Africa For Sale

By: 
Steve Fisher

Land and Water Grabs Spell Disaster for Rural People and Rivers

Millions in Ethiopia have been affected by an ongoing drought, yet the government is practically giving away arable land to outside investors.
Millions in Ethiopia have been affected by an ongoing drought, yet the government is practically giving away arable land to outside investors.
Kimberly Flowers/USAID

The Horn of Africa has been in the headlines for months now as famine and starvation spread across the drought-ravaged region. Yet this troubled province is simultaneously seeing a dramatic transfer of arable lands to foreign investors intent on exporting staples and biofuels.

The Horn is only the most shocking example of a growing and controversial phenomenon known as “land grabbing.” The World Bank estimates that, in 2009 alone, nearly 60 million hectares of land were purchased or leased in developing nations all over the world – an area the size of France.

An exhaustive report on land transfers by the California-based Oakland Institute (OI) reveals that Japan has secured 100,000 hectares in Brazil to plant soybeans, Indonesia allocated 10,000 hectares to a South Korean company for maize, and the United Arab Emirates is leasing 400,000 hectares in the Philippines to plant vegetables and other crops. Pakistan, Laos, Russia, and Liberia are all in various stages of accepting similar foreign investments. The epicenter, though, is in Africa, where an estimated 70% of land transfers to foreign investors have taken place. The phenomenon has major implications for another scarce resource: water.

Anuradha Mittal, founder of the Oakland Institute, coordinated a team of OI staff, researchers from several continents, and partner groups in Africa to get to the heart of the troubling trend. The group's groundbreaking report on African land grabs, which took more than two years to complete, is now garnering international media attention. Says Mittal, "The land grab phenomenon is being done in the name of modernizing agriculture and expanding African economies, but it cuts out the core natural resources that support African livelihoods for the majority – land and water. This huge transfer of natural wealth to outside investors is eroding food security, water security and cultural integrity for local people.”

Governments in countries such as Ethiopia, Mozambique, Mali, Sierra Leone and Sudan are successfully attracting agricultural investment, with particular interest in the sediment-rich valleys through which the continent’s most vital rivers flow. All told, the OI report explains, approximately 50 million hectares have already been leased to foreign entities in Africa, with a total of 20 countries in various stages of investment. As a result, the export of staples to food-secure countries is increasing even as much of the continent experiences increasing food scarcity. Many communities and environmental organizations are concerned about the impact to water resources these large land deals will bring.

Land grabs are often connected with a dramatic increase in irrigation and large dams. Many are concerned that the increased diversion of water from major rivers will have severe consequences for local communities, downstream populations and the environment. Researcher Devlin Kuyek, who is working with the European group GRAIN, reports that one Saudi company, AgroGlobe, is in the process of buying nearly 700,000 hectares of irrigated land in Mali and plans to grow rice for export. The project will include irrigation canals (including one 40 km in length) and other water supply systems as part of their contract. Kuyek explains that most leases indicate that companies can use as much water as they deem necessary with very little oversight. He notes that due to a lack of an environmental assessment, it is difficult to understand the local impacts of the lack of water regulation, but that the “projects would undoubtedly have an impact.”

Water impacts

Water and food scarcity are already major problems in East Africa. Land grabbing is essentially exporting these scarce natural resources to other countries.
Water and food scarcity are already major problems in East Africa. Land grabbing is essentially exporting these scarce natural resources to other countries.
Ikal Angelei

It’s not just the huge geographic scope that is of concern – these massive land transfers are also remaking the local landscape in many places. GRAIN’s Kuyek explained that in the Malibya land deal in Mali, an irrigation canal was dug directly through villages to reach the 100,000 hectares of leased land by a subsidiary company of Muammar Gadhafi. He says that graves were desecrated and houses destroyed to make way for the canal that is “200 meters wide in some places – it’s almost a river in and of itself.” Kuyek said many villagers were often not aware of the evictions until a company representative arrived to mark buildings slated for removal. Bulldozers arrive, often razing entire villages to make way for industrial-scale agribusinesses.

Groups are also looking into the broader ecological implications of the land deals. Says GRAIN researcher Henk Hobbelink, “On the Nile River alone, we know of a million hectares of new irrigation in the Ethiopian Gambela region, over three million hectares of new land deals across the border in Sudan, and other Nile countries offering land for sale. All this land will be put under irrigation. What are the ecological implications from this massive increase of water use for the Nile? We are concerned about an increase in salinization of farmland in the Nile Delta and further upstream.” The accumulation of salts in soil that are heavily irrigated is already a huge problem in the Nile Delta, and is considered a major threat to food production in Egypt.

Referring to land deals in Ethiopia’s South Omo valley, OI policy director Frederic Mousseau said these large land deals benefit investors and business interests who have other options for where to put their money, but those who stand to lose from the projects are people “who rely on the waters of the Lower Omo River and Lake Turkana, in both Ethiopia and Kenya.” In all, Mousseau says that 500,000 agro-pastoralists stand to be affected by the land grabs in the Omo valley alone. “Ethiopian business interests involved in trade, transport and sugar industry will also obviously benefit from current development plans,” Mousseau notes, “One must question the motives of government officials who are driving such plans.” Mousseau confirmed reports that communities have not been informed or consulted regarding the land deals even as they are evicted from land they have farmed for generations. “We are not aware of any step taken to reasonably compensate for any loss of land, water, autonomy, and loss of tradition,” he says.

Anabela Lemos, the director of Justiça Ambiental (JA) in Mozambique, paints a similarly disturbing picture of how communities are being treated there. She explains that peasants “expect to benefit from these projects in some way” because corporations often promise “better jobs, schools, water boreholes and health services.” The reality is that these same companies “actually increase poverty by decreasing the amount of cultivable land and creating problems with water access.” In Mozambique, 2.6 million hectares have already transferred to investors, reports JA.

While implications for communities displaced by the land deals is severe, millions of users downstream will also be dramatically affected by changes to rivers impacted by the related irrigation projects. Conservative estimates of the impacts on rivers like the Omo and the Nile rivers from expanded irrigation in Ethiopia and the Niger in Mali show a dramatic reduction of water flow to neighboring countries. In addition, the unrestricted use of pesticides or herbicides on these large industrial farms has many environmental organizations concerned about the impact on rivers and communities that depend on them.

Food security is also an obvious problem that will grow with the emphasis on export crops. For example, in Madagascar, the South Korean firm Daewoo Logistics plans to buy a 99-year lease on over a million hectares for the production of 5m tonnes of corn a year by 2023, and to use another 120,000 hectares for the production of palm oil, according to Friends of the Earth. This deal, estimated to cost the company about $6bn over 25 years, is reportedly the biggest of its kind in the world. Says Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International, “The land to be parceled off to Daewoo Logistics covers arable land about half the size of Belgium. For a mostly arid country with three food crisis situations in five years, this is a huge challenge indeed.”

Case Study: Ethiopia

Ethiopia is a major “water tower” in Africa. It is home to the headwaters of many major rivers, and has huge untapped hydropower potential. In recent years the country has signed away a record amount of large land deals in close proximity to those rivers. OI reports that throughout Ethiopia, “3,619,509 hectares of land have been transferred to investors, although the actual number may be higher" even as the country remains one of the largest recipients of food aid and often experiences crippling drought. At the same time, Ethiopia is in the midst of a major dam-building boom.

Felix Horne, author of the special OI report on Ethiopia, explains that the country’s trade policies make it a “red carpet for industry.” For example, he says that when it comes to water regulation, land deal agreements have “almost nothing in terms of limits on use.” The OI report explains that there was no evidence of environmental impact assessments for these land conversions, and none of the communities visited were consulted regarding the purchase of land they farmed.

The controversial Gibe III Dam now under construction on the Omo River is just one of the nation’s new dams with an agricultural-development component as well as hydropower production. According to Survival International, “The government of Ethiopia has recently announced its intention to allocate some 245,000 hectares of land in the Lower Omo Valley to the Kuraz Sugar Project. Whatever benefits this project may generate for the national economy, it spells disaster for the 90,000 indigenous people who will lose their agricultural and grazing land to the sugar cane plantations.” Many more will be affected by the dam development itself. Horne says, “These communities rely on the rivers for everything: for fish, for cultural reasons, for recreation. Pastoralist groups fear that one day their way of life will only be a story they can tell their children.”

The Gibe III project has been denounced by the United Nations and the international community as one of Africa’s most destructive dams. Yet Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says the dam will “modernize” farming in the Omo valley, and that it will bring jobs to local pastoralists. Zenawi has vehemently defended the land deals, insisting that pastoralists need to modernize their way of life in order to improve their standard of living. The administration insists that the Gibe III Dam will permanently reduce flooding ignoring the reality that flood-recession farmers in the region depend on river flooding to replenish soils and water their crops. Pastoralists will be “the first beneficiaries in their area,” Zenawi states.

Not likely, says Survival International, which has been monitoring the resettlement of Omo Valley communities for the dam and the land leases. “Forced displacements elsewhere in Ethiopia have led to the impoverishment of those affected, and to increased tension between communities competing for the same limited resources,” Survival states. The group reports that resettlement onto small-scale irrigation schemes and loss of land to sugarcane plantations has already had disastrous consequences for the Afar and Karrayyu peoples in Ethiopia’s Awash Valley.

It is probably no coincidence that many of the countries purchasing agricultural land in Ethiopia are also working desperately to avoid water shortages at home. For example, India, one of the primary investors in Ethiopia, is quickly losing its underground water supply. According to a report by the BBC, water tables are said to be dropping 1.6 inches (4 cm) per year as a result of increased irrigation. Indian investors are reportedly paying around a dollar per hectare per year for Ethiopian land leases.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia has long imported much of its food and continues to decrease domestic production as the country scales down its wheat-growing program in the face of diminishing aquifers. The company Saudi Star is in the process of buying hundreds of thousands of hectares of agricultural land in Ethiopia. OI researcher Horne confirmed that Saudi Star has plans to build a 30 km canal channeling water from the Awero River. The report also says that the company plans to build a second dam on the river to increase irrigation for rice production. The OI report says there has been no EIA regarding either of these projects and is “broadly projected to limit local communities’ fishing and fresh water supply” along with unknown implications for people living downstream. As an article by EUFRIKA.org explained, in looking to Africa for food production Saudi Arabia is “securing the equivalent of hundreds of millions of gallons of scarce water a year.” Says Horne, “The export of food is the export of water.”

Civil society response

This increasing transfer of lands is stirring up a strong activist response as well. Groups around the world are beginning to monitor and campaign on the issue. In Mozambique, JA is working to stop further land grabs until stronger regulations are in place. Consequently JA reports that a deal by the agribusiness Procana to buy 12 million acres to plant fuel crop jatropha has already been stopped. The group also published an extensive report on jatropha land grabs; its recommendations include that the government train regional judges in community land law, as well as include affected communities in every aspect of negotiations and decisions.

Kuyek of GRAIN explained that understanding pressure points such as the sources of foreign investment is key in holding involved parties accountable. He says that where possible, GRAIN is actively working to inform affected communities of the potential risks of these land deals. The organization has also designated an entire website to global agricultural land grab news where one can find the latest information on this growing issue.

Survival International is urging donor governments that aid countries such as Ethiopia to leverage diplomatic pressure and discourage destructive land grabs. Survival has sent a letter to the UK Department of International Development requesting that it use its power as “the third largest donor to Ethiopia” to influence the country’s decisions regarding relocation of communities due to land grabs. In addition, the organization is lobbying major donors such as USAID, Germany and Italy to follow suit in Ethiopia. Survival is also pressuring individual companies to explain what measures they have taken to not “prejudice the rights of the indigenous people of the South Omo.”

Friends of the Earth International is beginning a campaign to support local communities in Africa affected by land grabs, in addition to supporting local organizations. They plan to create “community tool kits” consisting of a compilation of resources to help resist illegal eviction from their land. The organization also plans to draw up a list of “international demands for regulation and information” of the African land deals.

The Oakland Institute is in the process of rolling out reports of seven African countries in the midst of the land grab struggle, the latest in their multi-part effort to build a comprehensive case against these developments across the continent. A special report on the implications for water supply will be part of the package.

The African Development Bank will host a conference in early October to discuss the growing trend of land deals and how to continue in “an environmentally and socially responsible manner.” Yet many activists believe that industrial agriculture is a fatally flawed approach for ensuring global food security.

The veneer of “corporate social responsibility” is also wearing thin as the number of communities losing access to their land and rivers increases. Meanwhile the trend of international industrial agriculture’s role in land grabbing is the target of growing attention from mainstream media, local farmers and communities, environmentalists and human rights groups. As the phenomenon of land grabbing gains momentum in Africa, so, too, does the awareness of its risks, and the resistance against it.

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