Food, water driving 21st-century
African land grab
by John Vidal
www.alternet.org/, Mar 7 2010
We turned off the main road to Awassa,
talked our way past security guards and drove a mile across empty
land before we found what will soon be Ethiopia's largest greenhouse.
Nestling below an escarpment of the Rift Valley, the development
is far from finished, but the plastic and steel structure already
stretches over 20 hectares -- the size of 20 football pitches.
The farm manager shows us millions of
tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables being grown in 500m rows
in computer controlled conditions. Spanish engineers are building
the steel structure, Dutch technology minimises water use from
two bore-holes and 1 000 women pick and pack 50 tonnes of food
a day. Within 24 hours, it has been driven 320km to Addis Ababa
and flown 1 600km to the shops and restaurants of Dubai, Jeddah
and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Ethiopia is one of the hungriest countries
in the world with more than 13-million people needing food aid,
but paradoxically the government is offering at least three million
hectares of its most fertile land to rich countries and some of
the world's most wealthy individuals to export food for their
The 1 000 hectares of land which contain
the Awassa greenhouses are leased for 99 years to a Saudi billionaire
businessman, Ethiopian-born Sheikh Mohammed al-Amoudi, one of
the 50 richest men in the world. His Saudi Star company plans
to spend up to $2-billion acquiring and developing 500 000 hectares
of land in Ethiopia in the next few years. So far, it has bought
four farms and is already growing wheat, rice, vegetables and
flowers for the Saudi market. It expects eventually to employ
more than 10 :000 people.
But Ethiopia is only one of 20 or more
African countries where land is being bought or leased for intensive
agriculture on an immense scale in what may be the greatest change
of ownership since the colonial era.
An Observer investigation estimates that
up to 50-million hectares of land -- an area more than double
the size of the UK -- has been acquired in the last few years
or is in the process of being negotiated by governments and wealthy
investors working with state subsidies. The data used was collected
by Grain, the International Institute for Environment and Development,
the International Land Coalition, ActionAid and other non-governmental
The land rush, which is still accelerating,
has been triggered by the worldwide food shortages which followed
the sharp oil price rises in 2008, growing water shortages and
the European Union's insistence that 10% of all transport fuel
must come from plant-based biofuels by 2015.
In many areas the deals have led to evictions,
civil unrest and complaints of "land grabbing".
The experience of Nyikaw Ochalla, an indigenous
Anuak from the Gambella region of Ethiopia now living in Britain
but who is in regular contact with farmers in his region, is typical.
He said: "All of the land in the Gambella region is utilised.
Each community has and looks after its own territory and the rivers
and farmlands within it. It is a myth propagated by the government
and investors to say that there is waste land or land that is
not utilised in Gambella.
"The foreign companies are arriving
in large numbers, depriving people of land they have used for
centuries. There is no consultation with the indigenous population.
The deals are done secretly. The only thing the local people see
is people coming with lots of tractors to invade their lands.
"All the land round my family village
of Illia has been taken over and is being cleared. People now
have to work for an Indian company. Their land has been compulsorily
taken and they have been given no compensation. People cannot
believe what is happening. Thousands of people will be affected
and people will go hungry."
It is not known if the acquisitions will
improve or worsen food security in Africa, or if they will stimulate
separatist conflicts, but a major World Bank report due to be
published this month is expected to warn of both the potential
benefits and the immense dangers they represent to people and
Leading the rush are international agribusinesses,
investment banks, hedge funds, commodity traders, sovereign wealth
funds as well as UK pension funds, foundations and individuals
attracted by some of the world's cheapest land.
Together they are scouring Sudan, Kenya,
Nigeria, Tanzania, Malawi, Ethiopia, Congo, Zambia, Uganda, Madagascar,
Zimbabwe, Mali, Sierra Leone, Ghana and elsewhere. Ethiopia alone
has approved 815 foreign-financed agricultural projects since
2007. Any land there, which investors have not been able to buy,
is being leased for approximately $1 per year per hectare.
Saudi Arabia, along with other Middle
Eastern emirate states such as Qatar, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, is
thought to be the biggest buyer. In 2008 the Saudi government,
which was one of the Middle East's largest wheat-growers, announced
it was to reduce its domestic cereal production by 12% a year
to conserve its water. It earmarked $5-billion to provide loans
at preferential rates to Saudi companies which wanted to invest
in countries with strong agricultural potential .
Meanwhile, the Saudi investment company
Foras, backed by the Islamic Development Bank and wealthy Saudi
investors, plans to spend $1-billion buying land and growing seven
million tonnes of rice for the Saudi market within seven years.
The company says it is investigating buying land in Mali, Senegal,
Sudan and Uganda. By turning to Africa to grow its staple crops,
Saudi Arabia is not just acquiring Africa's land but is securing
itself the equivalent of hundreds of millions of gallons of scarce
water a year. Water, says the UN, will be the defining resource
of the next 100 years.
Since 2008 Saudi investors have bought
heavily in Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia and Kenya. Last year the first
sacks of wheat grown in Ethiopia for the Saudi market were presented
by al-Amoudi to King Abdullah.
Some of the African deals lined up are
eye-wateringly large: China has signed a contract with the Democratic
Republic of Congo to grow 2,8-million hectares of palm oil for
biofuels. Before it fell apart after riots, a proposed 1,2-million
hectares deal between Madagascar and the South Korean company
Daewoo would have included nearly half of the country's arable
Land to grow biofuel crops is also in
demand. "European biofuel companies have acquired or requested
about 3,9-million hectares in Africa. This has led to displacement
of people, lack of consultation and compensation, broken promises
about wages and job opportunities," said Tim Rice, author
of an ActionAid report which estimates that the EU needs to grow
crops on 17,5-million hectares, well over half the size of Italy,
if it is to meet its 10% biofuel target by 2015.
"The biofuel land grab in Africa
is already displacing farmers and food production. The number
of people going hungry will increase," he said. British firms
have secured tracts of land in Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nigeria
and Tanzania to grow flowers and vegetables.
Indian companies, backed by government
loans, have bought or leased hundreds of thousands of hectares
in Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Senegal and Mozambique, where
they are growing rice, sugar cane, maize and lentils to feed their
Nowhere is now out of bounds. Sudan, emerging
from civil war and mostly bereft of development for a generation,
is one of the new hot spots. South Korean companies last year
bought 700 000 hectares of northern Sudan for wheat cultivation;
the United Arab Emirates have acquired 750 000 hectares and Saudi
Arabia last month concluded a 42 000-hectare deal in Nile province.
The government of southern Sudan says
many companies are now trying to acquire land. "We have had
many requests from many developers. Negotiations are going on,"
said Peter Chooli, director of water resources and irrigation,
in Juba last week. "A Danish group is in discussions with
the state and another wants to use land near the Nile."
In one of the most extraordinary deals,
buccaneering New York investment firm Jarch Capital, run by a
former commodities trader, Philip Heilberg, has leased 800 000
hectares in southern Sudan near Darfur. Heilberg has promised
not only to create jobs but also to put 10% or more of his profits
back into the local community. But he has been accused by Sudanese
of "grabbing" communal land and leading an American
attempt to fragment Sudan and exploit its resources.
Devlin Kuyek, a Montreal-based researcher
with Grain, said investing in Africa was now seen as a new food
supply strategy by many governments. "Rich countries are
eyeing Africa not just for a healthy return on capital, but also
as an insurance policy. Food shortages and riots in 28 countries
in 2008, declining water supplies, climate change and huge population
growth have together made land attractive. Africa has the most
land and, compared with other continents, is cheap," he said.
"Farmland in sub-Saharan Africa is
giving 25% returns a year and new technology can treble crop yields
in short time frames," said Susan Payne, chief executive
of Emergent Asset Management, a UK investment fund seeking to
spend $50-million on African land, which, she said, was attracting
governments, corporations, multinationals and other investors.
"Agricultural development is not only sustainable, it is
our future. If we do not pay great care and attention now to increase
food production by over 50% before 2050, we will face serious
food shortages globally," she said.
But many of the deals are widely condemned
by both Western non-government groups and nationals as "new
colonialism", driving people off the land and taking scarce
resources away from people.
We met Tegenu Morku, a land agent, in
a roadside cafe on his way to the region of Oromia in Ethiopia
to find 500 hectares of land for a group of Egyptian investors.
They planned to fatten cattle, grow cereals and spices and export
as much as possible to Egypt. There had to be water available
and he expected the price to be about 15 birr (about $1) per hectare
per year -- less than a quarter of the cost of land in Egypt and
a tenth of the price of land in Asia.
"The land and labour is cheap and
the climate is good here. Everyone -- Saudis, Turks, Chinese,
Egyptians -- is looking. The farmers do not like it because they
get displaced, but they can find land elsewhere and, besides,
they get compensation, equivalent to about 10 years' crop yield,"
Oromia is one of the centres of the African
land rush. Haile Hirpa, president of the Oromia studies' association,
said last week in a letter of protest to UN Secretary General
Ban Ki-moon that India had acquired one million hectares, Djibouti
10 000 hectares, Saudi Arabia 100 000 hectares, and that Egyptian,
South Korean, Chinese, Nigerian and other Arab investors were
all active in the state.
"This is the new, 21st-century colonisation.
The Saudis are enjoying the rice harvest, while the Oromos are
dying from man-made famine as we speak," he said.
The Ethiopian government denied the deals
were causing hunger and said that the land deals were attracting
hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign investments and tens
of thousands of jobs. A spokesperson said: "Ethiopia has
74-million hectares of fertile land, of which only 15% is currently
in use -- mainly by subsistence farmers. Of the remaining land,
only a small percentage -- 3 to 4% -- is offered to foreign investors.
Investors are never given land that belongs to Ethiopian farmers.
The government also encourages Ethiopians in the diaspora to invest
in their homeland. They bring badly needed technology, they offer
jobs and training to Ethiopians, they operate in areas where there
is suitable land and access to water."
The reality on the ground is different,
according to Michael Taylor, a policy specialist at the International
Land Coalition. "If land in Africa hasn't been planted, it's
probably for a reason. Maybe it's used to graze livestock or deliberately
left fallow to prevent nutrient depletion and erosion. Anybody
who has seen these areas identified as unused understands that
there is no land in Ethiopia that has no owners and users."
Development experts are divided on the
benefits of large-scale, intensive farming. Indian ecologist Vandana
Shiva said in London last week that large-scale industrial agriculture
not only threw people off the land but also required chemicals,
pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers, intensive water use, and
large-scale transport, storage and distribution which together
turned landscapes into enormous mono-cultural plantations.
"We are seeing dispossession on a
massive scale. It means less food is available and local people
will have less. There will be more conflict and political instability
and cultures will be uprooted. The small farmers of Africa are
the basis of food security. The food availability of the planet
will decline," she says. But Rodney Cooke, director at the
UN's International Fund for Agricultural Development, sees potential
benefits. "I would avoid the blanket term 'land-grabbing'.
Done the right way, these deals can bring benefits for all parties
and be a tool for development."
Lorenzo Cotula, senior researcher with
the International Institute for Environment and Development, who
co-authored a report on African land exchanges with the UN fund
last year, found that well-structured deals could guarantee employment,
better infrastructures and better crop yields. But badly handled
they could cause great harm, especially if local people were excluded
from decisions about allocating land and if their land rights
were not protected.
Water is also controversial. Local government
officers in Ethiopia told the Observer that foreign companies
that set up flower farms and other large intensive farms were
not being charged for water. "We would like to, but the deal
is made by central government," said one. In Awassa, the
al-Amouni farm uses as much water a year as 100 000 Ethiopians.
- guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2010