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The downside of foreign land acquisitions

Bridge over the River Niger
(World Hydrological Cycle)

Population growth and rising consumption by a minority of people around the world are fuelling global land acquisitions and Africa is a “prime target”, says the International Land Coalition.

“The best land is often being targeted for acquisition. It is often irrigable, with proximity to infrastructure, making conflict with existing land users more likely,” says a 14 December 2011 report.

Africa accounts for 134 million hectares of reported land deals. Worldwide, between 2000 and 2010, deals under consideration or negotiation amounted to 203 million hectares, the Coalition says.

The rush for farmland was triggered primarily by the 2007-08 world food price crisis. While agricultural production was the main aim, the Coalition says, mineral extraction, industry, tourism and forest conversion were “significant contributors” to the rush. The Sojourner Project suggests newly-independent Southern Sudan is the latest addition to the land acquisition list.

In West Africa such acquisitions, which critics describe as land grabbing, are having a telling impact on the River Niger, the subregion’s largest river and the continent’s third largest after the Nile and the Congo.

From the Fouta Djallon Massif in Guinea (West Africa’s water tower), the 4,200km river snakes its way through Mali, Niger, Benin and empties into the Nigerian sector of the Guinea Current Large Marine Ecosystem in the Atlantic Ocean. Millions of people along its route and tributaries depend on the river for their farms, cattle, fishing and other needs. Yet the River Niger is already overfished, is becoming polluted and is affected by dam construction and oil production.

Mali worst affected

Of all the countries through which the River Niger flows the segment in Mali is the most negatively affected by land acquisition irrigation deals, which must be authorized by the Office du Niger. Mali accounts for the river’s entire inland delta, an area set for agro-industrial farming. The aim is for the area to become West Africa’s bread basket.

Realizing this potential, Mali and Libya created Malibya, a joint-venture company which has been allotted 100,000 hectares of land for industrial agriculture. The lease is for 30 years. Ibrahim Coulibaly, president of the National Coordination of Peasant Organizations of Mali (CNOP), is a critic of such deals. He said the Office du Niger intended to produce hybrid rice on this land, in collaboration with the China National Hybrid Rice Company, and that the introduction of hybrids would, effectively, “kill” local varieties. Already, he said, the company implementing the project, the China Geo-Engineering Corporation (CGC), had built a 40km irrigation canal, and a 40km paved road had been built around Bougouwere at a cost of US$55 million.

Additionally, CGC has already developed 17,000 of the envisaged 25,000 hectares earmarked. The government of Mali feels this outcome justifies its decision to launch this project.

"The development will be a great contribution to the Office du Niger in search of integrated development,” Abou Sow, the minister in charge of the Office du Niger, said. “This is a public utility project because the Libyan side has taken all necessary steps to compensate the people who have been affected by the arrangements."

However, international NGO Grain, has questioned the government’s wisdom in handing over such large tracts of land when its stated aims are to help local farmers develop.

The Oakland Institute, in its December 2011 report entitled Land Deal Brief: Land Grabs Leave Africa Thirsty, is also critical of such deals. Already, it says, farmers in the area have lost their livelihoods. This is because the construction of the canal has closed small irrigation outlets they use.

The siphoning off of water for huge areas of farmland would worsen the already low water levels of the River Niger. The Niger River Basin Authority says a 30cm drop in water level (measured in Mopti, Mali) corresponds to a 50 percent diminution of the delta flood plain’s land area.

Moreover, the river is already experiencing siltation, a condition which scientists say could worsen if there are changes in the flow of water and if pollution increases. Planned dam construction on the upper reaches of the River Niger would alter the flow. This would further reduce already diminishing fish stocks, water availability, and make navigation more difficult to places like Timbuktu.

Oil damaged mangrove in Gbaramatu Kingdom, Warri, Niger Delta

Hillary Uguru/IRIN
Oil damaged mangrove in Gbaramatu Kingdom, Warri, Niger Delta
Thursday, January 19, 2012
Oil damaged mangrove in Gbaramatu Kingdom, Warri, Niger Delta

Photo: Hillary Uguru/IRIN
Oil damaged mangrove in Gbaramatu Kingdom, Warri, Niger Delta

“Fish is becoming increasingly scarce and more difficult to access because of the silting of the banks,” said Saleck Ould Dah, the water and sanitation programme officer at WaterAID in Mali. “Although irrigation has managed to double rice production, these waters have become increasingly polluted due to soap manufacturing; solvents used for dyeing cloths; and chemicals used by farmers.”

Given that social conflict over resources between farmers and pastoralists has always been a feature of the Niger Basin, the Coalition suggests that large-scale irrigation could heighten tension between local and downstream water users.

Food security

Critics feel that land acquisitions could imperil the food security of millions of people who depend on the Niger for farming and fishing. Thousands of small farmers would be forced off their land and become farm labourers; pastoralists would have to search for new grazing land or ditch their lifestyle. However, the Office du Niger says this is a misinterpretation of what would happen.

“After contributing to the policy of irrigation schemes, this project will certainly be one of the agriculture sector’s economic and social developments," said Amadou Coulibaly, president and chief executive officer of Office Du Niger.

Overall, most of the land deals, critics say, would be put under biofuel production and agricultural food exports. With many local small-scale farmers off the land there could be national food shortages. Weak economies cannot afford food imports, and might in fact be forced to receive food aid from countries whose multinationals, ironically, produced that very same food in Africa in the first place.

Although governments might make the case for such land deals, critics of such contracts in Africa say local elites are most likely the only national beneficiaries.

Writing in the International Food Policy Research Institute under the title Foreign Direct Investments in Land- and Agriculture-based Poverty Reduction Strategies in Africa, Ousman Badiane, the Institute’s Africa director, says: “Foreign investors interact with, and act through, national intermediaries or interlocutors who may operate independently or as government agents. One should, therefore, expect the emergence of secondary markets and derived demand in the form of influential national actors who will seek to gain access to land at the expense of local communities. Anticipation of future demand by foreign investors; this is where real damage can be done.”

If local communities are to be protected in these land deals, he says, foreign investors should improve the capacities for local governance; contract negotiating skills; and foster business partnerships between local communities.

“Urgent action is needed to bring harmful land transfers to a halt, and to redirect capital into more fruitful forms of investment where possible,” the Coalition says.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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