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Nairobi, Kenya | Saturday 9 October 2010

Africa: ‘Land Grab’ Threatens Food Security

As multinationals and foreign governments continue to buy and lease land to grow food for export, the continent becomes food insecure.

By Fred Oluoch

NAIROBI----Africa is grappling with the new appetite for land where multinationals and foreign governments are buying or leasing large tracks of fertile land to grow food for export.

 But the question is whether it is “land grab” or appropriate agricultural investments? One sure thing is that it is threatening food security in the continent.

Countries from the Gulf Co-operation Council such as Bahrain , Oman , Qatar , Saudi Arabia , and the United Arab Emirates , together with China , Kuwait , India and South Korea are rapidly pursuing contracts for purchase of rich farmlands from Sub-Saharan Africa to guarantee secure food supplies.

Yet, the ongoing farmland acquisition has been decried by a group of African and Western civil society as “land grab” with the risk of threatening Africa’s own food security, livelihood and identity but government of the host countries term it as agricultural investments.

Since the 2008 food crisis, external governments have increasingly turned to Africa to acquire a total of 2,492,684 hectares (24,926Km) of land in Ethiopia , Sudan , Ghana , Madagascar and Mali . Already, 2.5 million hectares of farmland in five Sub-Saharan African countries have been bought or rented in the last five years at a total cost of $920 million.

This worrying trend informed the EAC food security strategy that advises partner states to “resist leasing or selling large chunks of land to foreign entities for food production or bio-fuels solely for export”, which would affect food security in the region. 

This new phenomenon is done either through state-to state or though foreign aid incorporations involving multinationals. Other African countries like Egypt and Libya have also shown interest in acquiring rich farmlands in the region for growing food for their people.

The 2008 economic crisis coupled with global food crisis triggered the proliferation of farming land acquisition in Eastern Africa in Kenya , Tanzania , Uganda , Ethiopia and Sudan . Lack of investments, poor farm policies and low land exploitation are worsening food security of the East African population.

To further deliberate on this issue, Frederich-Ebert Stiftung recently organised a regional conference on food security in Eastern Africa in Nairobi , that attracted various partners and stakeholders in agriculture. The conference deliberated on the implication and impact of foreign trade investment in agriculture on food security in the region.

In Keny, the Tana River Delta and the Coast in general has been the main target, raising questions where the local communities will get alternative land for agricultural activities and become self-sufficient in food. In the Tana River Delta, 40,000 hectares has been leased out to the Qatari government, 16, hectares to Mumias Sugar for sugar plantations and agro-fuels, 50,000 to foreign firm hectares for bio-fuels. In Nyanza, over 17,500 hectares around Yala Swamp has been leased to a US firm, Dominion Farm Ltd to produce rice.

In Tanzania, 500,500 hectare has been leased to a foreign firm to produce rice, wheat, coffee, flowers, Aloe Vera and bio-fuels.

Uganda has leased 840,127 hectares to Egypt to grow rice, wheat and produce organic beef. Ethiopia, on the other hand has given out 600,000 hectares to foreign entity, which FAO estimates to be 4 percent of the fertile land.

Thus, the ongoing farmland acquisition by other governments and co-operations is assuming political and social dimension. In Tana River, the development has brought increased tension between the local communities—the pastoralists Orma and the settled Pokomo—due to reduced gracing and watering areas.

  In the broader Savanah, the livelihood of pastoralists has been affected with the dishing out of large trucks of land for ranching by foreigners, especially in Laikipia, where the ranchers are trying to monopolise all riverine areas making it difficult for the Samburu to access pasture and water.

According to Hon Fafina Kwekwe, the chairperson of the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) Committee on Agriculture, Tourism and Natural Resources, steps must be made to secure people’s rights to land and to ensure that arable land suitable for food production is not converted to cash crop cultivation of even leased to foreign entities at the expense of the food security interests of citizens.

The alarm is that over 80 per cent of people living in Eastern Africa depend on agriculture yet the counties with EAC and IGAD are net importers of food. Some of the threats to food security in the region include; poor governance, under capitalization of agriculture, poor infrastructure, weak linkages of the productive sectors, inadequate funding of research, climate change, poor technologies and low land and labour productivity.

Recently, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) released a report indicating that  African countries are most at risk of running out of food. Nine of the most food-insecure 10 countries are African, with the DR Congo, Burundi , Eritrea , and Sudan rounding off the first five of a list that is headed by Afghanistan .

In February, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) outlook report for Kenya estimated that 3.8 million Kenyans would require food aid mainly because of low rainfall levels, displacement due to flash floods and conflicts, and the continued residence in IDP camps that was blamed for low agricultural production of key cereals.

According to Tom Odenda, the co-ordinator of the Kenya Land Alliance, land acquisition is happening outside public scrutiny and many details are still hidden.

Women, peasants, small producers, pastoralists and other marginalised groups have witnessed their traditional lands taken away by powerful actors, including their own governments, national elites of foreign investors.

“Evidence shows that there is no greater engine for driving growth and reducing poverty and hunger than investing in agriculture but it must ensure that people can access the food that is produced. What we are seeing is that the food is mainly for export. The state has become the agent of land lease and that is why the new constitution emphasizes that the land belongs to Kenyans,” he said.

In East Africa since between 65-70 per cent of land falls under customary land rights, the land being leased out falls under customary property rights despite existence of customary ownership law. In Kenya , the law was enacted with the new constitution while Uganda did it in 1998 and Tanzania in 1999.  The yet to be independent South Sudan enacted  new land laws in 2009.

Rwanda (2005), Burundi (1986) Ethiopia (2005) and Eritrea 1997, have done away with customary or community-derived rights altogether replacing them with state-granted rights.

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