Land Grabs – Another Scramble for Africa

By Ama Biney

How is it possible that in the 21st century the world has the capacity to feed every single human being on the planet, yet the majority of people in Africa and the rest of the Global South, who are poor – whilst obesity soars in the West – go rampantly hungry? In addition, why has there been a recent ‘land grab’ in Africa by rich countries?

The short answer to the first question lies in the unequal distribution and control of global wealth and its ownership, which lies in a few hands. The answer to the second question is tied to the first and is the focus of this article.

The recent haste i.e. within the last 12 months, to buy land in Africa, has its origins in a number of factors related to global food security concerns, particularly the increase in world grain prices between 2007-2008 which led to food riots in over 20 countries around the world, including Haiti, Senegal, Yemen, Egypt and Cameroon.

Contributing to this state of affairs has been the volatility of food prices in the international market and speculation on future food prices. The food growing nations imposed tariffs on staple crops to minimise the amounts that left their countries. The consequences of this were that it escalated the situation further.

For the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar (which control 45 per cent of the world’s oil), they are finding that they can no longer rely on regional and global markets to feed their populations. They have rushed to grab land in Africa and are the pioneers of this agri-colonialism to secure food supplies for their own populations. The geopolitical ramifications of this is that food is likely to become the next coveted commodity like oil.

Other factors include failure to deal with environmental trends such as climate change, which has led to water shortages and drought in several places around the world. The impact of drought in places such as the Rift Valley for the Masai people in Kenya and Punjabi farmers in Pakistan has been totally disastrous.

In short, these global developments have led countries such as China, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which are short of arable land, to seek agricultural investments in Africa. They are joined by Malaysia, Qatar, Bahrain, India, Sweden, Libya, Brazil, Russia and the Ukraine.

As the world’s population is projected to grow from 6 billion to 9 billion by 2050, the capacity of the world to produce as much abundantly as it has done is beginning to be squeezed. The world must change how food is produced, how much is eaten in the richer parts of the globe, and slow down its negative impact on the environment. Otherwise the crisis in food security because of a rising demand will be catastrophic in years to come, as food production fails to keep pace with rising demand. It appears for countries like Saudi Arabia that can no longer feed their own populations, they are aggressively seeking to do this by buying land in other countries.

In the last 4 months a spate of articles in the Western media, with headlines such as: ‘The food rush: Rising Demand in China and West Sparks African Land Grab’,[1] ‘The World Wide Land Grab’,[2] and ‘Africa Investment Sparks Land Grab Fear'[3] – have given publicity to this emerging trend. Setting aside the sensationalist headlines, the trend is a profoundly disturbing one for the political and economic implications it suggests.

The cause for alarm among Africans is justified when the trend is being dubbed a ‘neo-colonial system’ by the head of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), Jacques Diouf. The deputy director of the FAO, David Hallam, claims: ‘This could be a win-win situation or it could be a sort of neo-colonialism with disastrous consequences for some of the countries involved. There is a danger that host countries, particularly the more politically sensitive and food-insecure, will lose control over their own food supplies when they need it most.’


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