Saturday, 3 September 2011

Contemporary colonial carve-up???

It is becoming increasingly common for wealthy countries and corporations to acquire huge expanses of arable land in developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, for use in industrial agriculture. These multi-billion-dollar deals have led to many farmers and families being stripped of the land they have occupied for generations...... Does this echo the 'land grabs' of the colonial era and are there actually any benefits for the local people?

With many African nations already struggling to feed their own
population can they afford to lease out much of their limited
fertile land to other countries so that they can secure food supplies?
In what has been described by the top ranks of the UN as a new neocolonialist trend, land is now frequently changing hands between developing countries and buyers who range from national governments to huge food producers and speculators on the international stock exchanges. Instead of buying, or leasing, this land with the aim to preserve its environmental value the influential organisations appear to only be interested in turning these marginal lands into profit. Critics of this neo-colonialist trend are worried that it parallels the infamous 'scramble for Africa' by colonial powers during the late 19th century; with many of these land acquisitions coated with humanitarian considerations to shroud the fact that they are instigated by cash-rich resource-poor countries who are desperately seeking to secure reliable food supplies and reduce their dependency on the vulnerable global market. These 'land-grabs' seem popular with countries with large populations (e.g China and India) who see 'offshore' food production as the most sustainable and affordable way to support their expanding populations and secure not only food but also water.
Is the increasing need for food and water in the developed world
driving the 'land grabs'?

The majority of the recent land deals have been characterised by long-term leases; most 99 year renewable agreements that effectively hand the land over in perpetuity at a rate that reflects the historical tradition of establishing plantations in European-owned colonies. Despite the clear parallels between these deals and events in Africa during the late 19th century, there are some fundamental differences with, perhaps, the largest being the driving force. Back in the 19th century, the colonial powers were grabbing territory but the contemporary land acquisition is driven by market forces. Many of these deals are being triggered by the search for food security, biofuels and minerals which has been instigated by food and energy price hikes that have occured over the past 5-10 years. The 2007-2008 food price hike was one of the most signficant and recent and many feel that it was this event that has highlighted just how vulnerable food-importing nations are to fluctuations in the global market (seems to have a similar effect as fluctuations in the price of oil). On the other hand, others feel that because the world food production has stabilised at 50% above what we need (when you consider how many people in the world go hungry everyday surely that only emphasises how much the developed world wastes!) that a move to biofuels is the largest driving force. To a certain extent, statistics support this as the World Bank estimates that 21% of the land deals in 2009 were for biofuel production. With the land extremely cheap there is no shortages of investors and, although not neccessarily proven in reality yet, in theory there should be some benefits for the countries leasing the land. Leasing the land should generate more jobs, lead to better and newer technology, improve infrastructure and attract extra tax revenues, whilst the World Bank agrues that it could also 'jump-start' agricultural growth via large-scale farming - all factors that could kick start cummulative causation and help accelerate development. On the other hand, across Africa, rural dwellers, pastoralists and herdsmen have been forced off of the land they have occupied for generations. Although there is disagreement as to the exact amount of land purchased by international organisations, the epicentre of this trend is, without a doubt, located in Africa. In 2009 alone, the World Bank estimates that 70% of the 45 million hectares of land deals were struck over were in Africa. The International Land Coalition suggests that this figure should be much higher. They estimate that 80 million hectares of land was exchanged, with 64% (so around 50 million hectares) being located in Africa.

Although this seems to be focused in Africa, it is occuring elsewhere and here are a few current case studies:
  •  January 2011 - A large Chinese rice and soya producer acquired thousands of hectares of soya beans, wheat and oilseed rape in Argentina's Rio Negro province and then shipped the produce back to China. The same organisation have also been reported to have signed an agreement to develop 200,000 hectares of land in the Phillippine province of Luzon. China has also been granted the rights to grow palm oil on 2.8 million hectares of Congolese land. It has been suggested that China operates 80,400 hectares in Siberia, which it purchased for US$21.4million. With China's rather large population, a forever increasing hunger for energy, lack of water security, lack of fertile land and a climate that hinders agricultural growth it probably does not come as much of a surprise that they are one of the main countries involved in the purchasing/leasing of land in developing countries.
  • Not 100% sure if this plan is still going ahead but earlier in the year, it was proposed that South African farmers would take over failing state farms in Libya.
  • Before Sudan split it leased 376,000 hectares of land to Saudi Arabia to grow wheat and rice. Saudi Arabia have also suggested that Saudi businesses groups should take control of 70% of the rice growing regions in Senegal. Leasing land in Sudan has continued, even after it split and prior to the offical split, South Sudan issued leases on 9% of its land.
  • Qatar leased 20,000 hectares of land for fruit and vegetable cultivation in exchange for funding for a US$2.3billion port in Kenya.
  • India has invested US$4billion in agriculture, including flower-growing and sugar plantations, in Ethiopia. Again, to most of you, this wont be much of a surprise. India's population is predicted to exceed that of China by 2030, they have even less water security than China, rising sea-levels threaten to claim much land and provoke mass migration from neighbouring Bangladesh and, as they continue to develop, they are consuming more and more energy.
  • Madagascar are in negotiations with Daewoo Logistics Corporation, negiotations which are believed to have played a significant role in the political conflict that provoked the overthrow of the government in 2009, to lease 1.3 million hectares of land for maize aand palm oil plantations - a figure that is practically half the country's arable land!  
  • Countries such as China and Saudi Arabia have shown lots of interesting in leasing land in Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine and parts of post-Soviet Central Asia. China have been involved in negotiations to lease a million hectares of Kazakhstan farmland for rapeseed and soya production whilst Saudi Arabi are also interested to land there for grain production and cattle raising. It is reported that a British hedge fund, known as Dexion Capital's Global Farming fund, are in the process of trying to raise US$280million to purchase around 1.2million hectares of land in Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukrainie along with parts of Latin America and Australia.
What are the main problems that arise as a result of these land deals between large corporations and developing countries? Firstly, the cultural and capacity gap between investors and the local communities leave huge scope for misunderstandings and this, combined with insufficient laws on land ownership and ensuring meaningful consulations, have lead to issues from the very beginning. Misunderstandings even revolve around payment with, in some cases, locals believing that money given is compensation for the transfer of usage rights only, whereas companies considering the payments as for the transfer of ownership rights. The fact that many of the deals are shrouded in secrecy, with the terms very rarely made public, creates a strong air of suspiscion, one that many consider to be well placed with the vast majority of land being sold or leased for notably less than its real value. Another issue is the displacement of locals who live on the land being leased out to international organisations. Small-scale farmers cannot compete with these big industrial-scale farmers and many are displaced with pastoralists losing their grazing land and rural people losing access to crucial common property resources. Pastoralists are hit quite hard as fences marking the land owned by these international companies restricts their movement to find water during dry seasons (an issue that has resulted in conflict in the extreme cases) and, although those displaced are sometimes reallocated land, the land they are given is of poor quality and some distance from infrastructure, resources and roads. Land grabs are also believed to widen the gender gap in developing countries with women suffering the most due to the land women rely on for collecting wood, medicinal plants, food and water being the most likely areas for external investment. Men are most likely to benefit from the greater accessibility of employment in plantations and processing plants. As well as the obvious impacts for the local people, what about the environment? The huge plantations that are being developed use vast amounts of water and fertile land, with significant interest being given to land along the Nile, where Sudan and Ethopia have, over the years, successfully sold millions of hectares of land, and so its use for irrigation and the surrounding land use change has surely got to have impacts for other countries such as Egypt and the surrounding environment/ecosystems.
Do the positives outweigh the negatives?

I think I have focused slightly more on the negatives but there are some positives to such deals and not only for the investors. A lack of money is one of the main factors that restricts countries from developing (i.e think about comparisions in transition speeds of countries through the DTM...) and so the injection of money as a result of the presence of rich countries/companies can allow for the execution of government ambitions to improve health care, education, infrastructure etc and so the quality of life for its people. It can also led to an injection of knowledge into local communties regarding better farming practices, amongst other things, which could eventually lead to mechanisation of farming - a move that was incredibly significant in accelerating the development of those nations considered to be developed today.

Is this an example of modern-day colonialism? Well, I think it is hard to argue that this isn't but hopefully, if managed and controlled accordingly (and better than at present!) it can be colonialism with a difference, colonialism that can benefit both sides. Neocolonialism is an interesting idea, which presents positives and negatives and is, understandably so, a debated topic that I am guessing is going to come up at some point during our current module. What do you think? Can these land grabs every truly benefit everyone? Can they every be both environmentally and socially sustainable? How closely does this echo the 'scramble to Africa' by colonial powers in the 19th century? Do you think Neocolonialism is a good idea - should it be encouraged? Is this the future for countries with growing populations and limited resources? Will this help or hinder Africa's development? Let me know what you think!

1 comment:

  1. This was in the news today and is a good read in preparation for our essay due in next week, especially if you are planning to mention neo-colonialism.
    This topic has been in the news a lot lately so keep your eyes open for more developments.....