What happened to land grabs in Africa?

More than a decade since the surge in large-scale land acquisitions worldwide, many land deals remain in limbo. They nonetheless have far-reaching consequences for those who depend on land as foundational to life.

Oil palm plantation in Sierra Leone. Photo credit: Maja Hitij

Violence against land rights defenders in Uganda and anti-mine protesters in South Africa. Oil palm plantations razing forests in Liberia and the island of São Tomé. Industrial waste from sugarcane plantations polluting the environment and damaging livelihoods in Nigeria.

These are just some of the headlines from this past month. Reports such as these have not abated since the food and fuel price hike of 2007 and 2008 sparked new enclosures of land and resources across the world. Africa has been, and still is, the most heavily targeted continent for large-scale land acquisitions in terms of the total number and size of land deals reported. The past two decades’ global rush for African land has been driven by concerns about resource scarcity and misguided assumptions that Africa abounds in “empty” or “idle” land that suffers from what the World Bank has called “high yield gaps.”

But herein lies the paradox: whereas land-seeking investors show continued interest in Africa, the continent is also home to the largest proportion of what some observers have called “failed” land deals (in the narrowest sense that negotiations and contracts have been canceled). According to Land Matrix, a public database on global land deals, half of all “failed” transnational agricultural land deals between 2000 and 2020 occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. Another study highlights that investors involved in agriculture, energy, forestry, and other sectors in Africa have frequently been mired in disputes with local communities that lead to significant project delays.

In our new, guest-edited African Studies Review forum on “Understanding Land Deals in Limbo in Africa,” we take up these issues further by examining the contentious politics of incomplete land grabs in Senegal, Tanzania, and Zambia. Drawing on long-term ethnographic research, the four studies in the forum show that even when land deals are canceled, stalled, downsized, transferred to new owners, or stay dormant and speculative for many years, they can still produce far-reaching consequences that often go unnoticed.

What explains these contingent results? How do different parties involved—host states, foreign and domestic investors, and local communities—negotiate the uncertainties and anticipations surrounding not-yet-realized projects? Who are the ultimate winners and losers? These questions must be at the forefront of policy debates on land, development, and agrarian transformation in Africa. Here, we highlight three key themes from the forum that have important lessons and broader relevance for understanding similar dynamics across the continent.

The first lesson has to do with the challenges of land control and governance. A common pattern we find across the case studies is that even when states have formally transferred land to investors, investors have a hard time taking possession of it on the ground. Take the case of Zambia: as our colleagues show, investors there have struggled to navigate a plural land tenure system in which they had to assemble hundreds of different title deeds to physically create a large-scale block farm—an effort which proved to be in vain. As all the cases in the forum show, the tracts of land which governments allocate to investors are often already occupied by customary resource users. Of course, some projects can and have used force to dispossess local populations, but this is often an unpopular choice for investors concerned with maintaining their image as “responsible” companies.

In most parts of Africa, where state institutions directly control the land acquisition process, investors are compelled to perform and sustain amiable relationships with host governments, even if that requires repeatedly realigning their project objectives to meet government priorities. Even then, investors still bear the risk of the state arbitrarily revoking their title deeds, as we have seen in numerous countries across the region. This is often a consequence of nation-states needing to juggle the competing demands of capital accumulation via resource extraction on the one hand, and preserving their political legitimacy and social stability among majority rural voters on the other.

The second lesson is that the uncertainties surrounding stalled land deals lay bare the complexity of local politics and, at times, reinforce social inequalities. The forum highlights how prolonged negotiations can create opportunities for diverse groups of people, including local residents, landless migrants, and local elites to occupy and/or sell plots within investment areas, thereby foiling corporate attempts at land control. Local resistance efforts, such as protests and lawsuits, can temporarily halt land deals or force states to revisit contracts, as the studies from Tanzania and Senegal show. But they can also deepen local fault lines by excluding women, certain ethnic or religious groups, and the people who are most likely to be displaced. Investors, for their part, may try to co-opt consent from a small group of powerful actors to avoid further delays and deflect popular dissent.

The final lesson speaks to the limits of capital. Despite promises of millions of dollars of capital outlays and socioeconomic benefits, investors seldom come with cash in hand, particularly for large-scale “greenfield” projects. Numerous cases, including the ones featured in our forum, demonstrate the difficulties investors face with raising start-up funds, withstanding fluctuations in the global commodity market, managing financial risks and shareholder expectations, and, in the case of agriculture, adapting to ecological production constraints that capital and technology cannot fully resolve. Many investors also do not have the necessary experience with tropical agriculture. Large-scale land acquisitions in Africa—once thought of as a “safe” way for investors in the global North to hedge against inflation and food and energy shortfalls—have yielded little success in providing easy fixes to capitalist crises.

In brief, the complex interplay of land governance, local political dynamics, and capital’s own contradictions can push land deals in different and unexpected directions. These inconclusive land deals, however, can still severely limit people’s land access and livelihoods, perpetuate fear of dispossession, and intensify local conflicts. And in some cases, they can lead to international arbitration processes between states and foreign investors—processes which seldom serve the interests of rural communities.

As the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, companies are devising new tactics to evict farmers while governments fast-track legislative reforms to facilitate land acquisitions. To make agricultural development truly sustainable and equitable, policymakers must take heed of the invisible costs that both ongoing and unfinished land grabs impose on diverse rural communities.

Further Reading

Stop Land Grabs Petition

The Oakland Institute has put together a petition to U.S. president Barack Obama and the USAID administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah, asking them to stop their support to the Ethiopian government while the latter engages in exploitative land deals with foreign corporations and governments.