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Are Irish investors buying African land?

Foreign investors, including the Irish, are being encouraged to buy large tracts of African land, dispossessing local farmers, says David Ralph

22nd March 2012

A bitter harvest in Africa
By David Ralph
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Foreign investors, including the Irish, are being encouraged to buy large tracts of African land, dispossessing local farmers, says David Ralph
TANZANIA celebrates 50 years of independence from British colonial rule this year, with major events planned across the country.

But foreign investors are gaining control of the country’s most valuable asset — its lush, fertile land — prompting some to describe these land deals as modern-day ‘land grabbing’.

A little-reported event last September in UCD’s Michael Smurfit Business School alerted Irish investors to the huge potential in Africa’s most abundant natural resource — its land. At the inaugural Africa-Ireland Economic Forum, consultancy firm McKinsey Global told the audience of Ireland’s business leaders how 60% of the world’s fallow land is in Africa, how the continent is "ripe for a green revolution". Yet in Tanzania, land deals involving foreign investors benefit local farmers the least, and leave many landless.

On the furthermost western edge of the Great Rift Valley, a dozen residents of the small village of Marumbo sit unhappily under the shade of a great baobab tree in Kisarawe district in central Tanzania.

The villagers are cataloguing grievances they harbour against a British company, Sun Biofuels, to whom they signed away half of the village’s land in 2008 on a 99-year freehold lease. "The company cheated us at every step, broke all their promises," says village chairman Athumani Pazi, middle-aged and rail-thin.

Ten other villages in Kisarawe were part of the 2008 deal. Sun Biofuels has gone bust but refuses to hand back the land. Sun Biofuels promised villagers €50 for each hectare of land, as well as jobs on the plantation once production started. Since the majority of villagers are illiterate, most signed away their land with the dab of a thumbprint on a legally-binding contract they couldn’t read, trusting Sun Biofuels.

"We received money for one or two hectares, nothing more," Pazi says. "And now that the company has closed, we are all unemployed, and cannot use the land." Sun Biofuels patched together an 8,000-hectare plantation in Kisarawe, and sowed it with jatropha, a non-edible plant that, when pressed, produces oil for conversion to biodiesel. As a petroleum substitute, biodiesel fetches high prices on commodity trading floors and so the venture seemed a sound investment.

An elderly man named Aadil Suliman has complained of health complications since working on the plantation. "I was spraying the plants for three years, every day, and now I fear I am infertile," he says. "I cannot service my wife the way I used to."

Jacob Malimbe, a handsome, wiry young man, is angry that he cannot visit his relatives’ graves on the land, even though the British company agreed access. "I haven’t been to the grave of my family in five years. And I used to go regularly. We were very close," he says.

Sun Biofuels are one of hundreds of foreign companies erecting fences around communally-owned lands in Africa since the prices of basic foodstuffs, like soya, wheat and rice, started galloping upwards in late 2007, says Marc Wegerif, economic justice campaigner with Oxfam in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s commercial capital.

Critics of land deals like the one in Kisarawe label the transactions as ‘neo-colonialism’ or ‘land grabbing.’ Those supportive of the deals see them as a ‘win-win’ opportunity for underdeveloped African agriculture — investors only buy unproductive ‘marginal’ lands not in use by locals, boosting food output and injecting revenue into government coffers.

But Pazi says the idea that there are idle parcels of land around Marumbo is ludicrous. "That was our best land," he says. "It had the best water holes, and they got a harvest of jatropha after nine months. Normally, it would take two and a half years. So you can see how sweet that land is."

Outlining the extent of recent global land transactions, the World Bank’s 2010 Rising Global Interest in Farmland report found that between Oct 2008 and Aug 2009, 70m hectares of farmland — an area the size of France — was transferred from the hands of indigenous populations to overseas investors. Seventy percent of these transactions took place in sub-Saharan Africa, where lease prices per hectare are the world’s cheapest.

It is not only biofuel companies, cashing in on rising costs at petrol forecourts, who are leading the charge for lush land tracts in Africa, says Burton Twiza, a land-use expert working with Irish charity Concern Worldwide in their Dar es Salaam office. Sovereign wealth funds from China and cash-rich Arab princedoms, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are outsourcing their food production as their own stock of arable lands becomes scarcer.

Some of the world’s leading agribusinesses — Cargill, Monsanto, Kellogg’s — have also been heavily active in acquiring large land holdings throughout Africa, says Twiza, as have various investment banks and hedge funds, scouring the planet for new opportunities in the wake of the real estate market collapse.

"I have seen these investment fairs in Dar es Salaam, and these people from the big banks — Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley — they are monitoring the land situation here," he says.

Reginald Martin, of Legal and Human Rights Centre, in Dar es Salaam, an organisation supported by Irish Aid, worries that the world’s business community involved in land deals pays little heed to the plight of impoverished Tanzanian farmers, 80% of whom live on less that €1.25 a day.

"These deals will turn all the small-holders into squatters. That is what they will do. I’ve already seen them in other parts of the country. I passed squatter camps in Arusha, Kilimanjaro, Songea, where foreign companies have got the land for mining, for cut flowers," says Martin.

"The squatters told me they had nowhere to go. Their relatives are too poor to help them, and there was no idle land around, where they could grow food."

People in Marumbo appreciate the value of their land, now that they are landless. To understand just how costly the deal with Sun Biofuels has been, Pazi points to Mafizi, a neighbouring village on the other side of the valley. Luckily for Mafizi, their land fell outside the boundary of the plot identified by Sun Biofuels; and, today, they still enjoy a traditional livelihood those in Marumbo only recall as a memory.

"We used to do beekeeping on our land, hunt for wild animals, gather medicinal flowers, chop charcoal to sell in town, collect firewood for cooking," says Pazi. "Now, many households struggle to provide enough food for their families because the land is no longer open. In the past, this was not the case."

Marumbo are trying to take Sun Biofuels to court to have the remaining 94 years of the contract nullified. Since Sun Biofuels have repeatedly violated the terms of the lease, Pazi says, they feel they have a strong case before a Tanzanian judge.

Failing that, Pazi says they may resort to force. "The security at the plantation, they are not only stopping us growing food on land that is ours, they are stopping us from even visiting our dead ancestors’ graves. If we cannot win in court, then we take our machetes and cut down the jatropha."

* David Ralph’s trip to Tanzania was supported with funds from the Simon Cumbers Media Award

Picture: A woman harvests the fruits of the jatropha plant


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