Land – Myth and reality

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Those who want to lay their hands on land cover-up their real intentions with myths. These are some of the misleading arguments used to justify land grabbing.

There is much unused or underused land in Africa.When you look down from a plane, you might think there is plenty of uncultivated land. On the ground, when you look at what is happening with that land, you realize that nomadic people graze cattle, local people gather firewood and medical herbs, and poor soils need to lie fallow for several years to regain their fertility. Moreover, investors are not interested in poor land; they want the best land – which is usually the home of local people.

Agricultural investment is a contribution to development. The question is: development for whom? Land investments are likely to increase the profits of investors; they certainly will not improve living standards of local people who lose their livelihood.

Agriculture has been sorely neglected in the past decades. Investments are badly needed. True enough, African governments, the World Bank, and development agencies have neglected agriculture in the past decades. The question is the type of agriculture promoted by dossier3dsuch investments. Is it that of the 2.6 billion people working on small scale farms that produce most of the global food, or is it the large-scale industrialized type of agriculture that depends on fossil-based fertilizers and pesticides and might not be sustainable in the long run?

Investments will create jobs. The promise of jobs is a most attractive argument for African politicians who want to show their voters that they are doing something for them. Yet, industrial farmers use big machinery and employ only a few people and these are often poorly paid.

Jatropha grows on poor soils that cannot be used for food production. The highly praised miracle plant Jatropha, whose seed can be used to produce diesel. It grows on poor soils but does not yield enough to make the operation commercially viable. Companies investing in Jatropha want good land, which is consequently no longer available for food production. The arguments of those who defend land transfers to investors often do not hold up to scrutiny.

dossier3bThe reality. The poor and the young pay the price

What happens in reality? Land-deals very often involve bribery. Negotiations with investors are kept secret, as are the contracts. Nobody really knows how much land has been sold or leased under what conditions. Parliaments never discuss the transfers even when large parts of the country are handed over, as in Liberia where 6% of the land is now in the hands of foreign companies. The local communities whose land is taken away are rarely consulted or often cheated with false promises to give their consent. They have no way to claim compensation as they have no land titles. The way people are deprived of their traditional land rights with legal tricks is a grave injustice that cries out to heaven.
Land grabbing is also an injustice towards future generations. In some countries, there may still be some spare land today. However, governments do not seem to consider long-term perspectives. The population in most African countries doubles every 20-25 years. By 2025, the continent’s population is estimated to jump from one billion to two billion people. Where will they find land to live on if the best land has been leased for the next 99 years?


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