Millions Face Starvation Across Africa As Land Grab by Foreigners Intensifies

A report released recently by Oxfam says that poor people, particularly in Africa, are hardest hit by a new wave of land deals. The competition is intensifying, driving millions of people into the abyss of poverty.

This should serve as a warning to countries like Tanzania.The phenomenon of land grabbing currently affecting most countries in Africa has led to food insecurity and human rights violations.

In many African countries, local residents regularly lose out their land to the elites domestic or foreign investors because they lack the power to claim their rights effectively or to defend and advance their interests. This has been the bad side of large-scale land acquisition which is now gaining ground in countries like Tanzania, asserts Oxfam.

The situation calls for urgent steps to restore the people’s land rights as a way of addressing deepening poverty.

Titled ‘Land and Power, The growing scandal surrounding the new wave of investments in land’, the report says most of the land acquisitions in Tanzania, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali, Mozambique and Senegal have been used to grow crops for export commodities such as flowers and biofuels.

In Mozambique, where approximately 35 per cent of households are chronically food insecure, only 32,000 hectares out of the 433,000 approved for land deals between 2007 and 2009 were for food crops.

The recent record of investment in land presents a saddening story of rapidly increasingly pressure on land a natural resource upon which the food security of millions of people living in poverty depends.

Oxfam says too many investments have resulted in dispossession, deception, violation of human rights, and destruction of livelihoods. Without national and international measures to defend the rights of people living in poverty, this modern-day land-rush looks set to leave too many poor families worse off, often evicted from their land with little or no recourse to justice.

According to the report, in developing countries, as many as 227 million hectares of land-an area the size of Western Europe-has been sold or leased since 2001, mostly to international investors.

The bulk of these land acquisitions has taken place over the past two years, according to on-going research by the Land Matrix Partnership. The recent rise in land acquisitions can be explained by the 2007-08 food prices crisis, which led investors and governments to turn their attention towards agriculture after decades of neglect.

But this interest in land is not something that will pass; it is a trend with strong drivers. The land deals are very often intended to produce for foreign food and biofuel markets.

They can often rightly be called ‘land grabs’. The term land grab refers to land acquisitions which do one or more of the following: violate human rights, and particularly the equal rights of women; flout the principle of free, prior, and informed consent of the affected land users, particularly indigenous peoples; ignore the impacts on social, economic, and gender relations, and on the environment; avoid transparent contracts with clear and binding commitments on employment and benefit sharing; eschew democratic planning, independent oversight, and meaningful participation.

The report looked in detail at five land grabs in Uganda, Indonesia, Guatemala, Honduras and South Sudan.

It says some cases tell a story of the forced eviction, often violent, of over 20,000 people from their lands and their homes, and the destruction of their crops.

Others tell how affected communities have been undermined through exclusion from decisions affecting the land they rely on.”In most cases the legal rights of those affected by the land grab have not been respected. Where eviction has already taken place the picture is bleak: conflict and loss of food security, livelihoods, homes, and futures.

“Most of those affected have received little or no compensation and have struggled to piece their lives back together, often facing higher rents, few job opportunities, and risks to their health. The evidence is sadly consistent with many other recent studies on land grabbing,” reads the report.

Many governments and elite in developing countries are offering up large swathes of land and rock-bottom prices for large-scale mechanised farming.

This trend depicts a shocking departure from commitments made at the intergovernmental level-from L’Aquila Food Security Initiative to the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP)-which emphasized support for the crucial role of smallholder farmers, particularly women.

“Rather than gaining desperately needed support, smallholders farmers risk being undermined by the kind of land deals taking place in respective countries,” reads the report.Overall, the international community’s response to this devastating wave of land grabbing has been weak, it adds.

According to Oxfam, there is a general fear that this surge in large-scale acquisition of land for investment will do more harm than good if land grabbing is not stopped.

National governments have a duty to protect the rights and interests of local communities and land rights-holders, but most of them have failed to fulfil this key obligation and instead, governments seem to have aligned themselves with investors, welcoming them to low land prices and other incentives, and even helping to clear people from the their land.

In its recent report on land to the Committee on World Food Security, the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE/FSN) concluded:

“It is widely recognised that increased agricultural investment is needed to raise yields as a means to improve food security in many parts of the world. Can such international investment in land be a means to improve agricultural productivity and rural livelihoods?

Evidence from this land rush to date shows very few such cases. Rather, large-scale investment is damaging the food security, incomes, livelihoods, and environment for local people.”

The scale and speed at which the new pressure on land occur can be explained by the 2007-08 food prices crisis, which made investors and government turn to agriculture after decades of neglect, and the first signs of the global financial crisis, which led investors to look for new opportunities.

And the strong interest in land is projected to intensify, as an increase in demand is not likely to be met by the expansion of production in the area. One factor is world population, which is expected to grow from seven billion in 2011 to nine billion by 2050.

Another important determinant is the global economy, which is expected to triple in size by 2050, demanding ever more scarce natural and agricultural resources.Across the globe, diets are changing towards more land-intensive products, such as animal proteins (meat, dairy, eggs, and fish) and convenience foods.

Palm oil alone has become the world’s most consumed edible oil, and can be found in up to half of all packaged food and hygiene products on supermarket shelves. Production is expected to double by 2050, increasing the land area under cultivation worldwide to 24 million hectares – or six times the size of the Netherlands.

The huge increase in demand for food will need to be met by land resources that are under increasing pressure from climate change, water depletion, and other resource constraints, and squeezed by biofuel production, carbon sequestration and forest conservation, timber production, and non-food crops. Water, the lifeblood of agriculture, is already scarcer than land and a driver of land investments. Nearly three billion people live in areas where demand for water outstrips supply.

In 2000, 500 million people lived in countries that were chronically short of water; by 2050, the number will have risen to more than four billion. By 2030, demand for water is expected to have increased by 30 per cent.

Production of non-food agricultural products is also expanding, from traditional goods, such as textiles, timber, and paper, to modern products like biofuels and ‘bio-plastics’, in the face of climate change and the inevitable exhaustion of fossil fuels.

Mandates, such as the EU target of obtaining 10 per cent of transport fuels from renewable sources by 2020, mean that there is now major pressure on land for biofuel production, constituting a major cause of food price rises and food insecurity.

Land scarcity and volatility of food prices on the world market have led richer countries that are dependent on food imports to acquire large amounts of land elsewhere to produce food for their domestic needs.

While some investors might claim to have experience in agricultural production, many may only be purchasing land for speculative purposes, anticipating price increases in the coming years.