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Africa’s Foreign Land Resource Challenge

Adding to the increasing focus on key future resource shortages, this article  in today’s Observer highlights how more African land is being acquired and leased by multiple external companies for the future. Adding to the previously covered reversal of South Korean Daewoo’s deal with Madagascar for 1.2m hectares (half the country’s arable land), John Vidal lists some of the main deals already in place including a contract between China and the Democratic Republic of Congo to grow 2.8m hectares of palm oil for biofuels and additional 3.9m hectares acquired by European biofuel companies. Right now, an extra 17.5m hectares of land are needed to hit the EU target to have 10% of fuel from biofuels by 2015. Much of this is likely to be outside the EU.

On top of biofuels, food is also a top issue: In terms of key countries where land acquisition is already rife, even Sudan has done deals with; South Korean companies for 700,000 hectares for wheat cultivation; the UAE for 750,000 hectares and Saudi Arabia for 42,000 hectares. Other key countries involved in similar deals include Kenya, Nigeria, Zambia, Tanzania, Mali, Gambia, Angola, Malawi and even Zimbabwe and Ethiopia where 815 foreign financed agricultural projects have been financed. Although many are economically beneficial to both parties, the concerns being raised around such deals are ones of future food security.

Going forward, it is clear that since much of sub-Saharan Africa has limited arable land, even though the numbers above are relatively small areas of land, they are increasingly the most fertile. As such concerns quoted in the article over displacement, future food availability and also associated water use are multiple:

Indian ecologist Vandana Shiva said 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.”

Haile Hirpa, president of the Oromia studies’ association, said in a letter of protest to UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon that India had acquired 1m 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.”

And on the other hand:

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.”

“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 $50m on African land. “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.”

Clearly a major, complex and fluid issue!

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