Follow up on Land Grabs in Africa

Over the past week it has been a welcome change to put aside uni work and blogging to catch up with friends and family and enjoy the spring weather. But I’ve still been reading and one book which I’ve found really interesting is Paul McMahon’s “Feeding Frenzy: The New Politics of Food.” This fairly slim, but robustly-researched volume, published just last year, investigates the issue of feeding the world into the future. I appreciate the balanced way in which McMahon explores the myriad issues associated with the topic, (which have been politicised, manipulated and misunderstood), as well as his determination to not only point out the challenges we face, but to note the successes we have achieved and to lay out some suggestions for future improvements.

The book and its author.

Colin McMahon confirmed some of the assertions of the Green Ideas and NatGeo articles which I discussed in my last post. Our current systems of agricultural production and food distribution are, in significant aspects, flawed and in need of reformation. We live in a world where one in eight people go hungry, and one in five people are obese. Even though population growth is now slowing, there are still over 200,000 extra mouths to feed every day. Climate change is expected to lead to increasingly unpredictable weather which will impact food production methods.

However, McMahon urges us to never jump to conclusions. He does not agree with doomsday prophesies that have gained notoriety in recent years. We have made stunning progress in recent years, for example, in raising livestock and developing fertilisers, and as a result we are better fed than ever before. Climate change will not impact all areas equally and in some parts of the world harvests may well be improved. Nevertheless, we face some grave challenges. People are dying from starvation and malnutrition. There are enormous discrepancies in crop yields across the world. We are using up the reserves of oil and gas which enable our intensive agricultural systems to work and we are degrading the environment in the process. In eleven chapters, McMahon discusses some of the main issues that face us today, how they have arisen and how they can be tackled.

McMahon devotes one of his chapters to the question of land grabs across the world. There is a lot of crossover between this chapter and the articles from my last blog. For example, McMahon notes that land grabs taking place in many different regions of the world, whilst significant, are no match for what is taking place in Africa; the region with the greatest potential for large-scale agricultural intensification. The number one country for foreign deals is Sudan, followed by Madagascar, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Benin. McMahon also wonders whether sub-Saharan Africa (along with South America) can be a new breadbasket for Africa and the world. He discusses issues covered in the other articles, such as the lack of compensation given to local people who lose their land and the damage inflicted on the environment. What I am more interested to discuss here, however, are the points on which he diverges from (the impression I got of) the other articles. How has McMahon challenged my nascent understanding of this topic?

Who is responsible for these deals?

In my last blog I wrote that it is “investors in countries such as Brazil, Japan, Portugal and China” who are snapping up areas of land in Africa to develop into large-scale agricultural projects. Aside from the fact that “investors” is a very vague term, (I should probably have specified financial investors, governments and multinational corporations), it is interesting that McMahon argues that the principal foreign companies and states interested in acquiring African land actually hail from the rich Gulf states. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE are looking abroad to gain land and water to achieve security of supply, especially in the wake of the global food crisis. (McMahon notes that the private and public spheres operating in these countries are often interlinked, for “the same princes and sheikhs dominate both,” [p.189] so maybe my slippery term can be partly excused.) Other states seeking to obtain land overseas include Asian countries such as South Korea, EU members such as Germany and Sweden, and established or rising powers such as the USA, India and Brazil.

Saudi Arabia is often behind lucrative land deals.
Image from Encyclopedia Britannica.

Furthermore, despite popular sentiment bolstered by the media, China does not have well-defined foreign policy interests (at least not at this stage) in developing tracts of land in Africa. (So including China in my list last time may have been unintentionally inaccurate.) According to McMahon, “China’s activities in Africa have been limited. Although individual Chinese migrants and companies have been running small farms or livestock production units in Africa for many years, the official policy of the Chinese government is not to acquire large tracts of land… The rumour of China as a rapacious grabber of African land says more about Western perceptions of China, and Western paranoia about China’s economic rise, than it does about China itself.” [pp. 195-6]

Are land deals even successful?

Something I gave no consideration to in my last post was whether or not these land acquisitions are actually worthwhile. I assumed that they are profitable, after all, the articles suggested that crop yields in sub-Saharan Africa are extremely low but that the soil is fertile – so surely new technologies and agricultural methods would ramp up old techniques. As usual, the reality is more complex, so this is not necessarily the case. In fact, McMahon suggests that a great proportion of land deals have been stunning failures and that companies and governments are having to rethink their methods. (However it is worth noting, as McMahon himself does, that it is difficult to gain accurate information on these topics, as these deals are highly secretive.)

The problem seems to be that Western methods of agricultural production are being applied to an African context where they often do not work. McMahon cites examples of heavy machinery breaking down and needing to be replaced, migratory antelope destroying pastures and seasonal rainfall washing away expensive crops. Some of the areas which are being developed are isolated and require huge injections of capital to establish the necessary adequate infrastructure such as roads and ports to transport harvests out of the country. If companies are not careful, they can end up overspending and going bankrupt. As McMahon writes, “Conditions are very different in sub-Saharan Africa to the USA or Brazil. Land and labour and plentiful and cheap. Conversely, getting machinery and inputs to remote farms is extremely expensive.” [p.203]

There is no such thing as terra nullius.

In other cases, foreigners have imposed themselves on tracts of land, ignoring the fact that the land belongs to indigenous people through long-standing customary titles. McMahon writes that, “it is a myth that there are vast areas of ‘idle’ or ‘vacant’ land in the world, suitable for cultivation. This is similar to the concept of terra nullius that past imperialists used to justify their occupation of distant territory, brushing indigenous people out of the picture.” [p.197] When their land rights are not respected, local people may fight back – destroying crops and machinery and causing farms to be deserted, or expensive security systems to be deployed. In the eyes of many people from developing countries, according to McMahon, “land has cultural, sentimental and political meaning. It is a reminder of past dispossession, a symbol of present dignity and a source of future security.” [p.201] Having one’s land taken away is not to be taken lightly. NGOs often take up the cause of the local people and their potential to damage the reputation of multinationals has convinced companies to back out of deals. Dozens of land projects have been abandoned.

What’s going to happen then?

McMahon’s most positive scenario is for foreign investors to achieve deals that respect local communities and the environment. Such schemes would be on a smaller scale and would make use of agro-ecology methods to preserve the environment. Perhaps people will learn a lesson from the failed past land grabs and start on this alternative route? Maybe. A bleaker scenario is that countries will be so desperate for security of food supply that they will fork out huge amounts of money to maintain expensive overseas agricultural projects. They will do deals with governments to suppress local dissent, ship in machinery, fly in foreign labour and run their farms like mini colonies. Whatever the case, there is no doubt that we are going to see great transformations over the next few decades. Overseas land deals are taking place on an unprecedented scale – unlike anything else that we have seen in the past century. This is definitely worth further investigation.

* Emily Watson is an external contributor of this blog. The original post can be found from