Thursday, 24 February 2011

The flip-side of 'land grabs'

As so often happens when big issues like land and food are being discussed, the story of the South African farmers in Africa has been drowned out in railing against foreign land-grabs in Africa. The concern with so-called 'land grabs' is, of course, that foreign nations like India, China and Brazil, who are reportedly buying up large tracts of land in African countries, are using up land that those African countries desperately need to feed their own people. When countries are struggling under the weight of massive debt, limited economic growth and/or the expensive dictators, they will quite often sell off their land, with little regard (the concerned Western narrative goes) for their own people, future or food security.

This story is pretty much the reverse of that. These countries are concerned about food security. They have land but they recognize that their agricultural sectors do not necessarily have the expertise to increase food output through effectively-functioning, large-scale commercial farms. The standard foreign aid response to this would probably be a programme that would be very nice to small farmers but may not produce enough food for the country.

Some countries have taken a different route. The Republic of Congo recognised that there is a ready supply of skilled farmers in South Africa, where there are not necessarily enough farms. So they have offered South African farmers the opportunity, under a deal concluded this week, to farm 172 000 hectares of government land for up to 105 years. A similar deal has been struck in Mozambique, with another on the way. In Ghana, they're offering equipment as well as land. Potential deals in North Africa have been put on hold until things there are a little more stable, but Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, Gabon and Guinea have all expressed interested.

How does this differ from neo-colonial land-grabs? Although South African (mostly white) farmers will be farming there, the land remains in the hands of the government, under the control (assuming democratic safe-guards) of the people. At the same time, expertise from probably the most advanced agricultural sector on the continent are brought in. Farmers have the chance to farm, which they wouldn't necessarily be able to do at home, but they won't be paid to farm, so they have a strong incentive to make the land productive. Because they will be farming mostly food crops, this increases food production in the country and probably employment, increasing food security.

It's a market solution and those with an emotional attachment to land will probably feel that the government of the Republic of the Congo should be parceling out the land to the individual citizens (much like Mugabe's Zimbabwe situation) instead of letting foreigners farm there. If the ultimate goal is food security for everyone, and commercial farms are more productive and more resiliant than small, subsistence plots, using South African expertise meets the needs far better and still leaves land ownership in the collective hands of the citizens.

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