From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Sat Nov 07 2009 - 18:31:54 EST
UN attempts to slow the new scramble for Africa
By Daniel Howden
Saturday, 7 November 2009
Over 50 heads of state will gather for a summit later this month to look at
ways of policing the extraordinary "land grab" that has seen richer
countries buy up at least 20 million hectares of farmland in Africa in the
last 18 months.
The United Nations is drawing up a "code of conduct" in an effort to slow
what's been described as a new scramble for Africa, while agriculture
experts are calling for a new global watchdog and aid agencies are appealing
for a moratorium on new deals.
Countries including the Gulf States, China, South Korea and a host of
private investors and sovereign wealth funds have provoked serious concerns
internationally with a string of aggressive and often secretive deals for
large tracts of arable land on the world's hungriest continent.
David Hallam, the deputy director of the trade and markets division at the
UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), and one of the experts
drafting the code, said yesterday that the "principles are agreed" and he
expected leaders to make a joint statement at a summit in Rome in a
fortnight's time. "It's going to bring these deals into focus and make
people think about what's going on," he told The Independent.
According to FAO figures the recent wave of land acquisitions is equivalent
to one-tenth of the entire area already farmed in Africa, or twice the
arable land in Germany.
The code is expected to try and break the secrecy surrounding these deals
and ensure locals' rights are not being trampled by big corporations or
governments and that Africans' food security is not further threatened. "In
the worst cases it's fair to say we are looking at neo-colonialism," said Dr
In the last year Saudi Arabia
has added to huge holdings in Sudan with a $100 million deal for land in
famine stricken Ethiopia; Qatar has begun acquiring 40,000 hectares in
Kenya's Tana River Delta to grow fruit and vegetables despite a drought that
sees the UN feeding four million Kenyans; China has added to its huge
holdings in Zimbabwe and Algeria; and Egypt has leased 2 million acres of
land from Uganda to grow corn and wheat.
The deal that really brought the phenomenon to the surface was the
Madagascar government's decision to lease 1.3 million hectares, or half the
island's arable land, to the South Korean giants Daewoo for 99 years for
biofuel plantations. When it was revealed that Daewoo would pay nothing for
the land and would instead barter it for infrastructure projects, president
Marc Ravalomanana's administration became the first to be toppled over "land
grabbing". The deal has been scrapped.
The scramble has its roots in last year's food crisis, which saw a huge
spike in the price of staples and food protectionism, where countries
slapped export bans on rice and other foodstuffs. Food was not only more
expensive, it was unavailable. Then came the oil price rises. "Oil-rich and
water-poor countries suddenly became interested in securing their long-term
food supplies," said Ruth Meinzen-Dick, senior research fellow at the
International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington.
"Many of these deals were quite secretive and there was no clear benefit for
the people living in these areas."
Added to these factors was the historic switch from food to fuel, driven by
US subsidies for corn-based ethanol and hasty moves by the EU to set targets
to switch from fossil fuels to bio-fuels which have since been reversed.
The IFPRI is calling for a watchdog "with teeth" to ensure that there is
"informed consent" in poorer countries where land is being leased, as well
as respect for African customary law, which is supposed to protect the
traditional rights of smallholders.
Meinzen-Dick advocates a system that would ensure that in times of shortage
there would be restrictions on the amount of food exported from
The irony is that the current trend could be a win-win situation as everyone
is agreed that Africa is in dire need of investment: foreign aid and
domestic spending on agriculture has dipped alarmingly in the last two
The London-based International Institute for Environment and Development
rejects the "land grab" analysis as too "simplistic". In a recent report the
think-tank argued that there can be an upside if the investments are
structured to create "new opportunities".
The report does warn that too much of the land being signed away is "high
value" and that African governments are pushing through deals under the
pretence that common land is "unused".
Speaking at an FAO event in Washington earlier this year Chido Makunike, a
Zimbabwean agricultural consultant, explained: "In Africa, far from being
perceived as a mere economic resource land has cultural, sentimental, and
political meanings, and represents one of the strongest symbols of
dispossession during the colonial era."
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