Monday, June 01, 2009

Foreign Purchase of African Agricultural Lands: Neo-colonialism or Development Aid?

Sources
Financial Times: Tokyo Aims to Halt ‘Farmland Grabbing’, Africa Almost Giving Land Away, Says UN
FAO (UN): Land Grab or Development Opportunity (Full Report)

Wealthy countries like Saudi Arabia, China and South Korea are turning to Africa to boost their food security. Not self-sufficient in food production, these countries have acquired large tracts of farmland in African nations at extremely low prices, while making indefinite promises of local jobs and infrastructure. They intend to export virtually all of the crops grown on African soil back to their home countries, for use as either food or biofuel.

A recent report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, in conjunction with the International Institute for Environment and Development, highlights the rudimentary nature of these land agreements. The farmland contracts are conspicuously short and simple, and make little mention of host country priorities like the improvement of local infrastructure, local food security and the utilization of a local labor supply.

Many are troubled by these purchases, calling them neo-colonial land grabs. Japanese leaders in particular have stepped out in opposition to inequitable land dealings in Africa. The Japanese have articulated a commitment to responsible investing and will present an initiative at the Group of Eight Summit in July. The UN, World Bank and African Union are also addressing the problem, but officials agree that a G8-backed plan would be more powerful. The Japanese plan seeks to harmonize and promote the interests of investors and host countries while promoting greater investment in agriculture overall.

Foreign involvement in agriculture undoubtedly has the potential to benefit African nations. To do so, it must be done equitably, with terms of trade favorable to the host country. Infrastructure and technological research must be grounded in the host country for foreign agribusiness to boost local productivity.

Discussion:
1. Geopolitically, is food the new oil? Are the historical lessons of natural resource exploitation in other fields relevant to the purchase of farmland in Africa today?
2. Public outcry at foreign acquisition of local lands was one of the triggering factors in Madagascar’s recent coup d’état. What are the long-term political implications, for other nations, of such large agricultural leases?

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