HAEMMERLE: The next scramble for Africa

Matt Haemmerle


A surging population that is expected to reach eight billion people by 2025 is increasing the global demand for food at a dizzying rate. Global consumption of grain has exceeded production in seven of the past nine years. 

The lowest grain stockpiles in decades results in less grain to buffer the impacts of droughts. Floods and crop failure have made food prices more volatile. Worse than this, global warming threatens to push the planet beyond its limits. 

Today, we are challenged to find a way to avoid a perpetual food crisis. 

There are a number of promising and sensible ideas on how we might meet this challenge. 

For instance, some experts contend that we need another green revolution like that which occurred in Asia during the 1960s and ’70s, introducing new methods for irrigation as well as dwarf varieties of wheat and rice, chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. 

Other experts stress that we must reduce our ecological impact and advocate genetic engineering and more sustainable methods of agriculture.  

Many land-scarce countries fear the prospect that they will experience a future of severe food shortages and famine, while many wealthy farmers, land owners and fund managers see a growing population of hungry people in the world as an opportunity for profit. 

The result is that many countries and corporate investors have been buying up expansive tracts of farmland in Africa and Asia.  

Is this a win-win situation for both investors and the countries they are investing in, or do these acquisitions signal a second scramble for Africa?

Dozens of private investors and foreign governments, including Saudi Arabia, China, Egypt and South Korea, have purchased hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland either to secure arable land to protect their home countries against future food shortages or to turn a profit through low-risk investments. Countries that have agreed to these investments include Sudan, Uganda, Congo and Ethiopia, as well as Cambodia, Laos, Pakistan and Ukraine. 

The implications of these investments, however, remain uncertain.  

The best case scenario is that these land exchanges result in a win-win outcome. 

Maybe with capital investments and the introduction of new technology, knowledge, modern seed and fertilizer, foreign investors will accomplish what development agencies have been unable to do for decades. Maybe foreign investors will be able to multiply crop yields tenfold and feed a planet hosting eight billion people. 

But there is reason to worry.

Many skeptics wonder if this wave of resource extraction will only benefit foreign governments and big corporations at the expense of Africans and small farmers. Africa represents the final frontier for high return, low-risk investments. 

The impoverished continent has fertile, inexpensive land and corrupt, kleptocratic governments which make it the perfect environment for businesses investments – using unjust and manipulative contracts with no legal or ethical binding if they so choose. 

The geo-political ramifications are startling.

Imagine that both the investor nation and the country in which it invests are struck by famine. 

Will fences and armed guards protect food shipments leaving the supplier country for the investor country from rioting and starving civilians? Should countries that already face food shortages at home permit grain exports?     

Indeed, there is something profoundly neo-colonialist about the idea of countries and corporations owning millions of acres of foreign land. 

A better model is that of contract farming, where foreign investors provide technology and capital while local farmers own or lease their land and provide their crops at fixed prices. 

This is not only economical for investors, but also provides small farmers lasting benefits and respects their personal dignity.  

But many of the countries that are agreeing to these murky, large-scale land sales, sometimes leasing land for absurdly long periods of time, like 50 to 99 years, are unstable governments.

Such deals are antithetical to the notion of popular sovereignty, and the people whose land is being usurped, the people who are being left jobless, the people who grant no credibility to the dealings of their corrupt government will surely reject these investments as nothing more than a vestige of colonialism.