Andreas Späth

Another scramble for Africa

2011-08-31 07:13

Much of the developed world’s current wealth – or at least the basis for it – was acquired more or less fraudulently during the age of colonialism.

Today, many developing countries, especially in Africa, are once again the target of an extensive land grab, but while the motivations in the past revolved mostly around empire building and financial greed, the driving forces are now increasingly ecological.

Dependent on economies that require never-ending expansion, countries around the world are coming up against the natural limits to growth which are inherent to a planet endowed with limited quantities of non-renewable resources.

Of course Africa’s mineral wealth is still in high demand, as are its cash crops from coffee to cut flowers, but more and more commonly, foreign interests are eyeing the continent’s fertile agricultural land and its water, natural resources that are becoming more precious globally as a result of environmental degradation, pollution and depletion.

Land to grow food

It’s been estimated that in the last decade as much as 60 million hectares of African land has been either bought or leased by foreign companies or governments. That’s an area the size of Spain and Portugal combined.

The search for arable land and water to irrigate it is spearheaded by nations whose long-term food and water security is under threat.

In 2009 for instance, Saudi Arabian investors are reported to have spent about $100 million to grow rice, wheat and barley on land leased to them by the Ethiopian government. They paid minimal tax and were allowed to export their entire crop. This in a country that, between 2007 and 2011, depended on over 200 000 tonnes of international food aid to feed 4 to 5 million of its hungry and malnourished citizens.
Other water- and food-stressed countries leasing African land include Bahrain, Kuwait, India, South Korea and even fellow African states like Libya and Egypt.

Rising food prices have made agricultural land in developing countries an attractive investment option for hedge funds, commodity traders and investment bankers to an extend described in a recent report by the Oakland Institute, a US think tank, as “creating insecurity in the global food system that could be a much bigger threat than terrorism”. The authors claim that “the same financial firms that drove us into a global recession by inflating the real estate bubble through risky financial manoeuvres are now doing the same with the world’s food supply”.

… and fuel

Another reason for the renewed African land grab is the growing global demand for biofuels. In 2010, at least 11 million hectares of land in African countries from Cameroon and Ghana to Mozambique, was acquired by foreign companies to grow jatropha and palm oil for biodiesel production and sugar cane and maize to make bioethanol. China alone secured rights to grow palm oil on millions of hectares of land in the DRC.

Meagre returns

When defending large land deals, African governments frequently cite the hope that they will revitalise their own ailing agricultural sectors through modernisation, improved productivity, job creation and technology transfers, but critics claim that the arrangements seldom deliver on their promises and frequently trigger social and environmental problems instead.

And that’s no surprise.

The deals are often secretive, open to corruption and favourable to the investors, involving major tax concessions, very long-term leases and rental charges from as little as $2 per hectare.

Devastating consequences

Large government-to-government or commercial land deals often conflict directly with African countries’ supposed land reform policies, displacing small farmers, depriving inhabitants of access to land and water, and increasing local food insecurity.

They also contribute to environmental degradation and destruction of indigenous forests and wildlife habitats which are replaced by large industrial mono-crop plantations for the production of export crops.

This problem will not disappear until comparatively wealthy countries realise – or are made to realise – that their chosen economic path of relentless growth is unsustainable, even in the short term, and that they can not continue to outsource their hunger for increasingly scarce non-renewable natural resources without creating irreversible damage and injustice in Africa and the rest of the developing world.

We only have one planet and we’d better learn to live on it equitably without destroying it. And soon.

Andreas manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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