African countries whose farmland is being bought by foreign investors must defend local people’s rights to avoid eviction, while investors should beware being tainted as human rights abusers or “land grabbers”.
International agencies’ first detailed report on the trend, published on Monday, estimated that nearly 2.5 million hectares (6.2 million acres) of farmland in five sub-Saharan African countries has been bought or leased since 2004 — an investment of $919.98 million.
“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 the agencies, calling the huge deals reported so far “the tip of the iceberg”, Reuters adds.
The report was co-authored by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), both based in Rome, and the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).
Fears about food security and rising returns in agriculture mean the trend will continue, bringing benefits in terms of infrastructure and jobs, the agencies said, but also meaning risks for recipient countries, local people and investors.
The report focuses on large-scale deals of more than 1000 hectares in Ethiopia, Ghana, Madagascar, Mali and Sudan, as well as case studies carried out in Mozambique and Tanzania, while warning that data on land deals is “scarce and of limited reliability”.
The authors shy away from the term “land grab”, used by the media to denote the trend towards large-scale farmland purchases by China and oil-rich nations like Saudi Arabia and Qatar in poor countries, which often struggle to feed themselves.
IFAD said the deals could “bring benefits for all parties and be a tool for development” if done the right way.
“Africa has been crying out for investment for decades, so let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot now,” Harold Liversage, a land rights expert for IFAD with about 20 years’ experience in Africa and elsewhere, told Reuters by phone from Tanzania.
“Let’s make sure that Africans, particularly small-scale producers and poor rural women and men, are going to benefit from this,” said Liversage.
The report says farmland purchases are being driven by food security concerns, rising demand and changing dietary habits, expanded biofuel production and interest in what is, on paper at least, an improved investment climate in some African countries.
For recipient nations, on a macro level the investment can boost GDP and government tax revenues, while rural areas can see improvements in their livelihood, said the report.
But “large-scale land acquisition may result in local people losing access to the resources on which they depend for their food security — particularly as some key recipient countries are themselves faced with food security challenges”.
It recommended that recipient governments set minimum requirements for such investments in terms of job creation and community benefits as well as the environmental impact on soil and water and the risk of pests from monocultural production.
They should discourage speculative deals and use collective land registration to bolster rights that are often customary to “help local people avoid being arbitrarily dispossessed of their land, and obtain better deals from incoming investors”.
While pointing out that “land grabbers” in Africa are by no means only foreign, the agencies had advice for investors who risk their money in purchases or long leases in countries where land rights are unclear and corruption may be rife.
“Investors can be seen as dealing with or propping up corrupt regimes and human rights violators,” it said. “They may also be perceived as land grabbers in food-insecure countries.”