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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Agro-Imperialism?

Because much of the world’s arable land is already in use — almost 90 percent, according to one estimate, if you take out forests and fragile ecosystems — the search has led to the countries least touched by development, in Africa. According to a recent study by the World Bank and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, one of the earth’s last large reserves of underused land is the billion-acre Guinea Savannah zone, a crescent-shaped swath that runs east across Africa all the way to Ethiopia, and southward to Congo and Angola.

Foreign investors — some of them representing governments, some of them private interests — are promising to construct infrastructure, bring new technologies, create jobs and boost the productivity of underused land so that it not only feeds overseas markets but also feeds more Africans. (More than a third of the continent’s population is malnourished.) They’ve found that impoverished governments are often only too welcoming, offering land at giveaway prices. A few transactions have received significant publicity, like Kenya’s deal to lease nearly 100,000 acres to the Qatari government in return for financing a new port, or South Korea’s agreement to develop almost 400 square miles in Tanzania. But many other land deals, of near-unprecedented size, have been sealed with little fanfare.

There is an ongoing debate among experts about the extent of the global land-acquisition trend. By its nature the evidence is piecemeal and anecdotal, and many highly publicized investments have yet to actually materialize on the ground. The most serious attempt to quantify the land rush, spearheaded by the International Institute for Environment and Development, suggests that as of earlier this year, the Ethiopian government had approved deals totaling around 1.5 million acres, while the country’s investment agency reports that it has approved 815 foreign-financed agricultural projects since 2007, nearly doubling the number registered in the entire previous decade. But that’s far from a complete picture. While the details of a few arrangements have leaked out, like one Saudi consortium’s plans to spend $100 million to grow wheat, barley and rice, many others remain undisclosed, and Addis Ababa has been awash in rumors of Arab moneymen who supposedly rent planes, pick out fertile tracts and cut deals.

About 10 percent of the more than 80 million people who live in Ethiopia suffer from chronic food shortages. This year, because of poor rains, the U.N. World Food Program warns that much of East Africa faces the threat of a famine, potentially the worst in almost two decades. Traditionally, the model for feeding the hungry in Africa has involved shipping in surpluses from the rest of the world in times of emergency, but governments that are trying to attract investment say that the new farms could provide a lasting, noncharitable solution. (“It’s better than begging,” one Ethiopian official recently told the African publication Business Daily.) Whatever the long-term justification, however, it looks bad politically for countries like Kenya and Ethiopia to be letting foreign investors use their land at a time when their people face the specter of mass starvation. And many experts wonder whether such governments will go through with the deals. Ethiopia, after all, was one of the countries that banned grain exports during the recent spike in world food prices. “The idea that one country would go to another country,” says Robert Zeigler, “and lease some land, and expect that the rice produced there would be made available to them if there’s a food crisis in that host country, is ludicrous.”

Read the full article here.

posted by CASFS 2006 @ 11:33 AM

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