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The new scramble for African land : China and Co get up to speed

A million Chinese farmers have joined the rush to Africa, according to one estimate, underlining concerns that an unchecked “land grab” not seen since the 19th century is under way.

Some of the world’s richest countries are buying or leasing land in some of the world’s poorest to satisfy insatiable appetites for food and fuel. In the new scramble for Africa, nearly 2.5m hectares (6.2m acres) of farmland in just five sub-Saharan countries have been bought or rented in the past five years at a total cost of $920m (£563m), research shows.

“Lands that only a short time ago seemed of little outside interest are now being sought by international investors to the tune of hundreds of thousands of hectares,” said a recent report by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), and a London-based think tank, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). It described the huge deals reported to date as “the tip of the iceberg”.

The report said farmland purchases are being driven by food security concerns, rising demand and changing dietary habits, expanded biofuel production and interest in what is, in theory, an improved investment climate in some African countries.

In fact China, well known for its interests in minerals and oil, appears to be one of the more modest “neocolonialists” of African agriculture. Vast tracts of the continent’s arable but fallow land are being bought by companies from India, South Korea, America and several oil-rich, food-poor Arab nations.

Lorenzo Cotula, senior researcher at the IIED, said: “The role of China needs a more subtle analysis. We found that in Africa, China is not one of the big players in terms of acquiring large tracts of land. There is South Korea, there are Gulf-based countries, and there are also western institutions.”

Wealthy corporations have pioneered controversial African mega-farms to outsource food production and use cheaper labour. In India, such mega-farms are seen as more efficient than the traditionally small, family-run holdings throughout the country.

Indian farming companies, backed by government loans, have bought 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 domestic market.

A report published in April by the International Food Policy Research Institute revealed the extent of “land grabbing” by foreign investors in Africa. Since 2006, the UK-based Lonrho corporation leased 25,000 hectares for rice in Angola; China secured 2.8m hectares for a biofuel oil palm plantation in the Democratic Republic of Congo; and Qatar leased 20,000 hectares for fruit and vegetable cultivation in exchange for funding a $2.3bn port in Kenya.

In Ethiopia alone, the report found, India invested $4bn in agriculture, including flower-growing and sugar estates; the UAE secured 5,000 hectares for tea in a joint venture with East Africa agribusiness; Germany’s Flora EcoPower secured 13,000 hectares for biofuel crops; Britain’s Sun Biofuels secured land for jatropha, a biofuel crop; and unknown Saudi investors leased land in exchange for $100m in investment.

In Madagascar, the South Korea’s Daewoo wanted to secure 1.3m hectares to grow corn, but the deal collapsed for political reasons. In Nigeria, Britain’s Trans4mation Agric-tech secured 10,000 hectares, while an unknown Chinese company secured 10,000 hectares for rice.

Sudan has also been a prime target: Egypt secured land to grow 2m tonnes of wheat annually; Jordan secured 25,000 hectares for livestock and crops; Kuwait secured a “giant” strategic partnership; Qatar set up a joint holding company to invest in agriculture; Saudi Arabia leased 10,000 hectares for wheat, vegetables, and livestock; South Korea secured 690,000 hectares for wheat; and the UAE is investing in 378,000 hectares after already securing 30,000 for corn, alfalfa, and possibly wheat, potatoes and beans.

Critics argue that countries are selling their land assets at the expense of smallhold farmers and hungry populations. The institute’s report warned: “Unequal power relations in the land acquisition deals can put the livelihoods of the poor at risk. Since the state often formally owns the land, the poor run the risk of being pushed off the plot in favour of the investor, without consultation or compensation.”

Source: The Guardian|| David Smith

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