African Land Grab – Developing or Tearing Apart?

What Is African Land Grab?

African Land Grab can be described as the purchase, lease, or rent of large areas of land throughout Africa by foreign nations or companies. These deals are generally made in order to acquire natural resources, bio fuels, and food from the land. Some advocate for the Land Grab practice, arguing that it promotes development of unused land and creates economic opportunity, while others advocate against the practice for its unsustainability and negative impacts on the host countries’ food security. Environment and Development, a research group from the United Kingdom, estimated that around 2.5 million hectares of land were leased by foreign investors just between 2004 and 2009 (Laishley, 2014, p.1). 10 years later, this remains a growing problem.

Why “Grab” Land?

There are a number of reasons why Land Grabbing is currently taking place. One widely recognized cause is the World Food Crisis of 2007-2008. As food prices rose, in some cases as high as 78%, prices of farmland also increased. As this occurred, there was a global interest in the acquisition of cheap land for the production of both food and other resources (Areetey, 2016, p. 1). This World Food Crisis also caused an increase in food insecurity in a great deal of countries, some of which acquired land in Africa in order to cultivate food for their populations. Two other big reasons countries and companies are taking part in the land grab include use for bio fuel production and to address water shortages (Areetey, 2016, p. 1).

Who Are The Main Players?

A 2009 study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) lists Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Sudan, Tanzania and Zambia as all being involved as host countries in land leases (Areetey, 2016, p. 1). These countries all continue to be some of the main host countries for land grab. Some reports suggest that over 20 African countries are currently participating in this land grab. Main foreign investor countries include China, India, Saudi Arabia, The Netherlands, The United Kingdom, The United States, Sweden, Germany, and Kuwait. Specific companies include Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Harvard University, Vanderbilt University, ProSavana, New Forests Company, Kinyeti Development, PetroTech, Addax Bio Energy, and Quifel International. The United States universities participating in the land grab are reportedly using Hedge Funds to invest in land grabbing, and “much of the money is said to be channeled through London-based Emergent asset management, which runs one of Africa’s largest land acquisition funds, run by former JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs currency dealers” (Vidal and Provost, 2011, p. 1). Again, these companies are using this land to acquire water, food, bio fuel, and other natural resources- all for a cheap price. Many claim to be building businesses and providing a number of jobs to the host countries, but this claim is up for debate. Foreign investors see this as an opportunity to make money, extract resources, and further develop countries in Africa.

Who Is Negatively Affected?

One of the main concerns surrounding this topic centers on its effect to various populations across Africa. Specifically, there has been a huge impact on the indigenous and farming populations. In the Gambella region of Ethiopia, there have been reports of over 70,000 indigenous people being forcibly removed from their land in order for companies such as the Indian Firm Kuruturi Global to produce palm oil, sugar, and rice. Similarly, in northern Mozambique, millions have been displaced in order for ProSavana to produce crops for export to Japan (Schiffman, 2013, p. 245). There are also many cases of small farmers being displaced from their lands. In a continent where 60% of the population works in agriculture, it’s a big deal for foreign investors to keep purchasing land (Diop, 2016, p. 1). Displacement will continue to be a problem as long as land is being grabbed.

Not only are smaller populations such as indigenous people and farmers being negatively affected, but food security in general in these regions is also being negatively affected. Many of the countries in which this practice is taking place already suffer from food insecurity, and the practice is only making things worse. Odenda Lumumba, the coordinator for the Kenya Land Alliance, reiterates this impact in the case of Kenya.

“Isn’t it the height of recklessness in leadership for the government to give out land to Qatar when Kenya is food insecure? … Where is the logic?”

Akinwumi Adesina, Nigeria’s Minister for Agriculture, similarly points out this trend as a detrimental one by pointing out that it may hurt efforts to raise food production as well as small farm owners rights to use land (Laishley, 2016, p.1).

Additionally, much of the and being leased isn’t in fact being used for food production at all – it’s being used for the production of bio fuels such as ethanol. In a research study Could Biofuel Policies Increase Death and Disease in Developing Countires, Dr. Indur Goklany demonstrates that foreign investments or “land grabs” means greater amounts of these lands are being used for the production of fuels rather food. This not only increases food insecurity, but also raises the prices of food- making it harder for people to buy foods they could usually afford (Goklany, 2011, p. 3).

What Are The Positive Effects?

Several countries have used the acquired land to address food and water shortages. This is especially true for countries such as China and India (Schiffman, 2013, p. 243). Additionally, the land grabs have provided some jobs and economic opportunities in host countries – although, these jobs are generally seasonal and yield two to ten times less than what the average small shareholder makes (Oakland Institute, 2011, p. 5). These foreign investors have also promised infrastructure development such as roads, canals, and irrigation systems – all of which could potentially be beneficial in the host countries (Oakland Institute, 2011, p. 5-6).

For investors, the use of African land for resource and production purposes saves them a lot of money. See below for a table comparing how much a hectare of land is being purchased for in areas of Africa compared to what a hectare of land is generally worth in other countries. This table is from a field work study done by Oakland Institute in 2010-2011 (Oakland Institute, 2011, p. 4).

Sampling of Farmland Lease Fees by Land Deal
LocationDealPrice ($)/ha/yrLease Terms
EthiopiaSaudi StarFree Land Rent10,000 ha; 60 year lease
MaliMalibyaFree Land Rent100,000 ha; 50 year lease
EthiopiaKaruturi6.75300,000 ha; 99 year lease
SudanNile Trading and Development0.04600,000 ha; 90 year lease
Sierra LeoneSierra Leone Agriculture243,000 ha; 45 year lease
Sierra Leone Quifel Agribusiness5126,000 ha; 49 year lease
Sampling of Average Farmland Prices by Country
LocationAverage Price ($)/ha/yr
New Zealand (Dairy)23,000
England (All Land Types)22,000
Poland4,550-8,125
Brazil (Mato Grosso Dryland)7,000
United States (Corn Belt)16,000
Argentina (Central Provinces)5,000-10,000

Why Are People Saying This Is a Legal Violation?

Many people argue that this is a legal and human right violation for a number of reasons. The practices involved in land grab directly go against multiple articles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People as well as the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. All of the following articles appear as they are in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.

International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (Article 11.2):

The States Parties to the present Covenant, recognizing the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, shall take, individually and through international co-operation, the measures, including specific programs, which are needed:

(a) To improve methods of production, conservation and distribution of food by making full use of technical and scientific knowledge, by disseminating knowledge of the principles of nutrition and by developing or reforming agrarian systems in such a way as to achieve the most efficient development and utilization of natural resources;

(b) Taking into account the problems of both food-importing and food-exporting countries, to ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies in relation to need.

UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (Article 8.2):

States shall provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress for:
(a) Any action which has the aim or effect of depriving them of their integrity as distinct
peoples, or of their cultural values or ethnic identities;
(b) Any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources;

UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (Article 10):

Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return.

UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (Article 32):

States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned
through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.

What Do We Do About It?

There are multiple things that can be done to aid in the effects of this practice. Many people and organizations are calling for the development of more concise contracts and resource restrictions. In an IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute) study, “Land Grabbing” by Foreign Investors in Developing Countries: Risks and Opportunities, they suggest that governments need to develop the capacity to negotiate sound contracts and to exercise oversight. The United Nations, the African Union, and the African Development Bank have all called for the implementation of “Guiding Principles for Large Scale Land Based Investments in Africa,” (GPLSLI) (Oakland Institute, 2015, p. 1).

Others argue that the effects of the land grabbing are too large scale, and that the best thing to do would be to redistribute the land to farmers and offer them technical and financial assistance to improve food security in host countries.

Aryeetey, E., & Lewis, Z. (2016, July 28). African Land Grabbing: Whose Interests Are Served? Retrieved April 18, 2019, from https://www.brookings.edu/articles/african-land-grabbing-whose-interests-are-served/

Diop, M. (2016, July 29). Foresight Africa 2016: Banking on agriculture for Africa’s future. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2016/01/22/foresight-africa-2016-banking-on-agriculture-for-africas-future/

Goklany, I., PhD. (2011). Could Biofuel Policies Increase Death and Disease in Developing Countries? Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons,16(1). Retrieved April 19, 2019.

Laishley, R. (n.d.). Is Africa’s land up for grabs? | Africa Renewal. Retrieved April 19, 2019, from https://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/special-edition-agriculture-2014/africa’s-land-grabs

“Land grabbing” by foreign investors in developing countries. (n.d.). Retrieved April 19, 2019, from http://ebrary.ifpri.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15738coll2/id/14853

Nanga, S. (2015, January 28). Is ‘Land Policy’ the Solution to Land Grab in Africa? Retrieved April 19, 2019, from https://www.oaklandinstitute.org/blog/land-policy-solution-land-grab-africaSchiffman, R. (2013).

Schiffman, R. (2013) Hunger, Food Security, and the African Land Grab. Ethics & International Affairs,27(03), 239-249. doi:10.1017/s0892679413000208Stop

Africa Land Grab – The Global Movement to Rollback Africa Land Grab. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.stopafricalandgrab.com/

Understanding Land investment deaLs in africa. (2011, December). Retrieved April 19, 2019, from https://www.oaklandinstitute.org/sites/oaklandinstitute.org/files/OI_Ethiopa_Land_Investment_report.pdf

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. (2007). Retrieved April 19, 2019, from http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/DRIPS_en.pdf

Vidal, J., & Provost, C. (2011, June 08). US universities in Africa ‘land grab’. Retrieved April 19, 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jun/08/us-universities-africa-land-grab

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