“One morning, in our village of Samana Dugu in Mali, some bulldozers appeared and started clearing the land. When we protested, the police came and began to beat us and many of us were arrested,” said Assame Sidibé, the community leader. “Our local politician arrived later and told us that a foreign company got the permission to clear the land. The company had just leased the land for 99 years… they promised jobs for all, a new school, and a new dispensary. No one asked us anything.”
The people in the village of Alipe in North Ghana were surprised when one day strangers arrived with heavy machinery and began to cut down part of their forest. “What is going on here?” they wondered. It did not take long to discover that their illiterate village chief had been duped with false promises into selling 38.000 hectares of community land to a Norwegian company without even consulting them.
Mebrete Tefere, who spent 20 years of his life as a ranger in Gambela National Park, said sadly, “More than 438,000 hectares of land have been leased in the vicinity of our park. Since the park boundaries are not set, lands that the local population consider part of the park were cleared by large-scale investors, including Karuturi and Saudi Star. Wetlands were altered and forests were cleared. In our recent surveys, we found that the Gambela National Park is home to 69 mammal species, valuable wetland habitat, hundreds of bird species, and 92 fish species.”
Alfred Brownell, of Green Advocates, from Liberia: “You don’t need guns to kill people. When you take food from a village by destroying farmlands and cash crops, you are starving its people ... This must stop. Our people deserve the right to survive. They shouldn't be denied their land.”
Land disputes and high tensions are daily occurrences all over Africa. The transfer of land ownership is nothing new. It happens throughout history, a great example was the colonial period. What is new in recent land acquisitions is the scale, the speed, and the number of actors involved.
The World Bank estimates that in 2009 over 45 million hectares of land were taken over by investors worldwide, most of it in Africa. Some examples from the African continent illustrate the trend and give an idea of the consequences.
With the unique wildlife of the Serengeti, Tanzania is an attractive target for tourists. Its seemingly empty spaces and relatively good climate also made it an Eldorado for investors looking for land. Among them was Bioshape, a company operating in the Netherlands and Belgium. It wanted to cash in on the European Biofuel regulations, which make a mix of 20% of renewable energy obligatory by 2020. Land and labour in Europe are expensive. Tanzania has plenty of both and it seemed the right place to plant the “miracle tree” Jatropha, turn its oily seeds into fuel, transport it to Europe, and generate electricity for some 45.000 households. Tanzanian villagers in the Kilwa District were persuaded to yield their land with the promise of compensation and jobs. However, plans did not work out.
The first trial plantation failed, investors withdrew, and in the end local farmers were left without land and without jobs. Tanzania does not top of the list of countries offering land to investors. The biggest country on the African continent, Sudan, also ranks first in terms of land acquisitions by foreign investors. Most come from other Islamic countries, particularly the Gulf States. Investors targeted Southern Sudan even before attaining independence. A recent study by the Norwegian People’s Aid estimates that about 9% of the country’s surface is under negotiation.
Ethiopia has aggressively and successfully attracted foreign investment in an attempt to modernise its agriculture. For many years, flowers grown in Ethiopia have been sold in Europe. Now the Saudi billionaire Sheikh Mohammed Al-Amoudi wants to invest 2.5 billion dollars to eventually produce 1.5 million metric tons of rice a year and employ 250.000 people. An Indian food processing company, Karuturi Global Ltd., rented 312.000 hectares of land to produce oil, sugar, and rice. The Government plans to lease 3 million hectares of land to foreign investors, an area about the size of Belgium.
Perhaps the most extraordinary land deal was struck by the Government of Congo-Brazzaville with the South African Farmers Union. It could eventually involve some 10 million hectares. What could interest South African farmers to move as far from home as Brazzaville?
Experts expect that South Africa is likely to suffer greatly from climate change whereas Central Africa has abundant rainfalls. On the horizon there looms the threat that white farmers will be evicted – Zimbabwe-style. Regular murders of white farmers create fear for the future and the desire to look for safer havens. South Africans are looking for land not only in the Congo, but in some 20 other countries as well. Some have dubbed it “the new great trek.” In the past decade, 2000 commercial farmers left and established themselves in Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Botswana, Malawi, Lesotho, Zambia, Swaziland, and even Georgia.
The list of African countries striking land deals with foreign governments and investors is long. Even countries with hardly any arable land, like Mauritania, have leased their most fertile lands to foreign companies. Investors have invaded West African countries like Senegal, Ghana, Cameroon, Benin, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This last country struck a barter deal with China: over 2.8 million hectares of forest for a palm-oil plantation in exchange for roads, railways, and construction work.