The New Land Grab

By Glenn Ashton · 21 Jan 2009

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Picture: Curte Carnemark/World Bank
Picture: Curte Carnemark/World Bank

The new international land and agricultural resources grab – neo-colonialism writ large...

Just when colonialism was considered dead and buried, along comes neo-colonialism in its latest guise. Allied with its close relatives globalisation, free marketeering and lack of transparency, it is currently launching a new offensive on the disempowered population of this continent.

Kwame Nkrumah, along with others in the post-colonial Pan Africanist movement, coined the term 'neo-colonialism' to describe continued access to the resources of less developed nations, by both national and private interests allied to wealthy nations. He warned against the continued impacts of colonialism if the risks inherent to neo-colonialism were neither addressed nor dealt with.

The early thrust of neo-colonialism was primarily associated with cold war interests wishing to maintain their sphere of influence, coupled to the so-called 'Washington Consensus'. This was where international finance instruments run by the then G5 (now expanded to the G8), such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund used aid and so-called development finance instruments to further their interests.

Neo-colonialism is now garbed in new clothes. Powerful interests are presently seeking and gaining access to land in government-to-government deals as well as through private capital. These arrangements ostensibly offer to manage land that is not being economically utilised in order to improve food security. But for whom?

This new trend is being driven mainly by recent rises in the prices of major food commodities such as maize, wheat, rice and soybeans, as well as pandering to the rising interest in agricultural crop based biofuels. While a certain amount of the food price increases were driven by shortages triggered by natural causes, the role of speculators in driving up costs in order to profit from perceived shortages and seek shelter from other risky instruments like junk bonds has also played a significant part.

The global food security focussed NGO, GRAIN, issued a report on this phenomenon in October 2008, where they cited more than 100 examples of this new neo-colonial land grab. These land grabs are primarily by nations that have insufficient natural capital or space – such as the desert-bound nations of the Middle East and overpopulated nations such as China and South Korea. They seek to improve the food security of those nations while undermining the ability of host nations to access similar benefits, through the alienation of prime agricultural land. The ecological impacts can also be significant.

Since the GRAIN report was published, the land grab has continued apace. The recent acquisition of a reported 1.3 million hectares (ha) of land in Madagascar by the South Korean company Daewoo Logistics Corporation on 99-year lease has raised eyebrows around the world. This land represents around half of that island nation's arable land. 

In Madagascar a reported 70% of the population suffer from food shortages and malnutrition. Nearly 4% are fed through aid programmes. Besides this, more than 50% of the population is below the age of 18. What hope is there for local youth when South African farmers are reportedly being recruited to run the highly mechanised and automated farms under the Daewoo lease? The benefits to the Malagasy people appear chimeral at best. Fortunately, media reports in Madagascar have raised the profile of this case, creating national disquiet about the matter. Meanwhile, Daewoo seeks to insulate itself from criticism.

This land grab is in the main driven by a new wave of colonial interests seeking to gain food security. Many of the oil rich Gulf States are involved as they have little access to arable land or water. GRAIN reports that the Kuwaiti government is actively pursuing land in Sudan, Uganda, Egypt, Morocco, Burma, Thailand and Laos. Qatar also is investigating options in Sudan, Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam. The Saudi government is seeking agreements with Brazil, Sudan, Kazakhstan, Turkey and Pakistan, while the Saudi Bin Laden group (a private interest) has secured access to a reported 500,000 ha of land in Indonesia to put into rice production. The United Arab Emirates is on the hunt for land in Sudan and many other parts of the world, as is Bahrain.

This new thrust by the Gulf states is driven not only by issues of food security but clearly is influenced by the wish to diversify their extensive financial resources from recent oil price windfalls, to areas where they are able to generate sustainable profit and influence.

China is also actively seeking new land. Given its massive population and constrained access to farmland, China has moved aggressively into Africa with land interests in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Nigeria, Uganda, Cameroon and Tanzania. Closer to home it has similar interests in Burma, Laos, Russia and Kazakhstan, both through direct government deals and private sector finance.

Besides these examples of ostensibly pursuing the national interest, there is perhaps a more worrying side to the new neo-colonial land grab. This is where corporate and financial groups and collectives seek similar opportunities for purely profit seeking motives. For instance, the Danish company Trigon Agri controls 100,000 hectares of land in Russia. Morgan Stanley, despite its liquidity problems, owns 40,000 ha in Brazil. 

Lonrho, the UK financial house seeks land in Angola and elsewhere in Africa in order to profit from food. Swedish interests Black Earth Farming and Alpcot Agro already control around 400,000 hectares of Russian farmland, while actively pursuing further acquisitions there and in the Ukraine. Brazilian land is sought for the harvest of agricultural based biofuels like sugar cane. Using land to grow fuel further undermines food security, ecological diversity and perhaps most crucially, access to land by locals.

Even the World Bank is continuing its role as a neo-colonial consensus agent by actively pursuing and financing access to 'under-utilised land' around the world through its International Finance Corporation.

Perhaps more sinister is the recent news of leasehold rights being acquired for approximately 400,000 hectares of land in the Southern Sudan from the family of former warlord Gabriel Matip. In a deal struck by US financier Philippe Heilberg, who has used a British Virgin Islands subsidiary of his Jarch Group to facilitate the deal, private interests have intervened directly in disputed territories. Co-directors of the group reportedly include ex-CIA operatives. Given the ongoing instability in that nation and the forced eviction of millions in the neighbouring Darfur region, this sort of land acquisition is perhaps a harbinger of an unsavoury trend in who gets to control the land in disputed territories.

Given that the concept of neo-colonialism has African origins, it would be reasonable to assume that there would be awareness of these issues within Africa. However, corruption, limited democratic participation by civil society, non transparent bi- and multilateral deals, all coupled to the lack of transparency within many African governments themselves, evidently undermines beneficial outcomes for citizens. 

Clearly those accessing land aim to accrue benefits. But Africa has not yet fully addressed many issues from its colonial heritage such as arbitrary borders, land dispossession by corporations and warlords or through internal and external political interference. These issues, coupled to the generally poor state of farming and infrastructure in Africa, show how little Africa has progressed in this important area of development. Recognition of the problem and talking about it is not the same as dealing with the problem. 

NEPAD, the New Partnership for African Development, has actively sought corporate and private capital-friendly solutions. The wooing of powerful interests includes interventions at G8 meetings by the suave former South African president Mbeki, not to mention numerous jaw-jaw sessions at the World Economic Forum. This is why so many progressive commentators have been leery of endorsing NEPAD and its structures, criticising them as pandering to vested interests. 

Activities to increase agricultural growth in Africa have also been severely compromised by questionable alliances. For instance AGRA, the African Union endorsed 'Association for a Green Revolution in Africa,' has seen the undemocratic and unsolicited intervention of supposedly neutral funders such as the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. The relationship between these funders and pro-genetically modified food interests (in what is now termed bio-colonialism) has served to actively undermine local agricultural collectives, NGOs and projects that aim to promote and share proven solutions to food insecurity and malnutrition.

This is perhaps the most dangerous manifestation of neo-colonialism as it operates behind a veil of philanthropy while (wittingly or unwittingly) undermining democratic structures and interests. The obscene profits accrued by capital over recent decades, instead of being taxed and distributed by state organs, are now in the hands of ill-informed and often ideologically biased do-gooders. For instance, given the technocratic origins of the Gates fortune, it is logical that undue emphasis will be placed on similar technocratic agricultural solutions. 

These 'solutions' are imposed through slick public relations and the support of corporate aligned agri-business interests such as Africa-Bio and A New Harvest, both of which are linked to GM corporations such as Monsanto, the worlds biggest seed company and genetically modified seed distributor.

There is an urgent need to examine these new neo-colonial thrusts. Careful and objective analysis must be undertaken as to how food and land sovereignty is being compromised through naïve interaction with the new global powers of finance and trade. The interests of global capital need to be tempered by intervention and through more pragmatic approaches that take account of the historical relationships between land, community, food security and economic development.

It is ironic that while Africans have fought to cast aside colonial oppression and its concomitant heritage, we have instead opened gates (pun intended) to a new wave of colonial interests that threaten, yet again, to bypass the marginalised whilst enriching a well-connected minority.

It would be tragic to cast aside Africa's recently won freedom for a yoke of a different design.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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Rory Short
25 Jan


This a natural consequence of ever increasing populations. Until that issue is sucessfully addressed we can only expect more of the same.

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