August 8, 2013
Much has been made of the apparent acquisition of large areas of land mainly in Africa, but also in Asia and South America by rich, but land-poor countries as well as international investors, in order to grow food and biofuel crops. According to the headlines, vast tracts of land have been gobbled up at peppercorn prices to boost the food and fuel supplies of China, India and the oil kingdoms of the Middle East. According to development NGOs, tens of millions of hectares of land have been grabbed in this way with scant regard to the rights and needs of indigenous populations.
The reality of this process is likely to be much less startling. Many of the schemes have faltered, the most successful agricultural development schemes are turning out to be those where the local population is most involved and the actual area involved in these foreign land purchases is proving to be much less than claimed by most of the aid and development organisations. Estimates, and they can only be estimates, of the amount of land involved vary between 20 and 70 million hectares. While this is only, at most, about 1 per cent of the world’s cultivated land area, the proportion involved in Africa is proportionately more – possibly as much as 5 per cent of sub Saharan Africa’s possibly cultivated land.
Probably the most accurate estimate is likely to be the Land Portal’s Land Matrix database, which differentiates between intended, concluded and failed deals. Most importantly, it indicates the implementation status of each deal, including it only if a project actually becomes operational. This improvement in accuracy of reporting and analysis explains the significant difference between earlier over-estimates of total large scale land acquisitions, of 83.2 million ha involving 1,217 land deals, and the latest mid-July 2013 updated estimates of 33.7 million hectares for 798 concluded land deals. And this figure is for worldwide transactions – including Europe and Australasia.
But what is the significance of this phenomenon – particularly for the countries where it is taking place? Africa, it has been estimated, has 90 per cent of the world’s under-used land. This suggests a global competitive advantage in production of commodities which the world is going to need on an increasing scale. Nowhere else on earth is in greater need of agricultural development. Current food crop yields in Sub Saharan Africa are currently only 20 per cent of what they could be if efficient methods were to be applied.
There is no doubt however that some of these deals have resulted in a raw deal for local people – but this should not mean that African countries should eschew foreign financed land deals altogether. If land deals are implemented properly, they can bring many benefits – including increased food production, access to improved agricultural technical skills and development of infrastructure and rural communities.
However increased output is to be achieved, there is no doubt that Africa has the greatest scope for the expansion of agricultural production. The continent has almost half of the world’s usable but uncultivated land, some 202 million hectares, that could be brought into production. Other developing countries are also gaining from the international exchange of landholding and food production. An outstanding example is Bangladesh which has a large population and limited agricultural resources. Bangladeshi developers are planning to produce rice in east Africa. They believe that producing rice in Uganda and Kenya would make 10-30per cent of the crop available to the local market, while exporting the bulk to increase food security for Bangladesh. <08/08/2013>