Land for a bottle of whisky? Rethinking land grab in Africa

Unregulated land purchases by foreign investors are forcing millions of African smallholder farmers off their land in order to make room for export commodities such as cut flowers and biofuels.

A series of investigative reports published by the US-based Oakland Institute says that these investments are increasing price volatility and supply insecurity in the global food system. Titled Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa, the reports examine the impact of “land grabs” in a number of African countries, including Tanzania, South Sudan, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Mali and Sierra Leone.

Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute, said that the land purchases are “resulting in the displacement of small farmers, environmental devastation, water loss and further political instability such as the food riots that preceded the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions”.

Mittal noted that the Oakland Institute’s research exposed investors who admitted that it is easy to seal a land deal in Africa. “They could usually get what they want in exchange for giving a poor, tribal chief a bottle of Johnnie Walker. When these investors promise progress and jobs to local chiefs, it sounds great – but they don’t deliver, which means no progress and relocating people from their homes,” she said.

Obang Metho, of the Solidarity Movement for New Ethiopia, commented that it is naive to think that investors are focused on feeding Africans, creating employment and boosting food supply. “These land grab agreements – many of which could be in place for 99 years – do not mean progress for local people and will not lead to food in their stomachs. These deals lead only to dollars in the pockets of corrupt leaders and foreign investors.”

According to the Oakland Institute, in 2009 alone almost 60 million hectares of land in Africa was purchased or leased in land grabs. “Most of these deals are characterised by a lack of transparency.”

“We have seen cases of speculators taking over agricultural land while small farmers, viewed as ‘squatters’ are forcibly removed with no compensation,” noted Frederic Mousseau, policy director at the Oakland Institute. He added that the majority of Africa’s poor rely on small farms for their livelihoods and that speculators are seizing their land “promising progress that never happens”.