03 NOVEMBRE 2016
The socio-political impact of “land grabbing” in Africa and its destabilising effects
DI Gianluca Melis

‘Land grabbing’ is all but a new concept. The fight for land is as old as the war itself. However, these two words have assumed particular relevance and media coverage since the beginning of the 21th century, and more precisely after the 2007-2008 price-food crisis. Rather than simply ‘land grabbing’, it should be defined ‘control grabbing of lands’ as it is essentially a rush from large agricultural companies, investment funds and nation-states to exert some form of power (not only purchase) over large plots of land and their resources in developing countries, where arable lands are cheap and abundant.


Although such a phenomenon is not limited to Africa, its causes, extensions and consequences appear more evident in such a continent. Its reasons stem from a combination of social, political and economic dynamics. Among the social factors one might include the wish of some private individuals of creating natural reserves or to buy properties in their land of origins – as it happens in Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa. However, it is the political and economic ones which play the main role. As the global population and economy grows, even the demand for food – especially meat in countries like China – increases. In addition, oil-rich states which rely on imported agricultural products aim to make their food supplies more stable. Nevertheless, it is also the perceived more environmental-friendly solution of substituting fossil fuels with biofuels that leads companies to invest considerable capitals in territories to produce palm or colza oil. Still, all of these factors do not fully explain why Africa is the favourite target of this scramble. First, Africa provides cheaper land than elsewhere. Second, it accounts for about 60 % of the world’s arable land, and most of its countries do not achieve 25 % of their potential yield. Third, recent state policies encourage FDI believing to increase public revenues. Fourth and most important, the majority of the 1,4 billion of hectares of rural plots have no formal tiles or belong to the state.


If the causes of this phenomenon are clear and almost unanimously undisputed, the same cannot be claimed for its dimensions or for its effects. With regards to its scale, it is difficult to quantify the amount of land possessed somehow by foreign actors since these deals are rarely ‘advertised’. With respect to its consequences, views differ considerably. According to some researchers and economists, this “land grabbing” process has positive effects on Africa. They argue the local population would benefit from new jobs, markets, amenities and infrastructures. NGOs and activists note instead that the poorer are the first to lose ground as local people are not qualified enough to take these jobs, access to new markets is arduous and infrastructures, if realised, provide benefits only for a very narrow portion of the population. In this brief report, it will be tried to shed light only on the consequences of land grabbing by scrutinising them under three lenses: the social, the political and the security one.


Social effects. First. Land for traditional African communities represents the very gist of their identity. Trees, lakes, rivers and forests are not just mere assets, commodities or potential resources but also repositories of ancestral spirits, sites for sacred rituals, and historical landmarks that tie the individual to particular locations and landscapes. Therefore, their losses produce effects which go far beyond their concrete implications. Often, these populations live real traumas as they see their native territories completely vandalised. It is all but hard to imagine their agony when, for instance, in the Kolongo region of Mali, an irrigation canal and its adjacent road were build: landscapes were marred, houses razed, markets bulldozed and a cemetery was unearthed leaving human remains scattered all around the area.


The second and perhaps most palpable consequence of land grabbing is starvation. By taking possession of vast plots of territories, investors deprive millions of African people of terrains on which they rely for their very survival. After all, land means food. Even if there is no right to land, the right to food is a formally recognised human right. Deceived by defective contracts, poorly compensated or physically removed from their original grounds, African peasants and shepherds migrate towards more arid and marginal areas where livelihood is at best tougher if not impossible.


Unfortunately, data do not come to aid us to quantify the exact number of individuals dying because of this process. But, if Africa is the place where 70% of land deals have occurred and 60% of its population depends upon such lands for their livelihood and access to food, it is easier to figure out the proportion of such an issue. If then the loss of these plots were compensated by employing their former recipients on the same grounds – perhaps by training them to use better technologies – these dynamics would lead to a win-win game. Hardly this happens. Indeed, highly mechanised processes and changes in land use require less and better-qualified workers who are recruited from abroad. When local people are involved, jobs are largely short-term, unskilled and insecure. Such a question introduces us directly to its related natural political consequence: migrations.


Political effects. Deprived of their resources, entire communities move towards cities. Those cities, though, are already overburdened of populations. According to IRIN, an independent reporting agency from the frontlines of crises, about 60 to 80 % of Kenya's urban population lives in slums. Sewers simply do not exist; human waste floods into shacks mixed to other kinds of garbage and diseases thrives undisturbed. Extremely high rates of unemployment lead young men to drink very cheap brews and to sniff glue instigating crimes, rapes and any sort of physical violence.


At this stage, some analysts might object on the international scale of such political implications. Yet, as rich states or companies decide to bet on Africa, African individuals choose to bet on wealthier countries. The fell of the Gadhafi’s regime has further paved the way to this tidal wave. As a result, just in the first 9 months of 2015, roughly the half of all immigrants and refugees entering in Europe (500,000 people in total) – the Council of Foreign Relations reports – was of Sub-Saharan origin. These flows raise questions at different levels which include: human rights, economic opportunity, labour shortages and unemployment, the brain drain, multiculturalism and integration. Space constraints prevent, however, their discussion here.


The other political implication of land grabbing, which is worthy to be mentioned, is corruption. In reality, corruption is at the same time cause and consequence of land grabbing. The cycle works this way. When government officers and company make a deal, this generates benefits for both sides: companies obtain land and officers bribes. The less they act with impunity the more they will be encouraged to arrange new deals on larger scale. This positive outcome calls other companies and officers to behave similarly. It can also occur that local officers, in exchange of very favourable lease or purchase terms, receive shares of revenues. This favours, for example, the perpetuating protection of companies by the same governmental personnel before the justice when attempts by communities who have lost land file complaints with the courts.


These dynamics often jeopardise heavily state revenues in two ways: either payments of investors go into bribes and, as a consequence, only a slight percentage of it enter the national budget, or companies use their ‘partners’ to negotiate very favourable tax and royalty terms. Habitually, when lands are grabbed in leasing, fees do not reach 1$ per hectare per year. Therefore, foreign investments in lands, instead of alleviate poverty and increase state resources to invest in developing projects, worsen the already dramatic conditions in which African people live, leaving room to further migrations and especially violence.


Effects on security. In the great majority of cases, large acquisitions of land result in violent responses. The degree, the extent and the forms such responses assume vary considerably. It would be pointless to lump all of them together. Cases of protests and clashes which ended in arrests and court cases are abundant throughout the continent. Frequently, such clashes are triggered by coercion, political pressure, deception or even murders perpetuated by state officers, policemen or mercenaries. In such situations, consequences on the international security take minor relevance. As in all generalisations, there are some exceptions. In Madagascar, for instance, the deal between Daewoo and the government to lease half of the arable lands of the country for the production of corn and biofuels drew a bloody uprising that, in 2009, provoked to the ouster of the country’s President, Marc Ravalomanana.


By contrast, it seems there is a correlation between the extent of land grabbed and the degree of political violence undergone. Indeed, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Mozambique, Sudan and South Sudan, according to the World Bank, are the most affected countries of land grabbing. At the same time, they are also countries which have recently experienced violent conflicts. Yet, it is hard to distinguish the extent a single factor determine hostilities. In other words, if protests and skirmishes may stem from a single cause, the same cannot be claimed as violence escalates, as in the case of full civil wars, or worse, in interregional conflicts. Nevertheless, land grabbing has been one of the key reasons sparking civil wars in Liberia, Sudan and Sierra Leone. Countries already affected by ethnic tensions, where the government lacks means of control, or post-conflict areas are more likely doomed to suffer further frictions because of land leasing to foreign actors.


Although today there are no longer full-fledge wars or inter-regional conflicts specifically sparked by land grabbing, as some observe, time may be ripe enough to new confrontations. In Liberia, for example, fierce local-level land disputes both between and within villages are still widespread throughout the country. The interference of foreign investors, hence, may only aggravate the on-going disputes. The same applies to Ethiopia, Sudan and its southern neighbour. Confrontations over land occur in large parts of these countries. In 2012, In Ethiopia, tribes have embraced arms against the military in the attempt to halt the diversion of the Koka River to irrigate a Malaysian plantation project. Being Khartoum still unable to cope with its peripheral regions, Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan are in active conflict so far. South Sudan, due to its condition of extreme lack of financial resources, is signing land deals at lightening speed, and as a consequence, unrests are spreading. If we then take into account the mutual distrust these countries feel each other, there is potential for confined political grievances linked to land issues to grow into wider regional conflicts.


Finally, is there any risk land grabbing steers groups towards terrorism? At first sight, there is no direct connection between the two. Nonetheless, history may offer us the answer. As in the Algeria of the ‘90s where famine led to unrests which turned into civil war and finally into brutal terrorism, in Mali something similar is taking place. In 2008, the government decided to completely privatise (to foreign companies) the cotton industry on which the entire economy of the country relies. Peasants dissented and, in 2012, the military seized power and evacuated the north of the country. This vacuum of power has soon been filled by the islamist groups of Ansar Dine and AQIM. However, since in the south the military seems unable to meet popular demands and to counter the northern jihadists, these groups are sowing the seeds to reshape northern Mali into a Salafi bastion.