When Africa’s “land rush” hurts local people and the environment

A report by the Center for International Cooperation in Agricultural Research for Development published on Monday said the vast majority of land investments in Africa do not adequately take into account the local population. A situation that also has negative consequences for the rest of the world.

The “land rush” in Africa continues to often harm local people and the environment. The vast majority of land investments on the continent show little or no compliance with a series of rules – called the “Voluntary Guidelines for the Responsible Governance of Land Tenure” – that are intended to protect people from the greed of international investors, according to a report by the Center for International Cooperation in Agricultural Research from for Development (CIRAD) on Monday, May 16th.

Of the 740 large land acquisitions (more than 200 hectares) analyzed since the early 2000s, the report’s authors found that 78% of the investments cared little about the interests of the local population, while 20% of these contracts did. that. Follow any of the rules.

“Lash on Earth” dates back to 2007

Perhaps this is just an incomplete picture of the situation on the continent as there are only 23 African countries involved in this report. Countries such as Egypt, the Maghreb countries, Angola, and even Niger are in fact excluded from CIRAD’s conclusions, due to a lack of pathological data. “There is blanket ambiguity at all levels. Whether it’s a lack of transparency from governments, the companies buying this land, or even the land registry,” summarizes Ward Ansio, development economist at CIRAD and co-author of the report.

Among the countries for which sufficient data is available, Mauritania and Sudan were the worst performers in the ‘land rush’. They only implemented less than 15% of the rules supposedly preventing plunder or land grabs. At the other end of the spectrum, there are only three countries – Gabon, South Africa and Zambia – where investments meet more than 50% of the criteria used in the report to judge compliance with the famous “voluntary guidelines”.

To understand these issues, we have to go back to 2007-2008 when the last big rise in food prices occurred. Rising prices have fueled the appetite of international investors for land around the world to grow the most sought-after crops.

At the time, this “land rush” was carried out with little or no regard for the local population, with an increase in expropriations.

The Voluntary Guidelines for the Responsible Governance of Land Tenure, adopted by the Committee on Food Security in 2012 within the framework of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), was supposed to be a response from the international community to this matter. Practical to dominate the Earth, especially in developing countries.

“That was ten years ago, this exact month,” Ward Ancio says. And the CIRAD report – which is based on data collected by the international Land Matrix Initiative on all the world’s major land acquisitions – serves as a sort of assessment for Africa for this attempt to cool investor enthusiasm.

It is not glorious. Ward Ancio sums up, “There is an improvement in the legal framework, but there are still efforts to be made in enforcing the rules.”

Promises without a future?

The locals toast again and again. First, because they are still often excluded from negotiations about the future of the land on which they live and which often feeds them. Individuals who find themselves confronted with investors are often still unaware of the protection afforded by custom or law.

An area where countries such as Mauritania, Sudan or the Democratic Republic of the Congo obtained zero data from the Earth Matrix. The locals there could be confiscated without a say.

Jeremy Burgoyne, geographer at CIRAD asserts: “We often find ourselves in contexts of enclaves of private property that not only deny residents access to resources, but are also a form of violence for individuals who have long viewed land as a public good.” He co-authored the report.

These reclaimed lands are often devoted to monoculture – grain, wheat or oil palm for example – while there was once a greater variety. In other words, a small farm can indirectly support several families, while this is no longer the case with large estates.

Yet investors or governments have often promised mountains, wonders, schools, infrastructure, and jobs. But rarely have the consequences been so magical. Jeremy Burgoyne sums up “there is often job extortion, but in fact we recognize that the new jobs created for agricultural workers are precarious, and do not make up for the loss of land.” Except for a few agreements in Gabon [dans le domaine forestier, NDLR]However, these large acquisitions failed to improve local development. In fact, none of the projects analyzed had at least one negative impact,” the report’s authors wrote.

Also dangerous for the climate

In the context of China’s rise in economic power in Africa, Beijing is often presented as the prime suspect in this doubling down of land investments. However, “we can’t say that the Chinese are buying everything. There are more American and European companies that do more than the Chinese,” Ward Ansio asserts. However, the nationality of a certain number of investors is still unknown because several tax havens – Cyprus, Singapore and the British Virgin Islands – appear in the top 10 places where buyers are registered.

This African “land rush” without adequate safeguards is not just bad news for the locals. Jeremy Burgoyne stresses that the conversion of acquired land is also a massive accelerator of “deforestation and pressure on natural resources”.

The same authors, in an earlier report from 2021 devoted to the “Toll of the Global Land Rush,” already highlighted “the risks associated with large-scale land acquisitions, including the emergence of zoonoses. [en empiétant sur l’habitat naturel d’animaux, le risque de transmission d’une maladie animale à l’homme augmente, NDLR] and diminishing water resources.

The African continent is, in this respect, an example of a certain hypocrisy of developed countries. They say they are determined to fight global warming, but let their companies destroy ecologically important ecosystems – such as forests – for profit.

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