by a single family with a few farmworkers, and give them a solid middle class income.

  2. MrK,

    You are quite right, and the pattern of jatropha cultivation advocated in the paper is the only one that is likely to produce good results for the majority of rural residents. Of course, if Zambian farmers are allocated significantly larger tracts of land for their exclusive use, then the government won't have millions of hectares available with which to woo the PRC and EU biofuels markets. That should be a safety valve to prevent domestic refining capacity shortfalls from triggering commodity price shocks, not the default starting point. The experience with large scale jatropha plantations has been environmentally disastrous in Indonesia, Myanmar, and elsewhere, especially because it is non-edible (even poisonous, so is petrol). Distributed raw material production as described in the paper can avoid problems associated with large plantations, if combined with distributed refining and equally distributed use by targeting early biodiesel production for agricultural purposes.

    There are also other fuelstocks which should be included in the energy strategy, like palm oil in high rainfall districts, and the very real prospects of microbial biotech to convert woody cellulose into fermentable sugars. Biodiesel is not Kariba, it doesn't have to all be in one place, or all derive from the same source, that is one of the advantages. There are several years still before fuelstocks will be ready for refining, so there really should be plenty of time for interested parties to obtain the necessary training to understand the refining process, and to access facilities such as the CEEC in order to capitalize their efforts into the SME's required to serve the agricultural sector.

    It can be done, if the will and efforts of ordinary Zambians are harnessed into mutually beneficial partnership with government to develop jatropha and biodiesel as an import substituting infant industry with national and food security implications. Or they can sell the land to China or whoever for some cash to pay this year's budget deficit, apparently the voter's don't much care which.

  3. Yakima,

    It can be done, if the will and efforts of ordinary Zambians are harnessed into mutually beneficial partnership with government to develop jatropha and biodiesel as an import substituting infant industry with national and food security implications.

    I don't know if you are familiar with the way the US government at Independence stimulated the growing of hemp.

    They allowed farmers to pay their taxes in hemp. Why not create commercial scale farmers, exempt them from any other income tax, if they pay their taxes in Jatropha?

    I would say - legalize hemp, because it could just as easily be used for biofuel, and takes only 2-3 months from seed to maturity, while jatropha trees need years before they become productive. Hemp growing would be much more flexible.

  4. MrK,

    On the industrial uses of hemp in the abstract I fully agree, it is an incredibly useful plant held in disrepute due to the psychoactive nature of its flowers (which can only be harvested by sacrificing the potential for seeds, thus varieties grown for oil have little or no pharmacological value). Unfortunately, with respect to relaxation of the US position on hemp criminalization the Obama administration is no different from its predecessors, making unilateral declarations of decriminalization difficult. Advocacy lobbies in the US have pounded away on this issue from both sides for decades to little effect, but if Zambia goes the Dutch route on its own in Africa, then it will be singled out for bad treatment from the right and attract the worse elements of the left for the wrong reasons. It is a lot of political capital to expend to gain access to a single crop, however useful it may be.

  5. Yakima,

    On the other hand, there is a big legalisation movement on the way in the US, which is getting more exposure. Also, President Obama is only in the first year of his presidency. A lot of things can still happen.

    The objections to decriminalizing flax/hemp are a lot weaker than objections to legalisation of sinsemilla/cannabis.

    It is impossible to argue against a green and sustainable alternative to fossile fuels.

    Also, hemp has been part of human history for thousands of years. There are at least 5 cities in the UK called "Hempstead" - meaning that these used to be prime locations for the production of hemp. The navies past centuries operated on hemp. Hemp was made illegal by pretending it was something else (a strange 'new' drug called 'marijuana'), otherwise, there would never have been a consensus for banning it in the first place.

    Having said that, cannabis is one of the least toxic substance known to man, it is less toxic than aspirin, and certainly less toxic than alcohol and kachasu (which is getting close to absinth in it's strength).

    So don't write off hemp as an industrical crop yet. :)

    Especially the dry regions of Zambia could easily improve soil fertility and provide income for a lot of the country. Let alone home made clothes and food (cannabis seeds are more nourishing than soy).


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