Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Hunger For Africa's Farmland

1849: The Irish Famine of the 1840s saw the death of a million people, yet during the five year period when the potato blight was at its worst, British-owned farms in Ireland continued to export food to Great Britain.

2009: Ethiopian famine is back in the news; 10 million of the 80 million inhabitants are suffering from the effects of a four-year drought, with over 6 million people urgently needing food.

Appeals have been made by the Ethiopian state minister for agriculture and rural development for over 150,000 tonnes of food to avert another tragedy.

The World Food Programme has pledged food supplies for Ethiopia's hungry poor, but their relief efforts will cross paths with large exports of food harvested from Ethiopian farms now owned by Saudi Arabian investors, suggesting that human history, like nature, works in cycles:
Early this year, the king of Saudi Arabia held a ceremony to receive a batch of rice, part of the first crop to be produced under something called the King Abdullah initiative for Saudi agricultural investment abroad. It had been grown in Ethiopia, where a group of Saudi investors is spending $100m to raise wheat, barley and rice on land leased to them by the government. The investors are exempt from tax in the first few years and may export the entire crop back home.
Is this to be the new "Scramble For Africa", the start of another century of colonialism?
The strategy is portrayed by the Saudi leadership as benign. Saudi Arabia manages the agricultural production and human resources. It is not, therefore, exploiting cheap local labour. Neither is it profiteering in the global food market from higher agricultural yield, since produce is flown back for Saudi consumption. Yet a closer look at the countries being approached by Saudi investors shows a preference for weak or unstable states with low taxation, minimal bureaucracy and insufficient capital to grow food on the land (and thus a willingness to sell land to those that can, for less than it is probably worth).
Earlier this year a report entitled “Land Grab or development opportunity?", was released by United Nations-affiliated agricultural organizations FAO and IIED, addressing the growing race to acquire Third World farmland and the effect of this trend on rural populations, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Their conclusion: Africa is almost giving away this land for free:
The report studied cases in Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali, Madagascar and Sudan, uncovered farmland investment in the past five years totalling about 2.5m hectares – equal to about half the arable land of the UK.
Other estimates, including one from Peter Brabeck, chairman of Nestlé, put total farmland investments in Africa, Latin America and Asia above 15m hectares, about half the size of Italy.
Also raised in the report was the risk that poor people will lose access to farmland and water.
“Land allocations on the scale documented in this study do have the potential to result in loss of land for large numbers of people,” the report states.
Other analysts are more optimistic about the changes being sown:
[Joachim von Braun, director of the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute] stressed that the foreign partnerships should benefit everyone by increasing worldwide food production. "We should not look at this trend with alarm. The more capital that finds its way into agriculture, the [bigger] the total pie."
But who gets the pie, and who gets the crumbs?

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