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Book Review – Land Grabbing

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When addressing the issue of land deals in Africa, numbers are all that seems to matter to the media. Higher figures mean bigger headlines, and longer reports: but are they accurate? And, most importantly, is the exact amount of land purchased the only relevant issue when talking about the so-called ‘land-grabbing’? In his book The great African land grab? Lorenzo Cotula – a researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development and a former consultant to the Food and Agriculture Organization – tries to answer such questions.

The question mark in the headline does not mean that Cotula is underestimating either the negative impact of the large land deals in Africa, or the relevance of the issue. He is well aware of the risks, as he shows in the first chapter, when writing: “There is still much uncertainty about what types of investments can benefit local people, but we have a clearer understanding of which investment models do not work”.  In order to make this clear, nevertheless, Cotula feels the need to go beyond the usual references made by the media: “A few years since the public spotlight turned on the land deals – he writes a few lines above – a vast and growing body of evidence has emerged that has improved our understanding of the phenomenon”.
The book mainly focuses on sub-Saharan Africa, drawing the most important evidences from four countries – Ghana, Mali, Mozambique and Tanzania – in which the author has carried out field research, and faces the issue of ‘land grabbing’ from many different points of view: chapter 2 deals with the historical roots of the “global land rush”, putting them in the context of the broader relationship between Africa and the rest of the world; chapter 3 details the figures and the reliability of the different datasets currently available, as well as the global and local players and stakeholders involved in the land deals; chapter 4 focuses on laws (both domestic and international) and contracts, while chapter 5 tries to analyze the actual social and economic consequences of ‘agricultural investments’ (as the majority of the deals are usually deemed) on the local communities.

Exposing some myths
The last pages of the book sum up the previous chapters by describing the whole process as a “commoditization” of land in Africa, which “has been going on for a very long time”, so that the current “land rush merely constitutes an acceleration of this process”. However, the ‘great land grab’ has its winners and its losers. In identifying them, Cotula challenges a very widely-believed (but simplistic) thesis. “The land rush – he points out – does not just involve a divide between global capitalists, who take the land, and undifferentiated communities, who lose it. The chasm between winners and losers cuts across those communities as well”.
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It is not the only cliché that the author debunks, drawing on the publicly available evidence and his own field research. Three remarkable examples are exposed in the third chapter and they concern, respectively: the oft-quoted sentence according to which “an area the size of Western Europe” has been acquired worldwide since the year 2000 (a figure that, for instance, does not take into account the difference between the publicly announced deals and the actual size of those implemented); the role of China as a land acquirer in Africa (which is relevant, but much smaller than usually thought); the share of foreign investors in the deals (actually, local nationals lead the rush).
Overall, The great African land grab succeeds in drawing a fair and detailed picture on the issue, even if the author himself underlines the limits of his work, mainly due to greatly varying statistics and the lack of information surrounding many deals (for example, just two African governments – Liberia and Ethiopia – have posted their contracts online). On the other hand, Cotula must be praised for focusing not only on the economic side of the matter, being both realistic (when he states that “some ongoing transformations” in this field “are largely organic and inevitable”), and constructive (when he suggests that the key issue is not the investment model – large scale versus small scale farming – but who controls the decision-making process). So, even if the datasets might be soon outdated, this book will keep its academic value, for it provides the categories and a much needed comprehensive framework for the ongoing debate. (D.M.)

Lorenzo Cotula, The Great African Land Grab? Agricultural Investments and the Global Food System, 2013, Zed Books, London, New York, 248 pp.

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