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

Discourses such as these ignore the inevitable tensions that arise: clear-cutting tropical forests to make way for palm oil plantations destroys carbon sinks; removing local farmers to make way for commercial plantations might enable efficient food production for global markets, while undermining the food security of local people. Often the presumed outcome is that African farmers will become wage workers on their own land, yet most assessments – including The World Bank’s 2011 report on “rising investor interest” in agriculture – have found that they are inevitably worse off as workers than as self-employed farmers. Yet there are emerging answers, coming from Africa’s farmers themselves.

Invest in Africa’s farmers, don’t take their land

Invest in African farmers rather than give away their land, argued Alangeh Romanus Che, of the Regional Platform of Farmers’ Organisations of Central Africa, a network of membership-based farmers’ associations across 10 countries in Central Africa. “All farmers depend on land as their principal capital, any denial of this access will impact negatively on farmers,” said Che.

The international movement of peasants and family farmers, La Via Campesina (literally, ‘the peasant path’), has rejected efforts to clean up land grabs by creating good governance guidelines for the private sector to regulate itself. And African farmers’ organisations from across West, East and Southern Africa are now mobilising around an alternative vision for the future, not of corporate-dominated industrial agriculture, but family farming feeding Africa and the world.

Central to their programme are two inter-related concepts. Land sovereignty means that development should not be based on dispossession but on securing the rights of communities to their land, water and forests, and to supporting their types of farming methods, including low-cost agroecological farming. Food sovereignty means privileging the local, ensuring the farm and trade policies support local and regional markets, and limit the access and control over resources by corporations. In these ways, they argue, investment in African farmers – rather than investment that dispossesses them – can produce ample, healthy and safe food.

From ‘land grabs’ to ‘responsible agricultural investment’

These arguments reflect the ongoing battle over how to define and ensure responsible agricultural investment. Last November, the Committee on World Food Security presented its zero draft for discussion at an Africa-wide consultation held in Johannesburg – and the response was telling.

African farmer organisations insisted that transparency is just a starting point; any responses must grapple with the substantive question of what kind of changes are being brought about, in land use, in social relations, in wealth distribution. Following years of chronic neglect, African agriculture clearly is in desperate need of investment. Farming continues in the face of official neglect, poor infrastructure, farm subsidies in Europe and North America, and competition with these cheap imports in local markets. What is needed for a turnaround in African agriculture must start with reconsidering the slashing of subsidies, agricultural deregulation and trade liberalisation that constituted the policy formula foisted on many African states over the past three decades.

Responsible investment frameworks tend to wrongly assume that investments are necessarily external, private and land-based. Other possibilities include public as well as private investments in infrastructure, goods and services to enable farmers to commercialise and scale up production, access cheap and appropriate inputs, improve their productivity, add value to their products, access better markets, and fetch better prices for improved quality products.

As observed by Ambassador Mary Mubi of Zimbabwe, permanent representative to the Committee on World Food Security, at the Africa consultation: “Women provide most investment in food production in Africa. It is smallholder farmers who are the biggest investors. When we talk about investors, too often we think of a man coming off a plane with a briefcase – we need to rethink this. Most people in the world are fed by smallholder farmers, and they are women.”

The challenge remains to develop concrete alternative development programmes that confirm land and other resource rights in the hands of local farming families and invest in them.

Dr Ruth Hall is an associate professor at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa.

This article was first published by the European Centre for Development Policy Management