Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Are Foreigners Again Carving Up Africa?

Winds of Change, Seeds of Controversy 

John Tarleton reports on a new African land grab in the context of a push for planting genetically modified food crops that favors large agribusiness firms over small farmers.

Small farmers in Kenya and its African neighbors worry that the extra costs associated with using genetically modified crops will bury them in debt and force them to give up their land. If that happens, there will be many buyers ready to seize the opportunity.

The British food aid organization Oxfam reports that over the past decade 561 million acres of land in the Global South and the former Soviet Bloc have been sold, leased or licensed largely in Africa and to international investors. It’s an area larger than Alaska and Texas combined. The trend has accelerated since 2008 when food prices spiked around the world and Western investors fled from the U.S. property market.

Asian and Middle Eastern countries have bought up large tracts of land in Africa to ensure their future food supply. Western investors, meanwhile, are turning to Africa to boost biofuel production by planting vast swaths of sugar cane and palm oil. In many cases, investors see their taxes waived by host governments and are allowed to produce entirely for export. Examples of land grabs include:
  • China purchased 250,000 acres of agricultural land in Zimbabwe in 2008 and is investing $800 million in Mozambique to modernize rice production for export.
  • In 2008 Philippe Heilburg, a former commodities trader at AIG, leased 988,000 acres in the south of Sudan from a local warlord. Since South Sudan became its own country last year, Heilburg has leased another 740,000 acres. Heilburg’s goal is to convert the land into an agricultural plantation.
  • From 2006 to 2010, 22,000 Ugandans in the Kiboga and Mubende districts were violently displaced from their forest homes by local security forces after a British timber company acquired title to the land they had been farming for decades.
“The scale of the land deals being struck is shocking,” Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute told the (UK) Guardian. “The conversion of African small farms and forests into a natural-asset-based, high-return investment strategy can drive up food prices and increase the risks of climate change.”