Saturday, May 02, 2009


The scramble by people of the west to acquire farm land in Africa has been fingered as one of the causes of the lingering effects of ever-increasing food prices. This cannot be far from the truth considering the fact of the contingency measures that attend these projects from start to finish. While some countries are producing to feed the teeming hungry masses, others are seeking land for the production of biofuel crops. Whereas these intentions are laudable, there is no doubt some adverse effects are to be expected especially concerning the ‘donor countries.’
In a recent report published by the International Food Production Research Institute (IFPRI) titled “Lang Grabbing” by Foreign Investors in Developing Countries, other factors contributing to the ongoing food price crises since 2007 include increased pressures on natural resources, water scarcity, export restrictions imposed by major producers when food prices were high, and growing distrust in the functioning of regional and global markets which has in turn pushed countries short in land and water to find alternative means of producing food. The report also argues that these land acquisitions have the potential to inject much needed investment into agriculture and rural areas in poor developing countries, but they also raise concerns about the impacts on poor local people, who risk losing access to and control over land on which they depend.
The research identifies two major categories of the so-called ‘Land Grabbers.’ which are food-importing countries with land and water constraints but rich in capital, such as the Gulf States. The second group is countries with large populations and food security concerns such as China, South Korea, and India which are intensifying land acquisition overseas. Their targeted victims are naturally the developing economies where production costs are much lower and where there is abundant land.
Even as the issue is still being discussed, many developing countries have already swallowed the line, hook and sinker dangled by their would-be tenants. One only hopes that the Zimbabwean saga of chasing out authentic farmers should not repeat itself by the time it is realized how lucrative the business of farming can be especially when handled by experts with the advantages of advanced technology. History, they say, repeats itself because people refuse to learn from it. Methinks, one way we could avoid a reappearance of past ugly incidents is for the indigenous farmers to form co-operatives and enter into alliances with the foreign farmers which will afford them the opportunity of not only being co-partners in farm management but would over a period of time acquire the much needed technology that would make them truly independent in the long run. By so doing, they should be able to produce enough food for local consumption while the expatriates are concerned with producing for export.
Given that the food price crisis has increased competition for land and water resources for agriculture, it is not surprising that farmland prices have risen throughout the world in recent years. In 2007 alone, farmland prices jumped by 16 percent in Brazil, by 31 percent in Poland, and by 15 percent in the Midwestern United States. In many countries, developed water sources are almost fully utilized, but agricultural demand for water is expected to increase drastically in the future.
Curiously, of all the land deals already signed, Africa accounts for more than seventy percent spread between Zimbabwe, Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania and Nigeria; with less than ten percent involving Pakistan and the Philippines.
Because of the urgent need for greater development in rural areas and the fiscal inability of the developing-country governments to provide the necessary infusion of capital, large-scale land acquisitions can be seen as an opportunity for increased investment in agriculture. Proponents of such investments list possible benefits for the rural poor, including the creation of a potentially significant number of farm and off-farm jobs, development of rural infrastructure, and poverty-reducing improvements such as construction of schools and health posts. Other possible positive spillovers include resources for new agricultural technologies and practices as well as future global price stability and increased production of food crops that could supply local and national consumers in addition to overseas consumers. Though some of the land-lease agreements make provisions for investments in rural development, these deals may not be made on equal terms between the investors and local communities. The bargaining power in negotiating these agreements is on the side of the foreign firm, especially when its aspirations are supported by the host state or local elites. Smallholders who are being displaced from their land cannot effectively negotiate terms favorable to them when dealing with such powerful national and international actors, nor can they enforce agreements if the foreign investor fails to provide promised jobs or local facilities. Thus, unequal power relations in the land acquisition deals can put the livelihoods of the poor at risk. This inequality in bargaining power is exacerbated when the smallholders whose land is being acquired for foreign investment projects have no formal title to the land, but have been using it under customary tenure arrangements. Since the state often formally owns the land, the poor run the risk of being pushed off the plot in favor of the investor, without consultation or compensation. Land is an inherently political issue across the globe, with land reform and land rights issues often leading to violent conflict. The addition of another actor competing for this scarce and contested resource can add to socio-political instability in developing countries.
The ecological sustainability of land and water resources slated for foreign investment is another important issue when considering large-scale foreign investments. Introducing intensive agricultural production can threaten biodiversity, carbon stocks, and land and water resources. Converting forests or rangelands to monocropping reduces diversity in flora, fauna, and agro biodiversity, as well as aboveground and subsurface carbon stocks. Many tropical soils are unsuited for intensive cultivation (one reason for long-fallow cultivation cycles in many tropical areas that are considered “unused”), or there is insufficient water for intensive cultivation. Although fertilizer use and irrigation can overcome some of these limitations, these activities can lead to long-run sustainability problems such as salinity, water logging, or soil erosion if they are inappropriately designed. These problems are most likely to occur if the outside investors focus on short-term profit or lack a sound understanding of the local ecology. Irrigating the landholdings of foreign investors may take water away from other users in the area or from environmental flows, and intensive use of agrochemicals contributes to water-quality problems in groundwater and runoff. Foreign investors with short-term leases may have a short-term perspective on the sustainability of intensive agriculture and less identity with the area than local residents. Thus, it is important to conduct a careful environmental impact assessment that not only looks at effects on the local area, but also considers off-site impacts on soils, water, greenhouse gas emissions, and biodiversity. Land-lease contracts should also include safeguards to ensure that sustainable practices are employed.
The IFPRI report has not left us without some useful suggestion which, if properly adhered to, will eliminate the much-detested incidents that usually arise from transcontinental marriages of this nature. Among some of the suggested elements of a code of conduct include:
1. Transparency in negotiations. Existing local landholders must be informed and involved in negotiations over land deals. Free, prior, and informed consent is the standard to be upheld. Particular efforts are required to protect the rights of indigenous and other marginalized ethnic groups. The media and civil society can play a key role in making information available to the public.
2. Respect for existing land rights, including customary and common property rights. Those who lose land should be compensated and rehabilitated to an equivalent livelihood. The standards of the World Commission on Dams provide an example of such policies.
3. Sharing of benefits. The local community should benefit, not lose, from foreign investments in agriculture. Leases are preferable to lump-sum compensation because they provide an ongoing revenue stream when land is taken away for other uses. Contract farming or out-grower schemes are even better because they leave smallholders in control of their land but still deliver output to the outside investor. Explicit measures are needed for enforcement if agreed-upon investment or compensation is not forthcoming.
4. Environmental sustainability. Careful environmental impact assessment and monitoring are required to ensure sound and sustainable agricultural production practices that guard against depletion of soils, loss of critical biodiversity, increased greenhouse gas emissions, or significant diversion of water from other human or environmental uses.
5. Adherence to national trade policies. When national food security is at risk (for instance, in case of an acute drought), domestic supplies should have priority. Foreign investors should not have a right to export during an acute national food crisis.
Given the unrelenting level of corrupt practices in most if not all African countries, one can only expect that these investments will last but a few years before they get messed up in the quagmire.

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