The land grabs in Africa you don’t hear about

There's little doubt that Chinese and Arab interests are procuring land in Africa, but a careful review of the evidence suggests also point to local buyers.

Image credit Maarten Elings via Flickr.

In the ongoing global debate about income and wealth inequality, a little known fact with particular relevance for Africa and with far reaching consequences has flown under the radar: land in Africa, which historically has been available to many, is increasingly becoming concentrated in the hands of the few. More than half of all those living on the continent derive a livelihood from land through agriculture. In some countries like Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia, the percentage of people depending on the land exceeds 70 percent. Most of these people tend to be poor, growing just what they need and selling what little surplus remains.

The last couple of years have seen an increase in the number of media reports exposing “land grabs” in Africa. These reports have tended to focus on transactions involving Chinese or Middle-Eastern companies. For instance, the Guardian carried a widely shared story in 2013 on the proposed leasing of 1,500 square kilometers of land bordering the Serengeti National Park to a Dubai-based hunting and safari company. The deal would deprive thousands of Maasai of valuable grazing land for their cattle. Two years prior, the Guardian ran an extensive story on China’s Africa land grab.

While there is little doubt that Chinese and Arab interests are procuring land in Africa, a careful review of the evidence suggests that the biggest perpetrators are much more insidious. In a highly insightful book titled The Great African Land Grab?, Lorenzo Cotula of the International Institute for Environment and Development has marshaled the best available evidence on the scale and geography of the problem. Given that most transactions involving land take place behind a veil of opacity, credible continent-wide estimates of scale are hard to come by. Mr. Cotula instead chooses to focus on a handful of countries (Ethiopia, Liberia, Mozambique, Nigeria and Sudan) where systematic national land inventories have been conducted. In these five countries, the evidence shows that about 10 million hectares of land, roughly the size of Iceland, has been acquired between 2004 and 2009.  Contrary to media accounts and widely held perceptions, it is well-connected urban nationals (such as civil servants, business people and politicians) who have grabbed the majority of this land in rural areas.

For instance, Nigerians acquired 97% of almost 1 million hectares of land between 2004 and 2009. In Sudan, Mozambique and Ethiopia the percentages acquired by locals were respectively 78%, 53% and 49%. A study based on a 2010 survey of land acquisitions in Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger found that over 95% of the investors in land deals were locals.  One of the reasons why land deals involving locals go unreported in the media is that individually they tend to be small, about 85 hectares on average, but cover lots of land in the aggregate given the number of transactions.

A second set of culprits, also flying underneath the media radar and unbeknownst to many land rights campaigners in the West, are actually Western-based companies. A study reviewed in Mr. Cotula’s book showed that about half of all the land acquired in Africa between 2005 and 2011 was done by Western companies. European companies often lead the way – a situation that brings back bitter memories of colonial era land grabs. The same study showed that companies based in the United Kingdom, the United States and Norway were respectively the 1st, 2nd and 4th biggest external land grabbers in Africa.

Whereas the land grabbers of yore were mainly interested in plantation agriculture, the current generation is a diverse bunch. About 60% of the land acquired is for growing crops for biofuels to meet increasing energy demand in the West. Some of the land is used to plant trees to take advantage of carbon credit schemes. Norwegian companies are in the lead here having large tree plantations in Mozambique, Tanzania and South Sudan. Hedge funds are also involved, channelling money from Western pension funds, endowments and wealthy individuals into land deals hoping to cash in on any future rises in the price of land.

Ironically, the African middle class is acquiring land using the same methods and tactics perfected during the colonial era. Prior to colonization, local people laid claim to land using complex customary systems that had developed over centuries. The role of traditional authorities was to keep a record of different subjects’ land claims and to resolve any land conflicts that arose. The onset of colonialism had a profound impact on this system. For one thing, the colonial administrators elevated the position of traditional authorities vis-à-vis subjects and reinterpreted customary law so that all land decisions resided with the chief. All someone had to do when acquiring land was to deal with the chief – cutting out the original occupants of the land from the decision-making process. According to Cotula, the same modus operandi has sadly continued today, as people with money create alliances with local leaders in order to seize land.

Naturally, the impact on people whose land is taken is devastating. Families have lost land to farm on and land for cattle grazing. Sometimes they’ve lost complete access to water resources. What’s most tragic is that the urban elite often acquire land not to make meaningful investments, but for purposes of conspicuous consumption or to speculate on land prices. Western companies who acquire land rarely even use it.

So what can be done? First, we need increased transparency around land transactions in Africa. As things stand today, it is difficult to know who owns what in most countries. For instance, land policy in Zambia is still formulated on the basis of a land audit performed in the early 1990s (Cotula thinks this is no accident, as out of date data favours the land grabbing elite). Second, there is a need for African countries to reform colonial era titling systems to incorporate the claims of customary “title deed” holders. Lastly, the World Bank has recommended the levying of an annual land tax. Such a tax has the potential to raise money to compensate those whose lives are disrupted. The tax can also ensure that wasteful activities such as conspicuous consumption and land speculation are kept to a minimum (although the irony seems to be lost on the World Bank that they too have been involved in land grabs in Africa).

The last decade or two has seen millions of the rural poor losing their claim rights to land. The debate on inequality in Africa needs to be rooted in this reality if it is to have any relevance at all.

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