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New scramble for Africa's land

Foreign investors criticized for leasing huge tracts of African land for commercial farming.

food security land development africa
(Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

NAIROBI, Kenya and NEW DELHI, India — More than a century ago Mark Twain encouraged people to, “Buy land, they’re not making it anymore.”

Today, nations, companies and financiers are taking his advice and investing in huge tracts of land in what critics call a neo-colonial "Scramble for Africa" led by Gulf states and Indian companies.

Seventy percent of the global farmland expansion is happening in one of the hungriest parts of the world, sub-Saharan Africa, according to a new World Bank study. The expansion in countries like Ethiopia, Mozambique and Sudan, is driven by foreign states and corporations.

The big leap came after the food price rises of 2007 and 2008, which sparked riots in capital cities around the world when staples like rice, wheat and sugar became unaffordable almost overnight. Global farmland expanded by nearly 10 million acres in 2008 and by 111 million acres the following year, according to the World Bank.

High food prices continue to worry the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which last month convened a special meeting in Rome to explore ways of stabilizing the jittery market.

Natural disasters have been at least partly to blame for the most recent price hikes. A drought and wildfires in Russia this summer caused Moscow to ban exports of wheat, while flooding in Pakistan and China have also dented global food production.

Last month, riots over food prices erupted in Mozambique — a possible taste of things to come.

On the face of it more farming appears to be a good thing: more land under agricultural cultivation in Africa surely means more food production for the continent’s rapidly growing and hungry population. The reality, however, is very different, according to Henk Hobbelink, an agronomist and co-founder of the research and advocacy organization GRAIN.

“These big investment projects are being set up to produce food or biofuels for the export market and they use industrial agriculture,” Hobbelink told GlobalPost. “So we are talking uniform crops, pesticides, big amounts of water.

“This is not the way to produce food, especially in Africa, because it’s high risk, it’s polluting, it’s destroying biodiversity. It offers more problems than solutions,” said Hobbelink.

Ethiopia — a country more than any other associated with famine since the 1984 images of the rake-thin starving were beamed into living rooms around the world — has signed over 2.9 million acres of land to mostly foreign investors in recent years and hopes to lease 7.4 million by 2013.

“Shouldn’t they first be worrying about their own population?” asks Hobbelink.

Ethiopia is not alone: Liberia has leased or sold 3.9 million acres, Mozambique 6.6 million and Sudan 9.8 million according to World Bank figures for 2004 through 2008.

The deals, government officials argue, bring cash into treasuries and help achieve the dream of an industrialized agricultural economy. Officials say the leased land is unused, a claim some dispute.

“Territory is being handed over to foreign countries without consulting the indigenous populations,” said Nyikaw Ochalla, an exiled activist with the Anyaa Survival Organization, which fights for the rights of the people of Gambela, a fertile region in the far west of Ethiopia.

“The food production is not for local consumption but export,” he told GlobalPost from London where he has lived since 1999. “The local population will be left destitute on their own land.”