Wednesday, May 27, 2009
[South African farmers] are scrambling to get on board an ambitious venture to reclaim farmland in Congo's interior and help relieve that country of a reliance on food imports. Already some 70 farmers have booked a Congo tour and more than 3,000 have expressed interest, said Agri-SA, the South African farming group organizing the venture.... According to a draft memorandum of understanding, Congo is willing to sign long-term leases and provide tax breaks and waivers on duties of imported supplies for approved projects. The South Africans in turn would build infrastructure, employ locals and instruct them in modern farming techniques. People familiar with the matter say the initial focus will be on restarting state-owned farms abandoned in 1992.... South African commercial farmers, mostly the descendants of Dutch and French pioneers who began settling the continent's southern tip centuries ago, are renowned for their ability to coax food out of African soil. Eager for their expertise and capital, African countries from Ghana to Nigeria have offered them incentives to set up shop. South African farmers have turned Mozambique into a banana powerhouse. Zambia became self-sufficient in maize after welcoming farmers from Zimbabwe and from South Africa.
The obvious motives for the deals are the spike in food prices and the subsequent decision of governments in several key producer countries to restrict their exports, threatening the food security of food importing countries such as the Gulf states, China and South Korea (the main participants in the deals). However, water shortages are another, hidden driver. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the chairman of Nestlé, claims: “The purchases weren’t about land, but water. For with the land comes the right to withdraw the water linked to it, in most countries essentially a freebie that increasingly could be the most valuable part of the deal.” He calls it “the great water grab”.
Host governments usually claim that the land they are offering for sale or lease is vacant or owned by the state. That is not always true. “Empty” land often supports herders who graze animals on it. Land may be formally owned by the state but contain people who have farmed it for generations. Their customary rights are recognised locally, but often not accepted in law, or in the terms of a foreign-investment deal.So the deals frequently set one group against another in host countries and the question is how those conflicts get resolved. “If you want people to invest in your country, you have to make concessions,” says the spokesman for Kenya’s president. (He was referring to a deal in which Qatar offered to build a new port in exchange for growing crops in the Tana river delta, something opposed by local farmers and conservationists.) The trouble is that the concessions are frequently one-sided. Customary owners are thrown off land they think of as theirs. Smallholders have their arms twisted to sign away their rights for a pittance.