As foreign countries and private money flows into African agriculture, the question remains who benefits?
Faced with an increasing world population and dwindling land resources - 90% of the world's arable land excluding forests and fragile ecosystems is already in use, claims the Times - countries are getting creative in figuring out how they will continue to feed their populations.
Increasingly, nations are eyeing land in Africa. Countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and South Korea are securing land deals in countries such as Ethiopia, Madagascar and Tanzania.
On the one hand, these are all things that many countries on the African continent need. Many of these countries are struggling to feed their populations and improved infrastructure could provide benefits such as improved medical and clean water access.
On the other hand, we are not talking about small parcels of land. Land deals profiled in a recent Food and Agriculture (FAO) report on the issue include approved include a 452,500 ha biofuel project in Madagascar, a 150,000 ha livestock project in Ethiopia, and a 100,000 ha irrigation project in Mali. These are large parcels of land being taken out of the control of a nation's people and being conscripted into service to feed or meet another nation's needs. Is that in any way sustainable or equitable?
Many countries cite that their concern over food security as the impetus to their interest in agricultural investment in Africa. The recent food crises have left them uneasy, and as nations with little arable land, increasing populations, or both, they worry that the day will come that food cannot be purchased at any price. Fair enough. But in increasing their own food security, aren't they wresting from these African nations the right to do the same?
As the FAO piece points out many of the countries involved in these deals do not have in place legal or procedural mechanisms to protect local rights and take account of local interests, livelihoods and welfare.
This is cause for concern.
Not just because this so-called development may lead to many benefits for the investors and none for the invested-in, but because it may also hamper real development while also spurring on hunger. It may hamper development by taking land out of local hands, reducing the ability for local development. It can spur on hunger, because it is not uncommon for poor nations to be net exporters of food even while their own populace starves; it is doubtful that the local populations can pay what the producers could get, for example, on the international market; and it’s questionable as to what rights if any the local governments can have over the producers beyond what is explicitly stated in their agreements.
The most egregious example of how this can create a hunger situation is in the Irish potato famine of the 1800's in which 1 million Irish people died, and another million emigrated. Throughout the entire famine Ireland was a net exporter of food; the food, however, came from land under British control and was exported to England where it could command higher prices.
This is not an issue left to the 1800's, either.
During the 1973 Wollo Famine in Ethiopia, food was being shipped out of Wollo to the capital city of Addis Ababa where it could command higher prices. In fact a 2006 paper titled Famine without Shortages by Nigar Hashimzade details how famines can happen without scarcity. In short, as a 2006 famine in Lesotho illustrated, in which 2/3rds of the population did not have access to food, despite there being no food shortage. They were simply too poor to purchase the food.
Taken together this creates a picture that is cause at the very least for pause, if not outright concern.
The investing countries should also be concerned. To quote the Times article "“The idea that one country would go to another country, and lease some land, and expect that the rice produced there would be made available to them if there’s a food crisis in that host country, is ludicrous.”