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Farming and food in Africa and the battle over land, water and resource rights

Africa is being heralded as the new frontier for commercial farming but, as governments and investors sign deals, a counter movement of family farmers is promoting alternative pathways to development.

The International Year of Family Farming is now underway, and never before have family farmers in Africa been more under threat.

Large land deals between African governments and usually foreign (and sometimes domestic) investors have seen swathes of the countryside leased or conceded, often for as much as 50-99 years. From Senegal in West Africa to Ethiopia in the Horn, and down to Mozambique in the south, land considered idle and available has changed hands, with profound implications for local people and the environment.

With estimates ranging from 56m-227m hectares globally (with 60%-70% of this in Africa), what is clear is that what has taken place in the past five to 10 years is a rapid transformation of landholding and agricultural systems, not seen since the colonial period. Underpinning these deals is the longstanding failure of many African states to recognise, in law and practice, the customary land rights of existing farming households and communities, and the perpetuation of the colonial legal codes that centralise control over such lands in the hands of the central state, as trustee of all unregistered property.

It is not only African land and water that is now so desirable for international investors, but also growing African consumer market demand for food. In the face of growing urbanisation and consumer demand in Africa’s cities, the challenge is to scale up production and connect small farmers to markets, lest the benefits of rising consumer demand in Africa’s cities be netted by importers and foreign supermarkets.

The ‘land grab’ raises questions not only about land rights and transparency in investment, but also what constitutes inclusive agricultural development and how to bring it about. With growing urgency among development institutions globally to arrive at agreement on how to stop land grabs while still promoting investment, the stakes are high.

Replace the farmers?

At a recent meeting of the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa, parliamentarians and small-scale farmers from across this resource-rich region butted heads over what kind of investment was needed. The vice president of the Pan-African Parliament, Honourable Roger Nkodo Dang of Cameroon, presented an argument in favour of the industrialisation and commercialisation of agriculture:

“We really need to attract investments in the agricultural sector… It is very important for us to work to find the solution for food shortage that we have. Most African countries have an old-fashioned agriculture. The industrialisation of agriculture is very important. We need to have great areas of land to use agriculture. We see that when Africans do agriculture, it is not the type of agriculture that is bringing development. We have great, great areas of forests, and we need to work so that we can use those lands. How can we reconcile this development with the people who are in rural areas?”

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