Is Africa’s land up for grabs?

With land apparently in abundance, but money not, the offer by foreign investors to develop agricultural land appears very attractive. But with much of the land not as unused as it might seem and with actual returns on agricultural investment far lower than presented in initial feasibility studies, the political and economic reality for African governments can be very sobering.

“Governments are sitting on a box of dynamite,” Namanga Ngongi, former president of AGRA, initiated by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, told the media.

Towards a strategic approach

Recent assessments by IIED, FAO, the World Bank and the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) all confirm the shortcomings and potential dangers. These include the risks of undermining domestic efforts to increase food production, the danger that agricultural projects aimed exclusively at foreign markets may do little to stimulate domestic economic activities, and the potential loss of land rights for local farmers.

Many of the studies also point to possible benefits for a sector strapped for cash. These include the creation of jobs, the introduction of new technologies, improvements in the quality of agricultural production and opportunities to develop higher-value agricultural processing activities. There might even be “an increase in food supplies for the domestic market and for export”, the FAO says.

To reap the benefits of this new trend, says an IFPRI study, “Land grabbing” by foreign investors in developing countries: Risks and opportunities, governments need to develop the capacity to negotiate sound contracts and to exercise oversight. This can help create “a win-win scenario for both local communities and foreign investors”. The studies advise African governments to be strategic in their approach. In his report, De Schutter puts forward a number of recommendations to guide such land deals. These include: the free, prior and full participation and agreement of all local communities concerned – not just their leaders; the protection of the environment, based on thorough impact assessments that demonstrate a project’s sustainability; full transparency, with clear and enforceable obligations for investors, backed by specified sanctions and legislation, as necessary; and measures to protect human rights, labour rights, land rights and the right to food and development. Such comprehensive deals would be in the long-term interest of investors and local communities alike, IFPRI notes, pointing out that land disputes can become violent, and governments may quickly find themselves with no alternative but to change or rescind contractual arrangements.

Land rights

Land ownership is a core issue. Only a relatively small portion of land in Africa is subject to individual titling. Much land is community-owned, and in some countries state-owned. Even land that is officially categorised as un- or under-utilised may in fact be subject to complex patterns of “customary” usage. “Better systems to recognise land rights are urgently needed,” the FAO argues in a policy brief, From Land Grab to Win-Win.

The World Bank points to the importance of international bodies helping African governments develop land registry systems. The IIED study stresses that such schemes must allow for collective registration of community lands that protect “customary” land rights. De Schutter argues that internationally agreed-upon human rights instruments can be used to protect such rights, including those of livestock herders and indigenous forest dwellers.

According to the IIED study, the bulk of recent large-scale land acquisitions in Africa have been based on the leasing of land to foreign entities with the intent of using labour to work the land. The study argues the need for governments to include clauses ensuring the use of local labour in contracts for such schemes. “Agreements to lease or cede large areas of land in no circumstance should be allowed to trump the human rights obligations of the states concerned,” De Schutter argues.

Proposals for such ideal agreements, backed by necessary national legislation and enforcement principles, are being put forward. But, as the IIED study points out, there is already a large gulf between contractual provisions and their enforcement. The gap between the statute books and the reality on the ground may entail serious costs for local communities.

A code of conduct for host governments and foreign investors could help ensure that land deals are a “win-win” arrangement for investor and local communities alike, IFPRI suggests. It cites the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which binds participating governments and companies to certain standards in mining and oil activities, as one possible model for large-scale land deals.

De Schutter is sceptical that such a code can be negotiated or enforced. He instead emphasises the existing body of human rights laws, which can be applied to large-scale land acquisitions and used to get governments to meet their obligations to citizens.

Either way, experts agree that African governments must have the will and the ability to apply laws. “Strengthening the negotiation capacity is vital,” De Schutter argues. And that capacity cannot be of governments alone, he says. Local communities must also be empowered and national parliaments must be involved. Achieving that, many fear, may be the most difficult gap to bridge.

This article was first published by Africa Renewal