From Midwest "missionaries" to Wall Street speculators, investors are grabbing massive swathes of common land, especially in Africa
I'm putting up the full article as it requires registration to access it. Many activists are put off by this so please leave it up. It tells an important story about how land in the developing world is stolen, even by god fearing folk who made their money in private prisons. Another great article by Fred Pearce.
MIGHTY MOM was angry. She was doing her washing a few miles from Lake Victoria in east Africa, soaping her clothes in the shadow of a tall chain-link fence, behind which there was a large farm. The farm was owned by an evangelical American who had made his fortune running private prisons for state governments in the US before coming to Kenya and taking a leasehold to drain the Yala swamp and grow rice in place of papyrus.
Calvin Burgess, the prison king, assured me he was bringing wealth to the region's Luo people, and that the swamp he was draining (with the help of engineers from Louisiana) was a worthless malarial wasteland. He had erected a large white cross in the middle of the farm, which he called Dominion Farm, to assure the world he was doing God's work
But Jennifer Acheng, wearing a torn pink T-shirt emblazoned with the words "Mighty Mom", begged to differ. "Calvin came to see us when he started," she said. "We were so happy. We sang for him then. We called him 'rain - the father of food'." But this was not to be. She and the 1500 or so villagers squatting outside the farm fence told me that the swamp had been their wealth. "We cut the papyrus to make mats, baskets and thatch for our huts. Even the poorest families had at least twenty cattle for meat and milk," said Acheng.
Now they are cut off from the swamp, their cattle are gone: all they got in return are a few jobs for women weeding because, as the farm manager Ronald Boone explained to me, the women are cheaper than pesticides.
Dominion Farm is not alone, and nor are the people of Yala. Africa's great common lands - the swamps, savannahs and forests - are being fenced off in a rush for land spreading across the continent and many other parts of the world. It is the 21st-century equivalent of Europe's enclosure of once-common land that started in the Middle Ages.
Researching my book The Landgrabbers, I visited Asian companies growing palm oil in west Africa, watched Brazilian ranchers maraud across Paraguay and sugar barons usurp land and water from Mali to Cambodia. I saw British grabbers go bust after taking advice to buy land to grow a biofuel wonder-weed called jatropha, and stumbled on a pair of Indian and Saudi billionaires who between them have taken over an area of south-west Ethiopia that is larger than Luxembourg.
Oxfam estimates 220 million hectares of mostly common land - that is the equivalent of France, Spain, Germany, Italy and the UK combined - have been "grabbed" worldwide in the past five years. But in truth nobody knows. Many governments even welcome land-grabbers. For example, Sai Ramakrishna Karuturi, who created the world's largest rose-growing business, pays annual rent of under $1 per hectare for a slice of Ethiopia newly cleared of inhabitants, land his head farmer describes as some of the richest land he has ever tilled.
So why are those governments so generous? Many of them have starved their farmers of assistance for decades and they see any foreign investment as good for development. That's why dirt-poor South Sudan handed over a tenth of its land to foreigners even before it raised the flag of independence in July last year. But for people like Acheng, it looks like the opposite of development. It looks like what it is: a land-grab.
Three things triggered the rush. During 2008, the price of internationally traded food tripled because of terrible harvests, and some exporting countries kept back food for their citizens. This prompted a panic among major food importers. Countries like South Korea, Saudi Arabia and China began buying foreign land to keep their peoples fed. At the same time, a boom in biofuels saw a rush to grow fuel crops. And then came the speculators. With the price of crops soaring, the obvious smart move was to buy land to grow them on. Investment bankers started putting on galoshes. Blue-chip investors like George Soros are convinced that farmland is going to be one of the best investments of our time.
The biggest prize is the Guinea savannah zone, 4 million square kilometres of bush and grasslands between central Africa's tropical rainforests and the desert to the north and south. It stretches from the Atlantic shores of Senegal east to Sudan, then south through Kenya and Tanzania to Zambia, Mozambique and Angola. The World Bank calls this arc "the world's last large reserve of under-used land". But it is also home to half a billion farmers and pastoralists. They are among the world's poorest people and their numbers are increasing fast.
The argument for grabbing this land is that it badly needs western investment and know-how to make it productive. Economist Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion, argues that "peasant farming is not well-suited to innovation and investment". There are "still many areas of the world - including large swathes of Africa - that have good land that could be used far more productively if it were properly managed by large companies".
For him, the World Bank and others, the model is the recent Brazilian transformation of the cerrado grasslands on the fringes of the Amazon into high-tech fields of soya, corn and cotton stretching hundreds of kilometres. But Africa is not Brazil. The World Bank report Awakening Africa's Sleeping Giant, which identified the Guinea zone as a honeypot, also admitted that "there is little evidence that the large-scale farming model is either necessary or even particularly promising for Africa".
Even some land-grabbers have had second thoughts. Take British farmer James Siggs. In 2008, he helped to set up a company called Feronia, to create "US-style large-scale agriculture" on 100,000 hectares in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 2011, Siggs told the Agriculture Investment Summit Europe held in London in June 2011 that he had come to believe that "exclusively industrial-scale farming displaces and alienates people, creates few jobs and causes social disruption".
Remember, too, Asia's "green revolution", which turned food prospects from famine to feast in the late 20th century. This was built on smallholders, who typically deliver higher yields than big capital-intensive farms by using every scrap of land and employing labour to maximise production rather than profit. If Africa's small farmers, now averaging 1.5 tonnes of grain per hectare, could match their Asian counterparts' 5-tonne average, it would transform the continent.
Making African farming work for Africans should start by investing in small farmers. Raising yields does not require land-grabbing, it requires fertiliser. Strong support for this position comes from Jeffrey Sachs, special adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the Millennium Development Goals. Sachs praises the example of Malawi, which went from grain importer to exporter after subsidising fertiliser for small farmers.
And there are other examples. In the Kenyan highlands, the Akamba people still work family plots, but sell vegetables and milk to Nairobi, avocados to France, mangoes and oranges to the Middle East, and green beans to British supermarkets. In many cities in Africa, part-time farmers working roadside plots, wastelands, rooftops, garbage dumps, railway yards and even university campuses, produce as much as a tenth of the food eaten by urban people. In India, the lives of millions of poor farmers have been transformed by selling milk to dairies they own collectively.
Surely that should be the future for Africa. African enterprise for African markets, not an invasion of foreign investors more interested in fattening up their bottom lines than in feeding a continent. Tear down the fences: my money is on Mighty Mom.
From issue 2870 of New Scientist magazine, page 28-29.
Fred Pearce is an environmental and development consultant for New Scientist. This essay is based on his latest book, The Landgrabbers: The new fight over who owns the earth. It is published by Eden Project Books (UK) and Beacon Press (US)