‘Land grabs’ in Africa: is there an alternative?

08 March 2011

Millions of people across the developing world depend on land for their livelihoods, culture and identity — a connection that now risks being undermined by large-scale acquisitions of farmland in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Millions of hectares are thought to have been acquired over the past few years in Africa alone. Agribusiness, investment funds and government agencies are getting their hands on long-term rights over large areas of land. Individual land acquisitions can cover thousands of hectares — for example, a 100,000-hectare project in Mali and a 180,000-hectare project in Sudan.

Such land acquisitions are being driven by both government concerns about national food and energy security as well as private sector expectations of increasing profits from agriculture in a world of higher food and commodity prices.

Impacts on local people

But how do these deals affect local people? Not every acquisition is a ‘land grab’ — much depends on local context, the terms of the lease, how it was obtained, and local reactions to it. If they are properly structured, genuine agricultural investments by operators with a strong track record can create opportunities for recipient countries and local people, bringing capital, know-how, jobs, market access and infrastructure development.

But large land deals also carry big risks. Local people can end up losing the land, water and other resources that have supported their livelihoods for generations, while the jobs created in return may be few, short-lived and low-paid. Family farmers risk being marginalised by a shift toward large-scale agriculture.

The perception that land is abundant in Africa is ill-conceived. Most cultivable land is already used or claimed by local farmers, herders and gatherers. The problem is that these people have little access to the law and are excluded from formal land rights — only a tiny proportion of local farmers in Africa, for example, have written documents for their land.

Very large land deals are bound to involve some squeeze on existing rights, even if the intensity of current resource use is low. Dealing with these situations fairly requires careful weighing of individual and societal interests. But the gap between legality — where the government may formally own much if not all the land — and legitimacy, where local people feel the land they have used for generations is theirs, exposes local groups to the risk of dispossession and investors to that of local contestation.

Is there an alternative?

Family farming has long provided the backbone of agriculture in much of Africa and, when given a chance, family farmers have proved to be highly dynamic and responsive to market forces. In Ghana, for example, Kuapa Kokoo — a cooperative of 60,000 cocoa farmers — has run a successful business for more than 15 years. The cooperative owns 45 per cent of Divine Chocolate Ltd, a UK-based chocolate manufacturer and distributor, and is now expanding into the US market.

Rising global demand for food and agricultural commodities offers new opportunities for African agriculture, and public policies and infrastructure to support family farming are needed today more than ever.

Where outside investment is needed to sustain agriculture and livelihoods, productivity gains can be achieved by using business models that support local farmers. Some of these models are well tested, including contract farming — where a company contracts local farmers and buys their produce at a guaranteed price. Other models are also emerging, including joint ventures or land leases with local communities, and reliance on intermediaries to help farmers reach global markets.

Decisions taken now will impact the livelihoods and food security of many people for decades to come. Rather than rush into land deals, governments should promote transparent, vigorous public debate about the future of agriculture in their country. Producer organisations must be central to that debate, and scrutiny from civil society can help make the renewed interest in agriculture work for broad-based sustainable development.