In 2009, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released the report, Land Grab or Development Opportunity? Agricultural Investment and International Land Deals in Africa. The report was driven by media reports of increased land acquisition not only in Africa, but South America, Central America and Southeast Asia.
Although data was difficult to obtain, the FAO report found that in five African countries about 6.2 million acres had been purchased by foreign interests between 2004 and 2008. This estimate only includes acquisitions greater than 2,500 acres. The largest land acquisition—1.3 million acres in Madagascar—is to be used for biofuels production.
In September 2010, the World Bank released a report about the on-going land grab in less developed countries. The World Bank report estimated that 110 million acres, an area more than three times the size of Iowa, was included in land deals in 2009. This spike in land acquisition was largely due to the rapid rise in food prices in 2008. Seventy percent of the land in the World Bank report was located in Africa. Based on limited data, Middle Eastern and Asian countries are leading the land acquisition that some call “neocolonialism.”
The implications of neocolonialism, some argue, range from social unrest created by the displacement of farmers with some farmers moved off land they thought they owned, to environmental concerns or issues related to how countries like Cameroon (32), Ethiopia (4), Madagascar (16), Mali (37), Sudan (19), Tanzania (25), and Zambia (13) will address food security. Unfortunately, these countries face some of the greatest hunger challenges; the Global Hunger Index rank for each country in shown in parentheses.
It goes without saying that a range of perspectives exist on this wave of neocolonialism. In his article “The Next Empire” published in The Atlantic, Howard French notes that some believe China’s approach to Africa is very different from the West’s aid-oriented, paternalistic approach. Ironically, China is focusing on trade and commercially-justified investments. According to an economist reared in Zambia: “…This is a transformational moment for Africa. I see the explosive development of infrastructure. I see people producing more food and having more jobs.…”
The ongoing neocolonial acquisition of land by private interests—often subsidized by government—adds another layer of complexity to the problem of feeding the hungry of the world. Some of the incentive for countries like China to buy or lease land in less developed countries derives from higher food prices and higher oil prices. However, in many cases there is a strong strategic motivation, for countries like China to address its own food security through land acquisition. This not only makes the challenge of addressing food security in Africa more daunting, it has the potential to affect U.S. trade, U.S. agricultural production, and the U.S. humanitarian role in helping to feed the hungry of Africa.
Related article: African Land Grabbing: Whose Interests Are Served?