Can Africa Develop a Regional Response to ‘Resource Grabbing’?

AFRICA, 8 Aug 2011

Rebecca M.E. Pointer – Another countryside

Evidence that a new wave of massive land (and water and other raw material) grabs are taking place across Africa is now incontrovertible. Estimates range from 32 to 50 million hectares of African land being allocated in long-term leases to foreign private and public companies in the last two years. Despite institutions like the World Bank promoting capital injection by foreign investors into such deals, research by the Land Deal Politics Initiative, Future Agricultures Consortium and the International Institute for Environment and Development among others has revealed much cause for concern as the (often gendered) impacts include land loss and displacement of indigenous communities, food insecurity, unfulfilled promises of development by businesses, and production flows leaving countries with little financial contribution to local economies. Further, a recent study highlighted potentially costly environmental and food safety impacts as it says the ‘Global Land Grab Threatens Unchecked GMO Growth‘. Others have pointed to the potential of resource grabs to increase war and conflict in Africa. Therefore, many like Nigerian lawyer and policy analyst Paul I. Adujie argue:

Whether these […] entities are growing cheap food on the African continent […] or growing for Bio-Fuels, any such efforts and endeavours which displace, dislocate and disadvantage Africans should be condemned by all.

Alongside these controversial deals, European government are putting out a new message about  assistance to Africa — supporting ‘trade not aid‘ as a panacea for Africa’s problems, as the Guardian highlighted during UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent visit to South Africa. Large scale land and resource ‘investments’ are seen as pro-development in the ‘trade not aid’ model. While the current rush for land and water has historical precursors, The Guardian article also points to differences in the dynamics of the current resource grab:

…this is not a rerun of the 19th century Scramble for Africa where the Great European powers, led by Britain and Germany, fought for the minerals and resources of Sub-Saharan Africa. This time the Europeans are playing catch up with the dominant force in Africa – China.

Not only China but also other emerging economies, notably the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), are key actors in the new land grab. They are joined by the Gulf States, forced by the food price crisis of 2007/8 to consider offshore food production to meet the future needs of their populations. But possibly the most significant new trend is the entry of speculative capital. The global financial sector, unsettled after the financial crisis of 2008, has become a major player, with foreign pension funds, hedge funds and even US universities ‘grabbing’ land in Africa as part of their strategies to diversify their investment portfolios.

A further, less widely recognised dynamic is emerging, with African elites increasingly involved in snatching up resources, with such investment often openly encouraged in the name of regional integration (such as South African farmers being urged to invest in Congo). The changing dynamics have prompted some to ask what opportunitiesthe resource grabs might afford Africans and how best Africans could take advantage of the increased global interest in Africa’s natural resources. For example, last weekend, Zimbabwe’s Newsday asked Will Africa take advantage of China-America scramble for resources?

 This oft-repeated quest to find ‘win-win’ solutions in which investor and host countries reap benefits, though, has tended to focus on the national level, ignoring the rights and interests of local people whose land is being transacted, often without their consent and frequently without their knowledge. So while some may argue that both investors and Africa stand to benefit, ensuring transactions are equitable is far from simple.

Amidst these controversies, the Pan African Parliament (PAP) held a meeting of parliamentarians from across the continent last week to discuss an appropriate African response to resource grabs. The meeting noted the strategic potential of countries with natural resource wealth, but also the inequitable deals that have been approved by many governments, providing long-term leases of 50 to 99 years to companies at minimal or even no cost, and with few guarantees about development. Of priority concern was evidence that local communities are often displaced, undermining local food production and aggravating vulnerability to hunger and chronic poverty.

PAP worked on a draft declaration on ‘large scale land investments’ which proposed, among other steps, that an African Union establish an African Ministerial Council on Land-based Investments to chart a collective response from African states, but the declaration has not yet been finalised. Delegates at the PAP meeting further discussed a possible moratorium on any further large-scale land deals until guidelines for such investments could be prepared, but even the moratorium has not yet been agreed.

The PAP meeting was a welcome indication that African leaders recognise that  if such(foreign and domestic) ‘investments’ are to take place, stronger in-country land governance and land rights policies are essential. Meaningful consultation with affected communities must also be a precondition for any negotiations with prospective investors. Discussions also highlighted the human rights and the specific impacts on women resulting from changes in access to resources that result from ‘large scale investments’. Suggestions for regional workshops for regional stakeholders (including parliamentarians, politicians, farmers, civil society, etc) were taken up and participants endorsed such proposals. Establishing links and collaboration with other regional bodies like NEPAD and the African Union were also explored. As policy development would make necessary ongoing monitoring of land-based investments underway (the processes through which they have been approved, their terms, and their impacts and implications for land and other resource rights, food security and equitable development), the discussions highlighted the need to establish centres of excellence to address ongoing research needs.

Seeing these suggestions through to meaningful policy creation and implementation requires ongoing engagement and ongoing pan African pressure from civil society on all African regional and national policy-making bodies. Policies should promote improved governance and better deals that can deliver real investment, but also policy alternatives must promote investment in Africa’s farmers – rather than their displacement to make way for foreign corporate agriculture. Both strategies are needed to ensure that the ‘second scramble for Africa’ does not unleash further catastrophic damage on Africa and Africans, in terms of destroying livelihoods of already impoverished people.

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