NAIROBI, Jul 19 – With a shortage of arable land and rising global demand for food driving foreign states toward Africa, the once-colonised continent risks coming under new domination if the deals are mishandled, experts warn.
But some analysts counter that land leases, often covering swathes of territory, may just be the solution to food shortages and an avenue for development.
South Korea\’s Daewoo Logistics had planned to sign Africa\’s largest land lease deal in Madagascar until the arrangement was abandoned following the outbreak of a political crisis there in January.
The firm was to develop 3.2 million acres of farmland, the size of Belgium, but the political upheaval, partly due to the deal, scuppered plans that have since been put on hold.
Under the agreement, Daewoo planned to produce four million tonnes of maize and 500,000 tonnes of palm oil a year.
Madagascar\’s internationally recognised president, Marc Ravalomanana, fled the country on March 25 after Andry Rajoelina seized power with army support amid street protests.
In Kenya, authorities in December announced plans to lease 100,000 acres of land to the Qatari government in exchange for the Gulf state\’s 3.5-million-dollar investment in a new port, road and railway network.
To cope with rising global grain prices, China\’s Chongqing Seed Corporation said in May last year it planned to grow rice in Tanzania, where it had identified 740 acres of land for potential use.
"It is probably a good thing for those countries on the one hand but a terrible thing for the African countries, because it\’s like starting a branch of whatever country we are taking about here," said Pedro Sanchez of the Earth Institute.
"They will be able to bring all the technology, investment and increase food production, but I am afraid it is not going to generate employment for the Africans," he told AFP.
Weeks after Kenya announced the plans, President Mwai Kibaki declared a national disaster as some 10 million people faced food shortages and appealed for 400 million dollars in foreign aid.
Kenyan lawyer Evans Monari termed the lease deal with Qatar as "hegemony." "Qatar would never give Kenya a stake in its oil fields," he said.
In an April report, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) said "land is an inherently political issue across the globe."
"The addition of another actor competing for this scarce and contested resource can add to socio-political instability in developing countries."
But pointing to a dearth of infrastructure and general underdevelopment in many African countries, Nigerian economist Jonas Chianu argued that the exchange of land for development provides a way out for growth.
"Instead of allowing the resource to lie unexploited it is better to embark on lease arrangements," he said.
Only 25 percent of Africa\’s 807 million hectares of arable land is under cultivation, according to a 2002 report commissioned by the Food and Agriculture Organisation.
"These land acquisitions have the potential to inject much-needed investment into agriculture and rural areas in poor developing countries," said IFPRI.
Environmentalists have also raised alarm over the potential risks that such large-scale farming poses to the ecosystem.
In Kenya, conservationists and local residents say the earmarked land is part of the expansive Tana river delta that sustains threatened bird and fish species.
"This is a wetland. If it is destroyed it will endanger several fish species which use it for breeding as well as birds," said Wario Ali, who heads the Tana River Pastoralists Community Association.
At a recent G8 summit in Italy, leading industrialised countries announced plans to regulate the land acquisitions in developing nations.
"Investors have no obligations. Millions of hectares are traded at throw-away prices on three-page contracts," said Olivier de Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food.
"All this is happening without the knowledge of the people," he told AFP.