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Wolfgang Schonecke {*}

A Form of Colonization?

Africa as Focus of a New Occupation and Settlement of Land


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 6/2009, P. 308-312
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In the context of a global food crisis, governments in Africa flog fertile farmland to foreign potential buyers and investors. This will on a long-term basis have dire consequences. What is more, land is traditionally in Africa no commercial commodity.


For almost two months Madagascar was the scene of a bloody confrontation between President Marc Ravolamanana and the opposition. At the end the 36-year-old Andry Rajoelina came to power with the help of the military. Cause of the revolution was not only the growing poverty of the population and the exorbitant money-making of the President. What brought about the overflowing of the seething barrel was the government's lease for 99 years about 1.3 million hectares of fertile land with the South Korean Daewoo Group. The only service in return of the multinational company was a vague promise to create jobs and to improve the infrastructure.

In Africa land is traditionally no commercial commodity. It has an almost mystical value as a place of the ancestors and is jointly managed. For the Madagascans it was inconceivable that a government would simply sell off the land of their fathers to foreign interests.

What in Madagascar caused a revolution is happening around the world in unprecedented dimensions. A study by the environmental organization Grain in mid-2008 proved nearly one hundred planned or already completed contracts of sale or lease about millions of acres of best land. Every day new contracts are added. This leads to absurd situations like in Sudan or Ethiopia where millions of people are dependent on foreign food aid but at the same time the government gives away best agricultural land to foreign companies in order to produce food for exporting.


A Reckless Climate and Energy Policy

What is the reason for the suddenly so great interest in the resource land? The run on land was caused by various crises in recent years.

When in the past year the oil prices reached the dizzying height of $ 150 per barrel the pressure to switch to renewable energies became huge. And when Russia temporarily turned off the gas for Europe everybody became aware of how dangerous it is to be economically and politically dependent on fossil fuels. Among the alternatives already proven the production of "biofuel" met high interest. At the same time, the consequences of the climate change became more and more visible and the need to reduce the emission of carbon dioxide more urgent. Both problems seemed to be solved simultaneously by bio-, or correct, agricultural fuels: Doing without crude oil and a zero option with energy from plants which have previously collected from the air the carbon dioxide produced by burning (see HK, February 2008, 89 et sequ.).



As long as the biodiesel came from the growing of rapeseed on the fallow fields of Europe and gave the farmers an extra income everything seemed to be well. Then, however, great problems became visible. In order to promote biofuel the European Union as well as the Federal Government fixed a higher proportion of admixture that could not be covered by domestic production of biomass. Investors and governments in the South quickly grasped that here a huge new market opened.

But you need land in order to produce biomass. Since most of the fertile land in the world is already used for agricultural purposes, there are two possibilities: One clears the few remaining forests for plantations, as it happened especially in Indonesia and Brazil. Or areas used for food production are to be turned into areas used for the cultivation of energy crops. The United States made up their mind within a short time directly to make their surplus maize into ethanol. Both significantly contributed to the fact that in 2007 on the world market the prices doubled for basic foodstuffs such as maize, rice and wheat. That meant more hunger in the world. The number of people going hungry in the world increased by 50 million to 850 million. And the one-dollar-a-day portion of humanity instead of eating a meal a day ate it only every second day.


A Dramatic Food Crisis

In view of the catastrophic social and environmental consequences of its energy policy the German Government reduced the proportion of admixture from renewable raw materials. The reason officially given that old cars do not cope with the petrol mix was probably rather a PR ploy. The EU too revised its targets for renewable energy. The new regulation of December 2008 plans that by 2020 20 per cent of energy are to come from renewable sources. This includes wind power, thermal energy and biofuel. In addition, social and environmental criteria for the import of biomass are to be drawn up.

The doubling of the world marked prices for food affected not only that third of humanity which is living in poverty. Countries that must import a high proportion of their food got a shock. The old neo-liberal myth that one should leave the agricultural production to countries with a locational advantage and rely on the world market had overnight proved to be a dangerous illusion.

The governments of the Gulf states which cover almost the entire supply of the population by imports, China and India which must supply the growing populations of more than one billion with food, and countries which have criminally neglected their own agriculture calculated that it would be safer and cheaper to transfer a part of their food production abroad. A frantic search for land began.

Africa was one of the goals. The Gulf states were primarily looking for land in other Islamic countries like Sudan, the Chinese began to open up farms in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Madagascar and Congo. Egypt is negotiating with Uganda about 840 000 hectares in order to cultivate wheat. South Korea's contract with Madagascar over 1.3 million hectares has admittedly fallen through by the political riots, but now India wants to take a lease for 50 years on 500 000 hectares of already cultivated land for cultivating rice. Muammar al Gaddafi, who wants to bring workers from Asia to Libya for a mega project, needs rice and has secured 100 000 hectares of the best land and water rights to the Niger River. But not only Africa is affected. The fertile loess soil of Ukraine attracts investments from all over the world.

Not only governments worried because of food security are looking for land. It is generally assumed that the food prices, which had slightly decreased in 2008, will increase in the long term. The world population is growing, climate change makes some regions of the world unusable for agriculture, and the green revolution comes up against limiting factors by increased use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. And food is a safe market: people will always eat and in favourable locations yields up to 40 percent are tempting. There is a long list of investment funds that have recently bought up land in order to invest in the agricultural sector containing the names of all the usual suspects: Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, BlackRock and many others.


Why do Governments Give Away the Last Resources?

One might wonder why the governments of the countries of the South sell off their last silverware. Petroleum, minerals and other natural resources are exploited by multinational corporations. What they leave the country are only small shares of the giant profits, and destroyed landscapes. Only about three per cent of the profits from gold production, for example, remain as so-called royalties in Ghana and are not even adduced in the state budget as revenue.

The Chad gets 15 percent of the oil and essentially uses them to buy arms for the civil war. The local population almost always comes away empty-handed.



What is left to them is their land, and now even this is to go to foreign investors. If they are lucky they may later as plantation workers work for a starvation wage on their own soil. So why do governments offer the last resource, the land, often even without charging rent for it?

Corruption is certainly often involved, but there are other motives too. On the one hand there is the widespread myth that investments are definitely good for the development of a country. And so governments create, also under the pressure of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, every possible relief in order to entice investors into the country. For this, e.g. the laws on landed property and even the Constitution are amended in case they limit the possibility of purchasing or leasing land. Whether these investments at the end bring real benefits to the population and boost a real development is usually not analysed.

It is the promise of jobs that lets even honest politician agree to doubtful investments. The fact that the wages are low and the working conditions often inhumane is then secondary. A politician who is able to get an investor and thus jobs for his electoral district has a chance to be re-elected. And for many people it is better to get a bad job than none at all.

But from investments governments hope also for an improvement in the infrastructure that they themselves cannot afford. You need roads, railways and ports in order to export biomass or grain on a large scale. The South Koreans promised the government of Congo-Brazzaville to repair the 2000 km long, clapped out railway. The price: 20 km of land on both sides along the line. There you can cultivate a lot.

What the governments in Africa, and not only in Africa lack is a planning on a long-term basis. They put the country's future at stake for temporary benefits. The clearing of large rainforest areas and the agricultural use of wetlands changes local climatic conditions. The expulsion of the rural population leads to streams of migrants into the slums of large cities, where the potential for social and political conflicts is constantly growing.



And nobody thinks of the needs of future generations. Even if today land still lies waste, where will - with the still rapid population growth in Africa - the next and next generation find a basis for its livelihood?


Everything Without a Public Debate

To let foreigners have half of the arable land for a century, as it was planned in Madagascar, is probably one of the most serious decisions that a government can take. One should assume that a parliamentary debate and a public discussion in the media were held about it. But negotiations and contracts remain strictly confidential just because land is an extremely sensitive issue. There was an outcry in the Ugandan Parliament, when by an indiscretion of the Ambassador it became known that Uganda wants to let Egypt have 840 000 hectares of land. President Yoweri Museveni simply declared the affair to be his personal matter [Chefsache]. Since then there is silence and nobody knows if and when the project will be implemented.

Ahab, a biblical king of Israel, was certainly not the first one who took land away from his subjects in order to supply the court. When his neighbour Jesreel refused to let him have his father's vineyard as a vegetable garden, he let him without more ado be killed by intrigue with the help of his wife (cf. 1 Kings 29). Similar crimes are today the order of the day, but they are mostly not committed with the help of treacherous murderers but by legal tricks. Hedge funds and private investors, big landowners, high-ranking military officers and politicians quite legally seize the land by circumventing the rights of traditional peoples with the help of modern laws on landed property.

Many generations of an extended family have cultivated a piece of land, but from ignorance and indigence they did not let their land register in the land registry. The registration of a plot of land costs more than subsistence farmers can afford. The Parliament has meanwhile changed the laws on landed property in favour of investors in order to attract investments. If a potential buyer is found for a cane or jatropha plantation the family gets a deadline to leave its inheritance. Compensation is at best given for the hut. For the land does not belong to them.

With the stroke of a pen lawyers have over night made the rural population to people without land and property. And if they should actually have a land title one usually buys it from them. People who are living from hand to mouth let themselves be dazzled by a few hundred U.S. dollars and think they had suddenly become rich. After a few months in the city they become too late aware of the truth that they have lost everything.

The massive land acquisitions and the expulsions connected with them in the countries of the South bring back memories of colonization. Joseph Diouf, head of the UN Organization FAO has called those land deals as a kind of "neo-colonialism".

At Ahab's times there was the prophet Elijah who threatened the king with God's judgment. In a secularized world there are human rights and environmental organizations and a few courageous church leaders who on behalf of the human right to life and food protest against the expulsion of local farmers - often without much success, because the not declared right to economic growth and profits has mostly political priority. Protests against land robbery by the powerful can also be dangerous, and many human rights activists have paid with their lives because they have defended the population's rights to land.

In Africa the churches speak up for the protection and a fair use of the national resources. Already the First Bishops' Conference for Africa in 1994 reminded governments of their "obligation to defend the common heritage against all forms of waste and fraud by citizens without a sense of responsibility for the public weal and by unscrupulous foreigners" (Ecclesia in Africa, 113).

The working paper, the "Instrumentum Laboris" for the Second African Synod devotes a separate paragraph to the land issue (see HK, May 2009, 223 ff; February 2009, 104 ff): "Multinational organizations continue systematically to invade the continent in search of natural resources. In complicity with African leaders, they oppress local companies, buy thousands of hectares of land and expropriate populations from their lands. Their adverse effect on the environment and creation affects the peace and well-being of the African people and, thus, the prospects of their living in harmony ..." (No. 23). It would be desirable that the Synod of Bishops that will meet from 4 to 25 October 2009 in Rome raises loudly and clearly its voice against this new form of exploitation.


Industrial Agricultural Monoculture Against Small Farms

Politicians react differently to those appalling injustices. For those who are still rooted in the neo-liberal paradigm land is nothing else but a commodity like any other. To use it profitably means progress, for it contributes to economic growth in the country and increases the gross national income. In addition, many of them are in secret convinced that small farmers do anyway not stand a chance on the world market and are a dying species.



But there are also other voices. The world agricultural report of 2008 written by more than 400 prominent scientists sees the future of supplying the world population with food and the overcoming of poverty far less in commercial monocultures than in promoting small farms. This is similarly seen also by Church relief organisations like Misereor. They had great success in helping small farmers to improve their traditional methods of cultivation and breeding and to become independent of expensive chemical fertilizers by organic cultivation, whereas in recent years the state aid had more or less written the rural development off.

As in the financial sector, a reorientation is urgently needed also in the policy on land and agriculture. Besides the reduction of agricultural subsidies and the opening of the markets for products from developing countries it is also important no longer to subject the food supply of countries only to the laws of the market. Access to food is a human right that has to be secured by the state.

The call for "food sovereignty" is increasingly raised - a programme developed by the Landless Movement "Via Campesina" in Brazil against the land acquisitions by big landowners. Food sovereignty postulates the right of every country to maintain or to develop those capacities that are needed to secure the food security for its population. This also means to protect the producers in the countries concerned against the dumping of food prices and at the same time to guarantee access to the necessary resources - land, water and seeds to them. In such a policy the local small farm producing for the needs of the own population takes precedence over the monocultures of export-oriented, industrial agricultural production. This especially applies to the most precious resource, land.

When you consider that 70 percent of all poor people in developing countries are dependent on agriculture for their survival, you can appreciate what it means when more and more poor are driven out of the land. The streams of migrants that dead or alive already today arrive on our coasts will dramatically increase, and the increasing potential for violence and conflict will also threaten our security. It is therefore in our own best interest to protect the right to land of the small farmers of the South against the insatiable greed of investors.


    {*} Wolfgang Schonecke (born in 1938) was until 2007 head of the Network Africa Germany ( with headquarters in Bonn and Berlin. From 1965-1982 he worked in the pastoral care in Uganda; from 1982-1992 Schonecke took over tasks of leadership for his Order of the Africa Missionaries - White Fathers; from 1994-2001 he led the Pastoral Department of the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa (AMECEA).


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