15. Rethinking ‘Land Grab’ in Africa

E-mail of panel organisers: eric.elong.ebolo@vub.ac.be

The global food and financial crisis that began in 2008 has resulted in an increased investment in land. Powerful transnational and national economic actors, from corporations to national governments and private equity funds, have sought ‘empty’ land, often in distant countries, that can serve as sites for biofuel and food production in the event of future price spikes (Borras et al, 2011: 209). This global rush, referred to as ‘land grab’, has provoked various debates: a predominant view is that the increased investments in agribusiness will reverse the long-standing under-investments in agriculture in Africa, which could help land-abundant countries to benefit from technology and employment and trigger broad-based development. Others stress that the institutional weaknesses of African governments, ill-defined property rights and poor regulations could lead to conflicts, exacerbate inequality and promote resource degradation (World Bank Report, 2010).

This panel focuses on the renewed interest in land investments in Africa, especially in the global context, by exploring the competing narratives of natural resource availability and access to land, land ownership and governance, foreign direct investment and sustainable development, the role of state and non-state actors in land deals, land politics and food security, and property rights and land ownership, among others. By examining these issues, we re-contextualise the politics of land grab in the areas of employment, human rights, poverty, gender and the dynamics of agrarian change. Furthermore, by analysing the impact of global land rush, we re-ignite the debate on the role of the state, corporations and civil society groups in considering land deals either as engines of economic growth or a threat to local livelihoods. Generally, considering the complexity and controversies associated with land grab, this panel cuts across multiple disciplines.

Papers - Session 1 "Assessment of Land Grab"

1. Financial Institution and Land Grabs in Africa

Author: Denis Ndode Ngalle (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium)


This paper seeks to problematise the role of the World Bank in Africa within the land grabs-development nexus. The rush for land is seen as a strategy to address food security and poverty in Africa brought about by the 2008 global food and financial crisis. The World Bank has strongly embraced the view that formal property rights in Africa will prevent land conflicts, ensure the transfer of technology and skill, overcome long term under-investment in agriculture, allow the poor to benefit from land acquisition, boost agricultural productivity, and reduce poverty (World Bank, 2010:1). The paper attempts to critically examine how the World Bank can successfully advocate for the privatization of land in Africa in support of commercial large-scale farming without hampering small-scale farmers who depend on land for their livelihood, contributing to food insecurity, and risking environmental protection. Doing a transversal study of Africa, the paper analysis cases of land grabs and their impacts. Initial results show that - formal property rights on land do not allow the poor to access the benefits of these acquisitions in an equitable way with foreign investors; commercial agribusiness may become a problem based on the purpose and type of crop grown; spearheading land privatisation bring criticisms to the World Bank for increasing food insecurity by participating in killing small-scale farmers whom it is supposed Sto promote. In conclusion, the paper proposes a recasting of the land grab phenomenon: viewing land grab not as an apparatus that is heartily welcomed, but a contested tool for agricultural development and food security.

2. The business of governing land grabbing in Africa: a matter of corporate due diligence?

Authors: Genny Ngende and Patient Lwango (Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium)
Genny.Ngende @vub.ac.be


Foreign direct investment (FDI) in Africa by multinational corporations has increased exponentially over the last twenty years and has, to a certain extent, replaced foreign aid in Africa. Given these recent developments, African states have effectively been forced to compete to attract FDIs in a variety of ways, most notably through lowering barriers to trade and investment. Consequently, corporate entities have had ‘carte blanche’ in the operation of their affairs. The land grab phenomenon, against the backdrop of a traditional approach to due diligence, which hinges on a shareholder perspective of gains and losses devoid of any responsibility for the real or possible adverse effects on external parties, has been marred by gross human rights violations.
Fortunately, the human and financial cost to these corporate entities, coupled with the threat of reputational damage, has resonated over the years, leading to an array of initiatives to help curb and guide corporations in the conduct of business affairs. The shareholder approach has been replaced by the stakeholder perspective on gains and losses, which considers the abovementioned damages to external parties. The resultant effect is that issues such as human rights are considered to be very much a prerogative of businesses. Through these developments, a new concept of due diligence has emerged: one that has a wider rubric, inclusive of human rights.
This presentation, is therefore, hinged on demonstrating that because human rights is viewed as falling under the purview of business, land governance in Africa (specifically regarding corporate acquisitions) does not only remain with the state. It also extends to the corporate entity; thus making it a matter of due diligence.

3. Emerging Countries and Land Grab in Africa

Author: Eric Elong Ebolo (Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium)


The change of global power relations in the late 20th and 21st Centuries has led to the emergence of very important actors in foreign agribusiness schemes in Africa. Some of these countries are loosely called emerging economies; examples are China, India, South Korea, Brazil, and the Gulf States among others. Their engagement in land deals has re-configured Africa’s position in the international system especially in the wake of globalisation and its neo-liberal policies. This rush to purchase vast crop-able land in Africa is somewhat dubbed “the new Scramble for Africa.” Its attendant repercussions have not gone unnoticed: there are many new voices highlighting human and livelihood rights and the need to protect the ecosystem (Allan, 2012). This paper interrogates the agency and mechanisms used by some emerging nations to facilitate their investments in agribusiness. The study argues that large scale land based investments in Africa are mainly strategic: ensure the stability of world food prices and satisfy increase demand back home. By examining the repercussions of land deal politics of the emerging countries, the study questions the quality and robustness of governance institutions at all levels especially with the establishment of Land Policy Initiative in 2006 by UNECA, AfDB and AU. By duelling on specific case studies: Brazil, India and the Gulf states, I re-contextualise the debate on land governance and sustainable socio-economic development and equitable access to land by youths, women and the marginalized.

4. ‘Land grabbing’ or harnessing of development potential? Land-based foreign investments in Africa

Author: Franklyn Lisk (University of Warwick, UK)


Large-scale foreign investment in Africa’s abundant but largely underutilized arable land has been criticised by international advocacy groups NGOs such as OXFAM and GRAIN and global social movements, as well as by local activists in developing countries as ‘land grabbing’, which they claim limits access of smallholder farmers to land, deprives local people of their agro-based livelihoods and threatens local and national food security      across the continent. By way of contrast, several host governments in the region and some leading international organisations and development agencies regard land-based foreign investments as beneficial for development in terms of providing the necessary capital and technological know-how for modernising Africa’s neglected agriculture, including take-off in agribusiness and agro-industrialisation which is vital for economic diversification and broad-based development. The paper/presentation will examine the global land rush from these two different perspectives. Based on available data on the activities of national governments, mainly from East Asia and Middle East, and wealthy transnational corporations that are investing in Africa’s land, the paper will analyse the development consequences and policy implications of these large-scale land acquisition from a political economy angle. It will identify motives, interests and benefits of the different actors and address the question of governance  in terms of transparency and institutional arrangements to safeguard land rights and national food security , on the one hand,  balanced alongside the potential benefits that can flow to Africa from the development and modernisation of the agricultural sector in terms of productive employment and income generation if land-based foreign investments are properly managed by host governments.

5. Sitting on the Sidelines: Indigenous Peoples in Africa and the Issue of Land Grab

Authors: Derek Inman and Dorothée Cambou (Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium)


In recent years, the adoption of specific instruments focusing on indigenous peoples, such as the United Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the reinterpretation of older human rights instruments through the lens of indigenous peoples’ demands, have led to the development of a sophisticated body of international law addressing indigenous peoples in a more comprehensive manner. Indigenous peoples have recently been recognized as holders of a wide range of collective rights, from cultural and identity rights to those to self-government and of self-determination. Within this context, the rights of indigenous peoples as a group to exist as distinct communities have been confirmed and, inherently, so have their rights to lands and territories they have traditionally occupied.

Unfortunately, despite these developments, along with recent jurisprudence emanating from the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the rights of indigenous peoples in Africa have not received such unanimous recognition or acceptance. Arguments over which groups constitute ‘indigenous peoples’ in this region are ongoing while foreign investors are purchasing or leasing massive portions of land far below market prices, often without the consent of those who live from the land, threatening the very survival of the communities at issue.

The purpose of this presentation will to examine indigenous peoples’ land rights and their application in Africa considering the phenomenon of land grabbing taking place throughout the Continent. To that end, this presentation will: provide an overview of the development of indigenous peoples’ land rights in the international arena, with particular focus on the International Labour Organization Conventions, jurisprudence from the United Nations treaty bodies, and regional perspectives emanating from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights; analyze the concept of indigenous peoples in Africa; and conclude with some remarks on land grab in Africa and the (in)compatibility of these practices with emerging standards on indigenous rights such as free, prior and informed consent. 

Papers Session 2 - "Case Studies"

6. Dealing with water - emerging land investments and the hydropolitical landscape of the Nile Basin

Author: Emil Sandström (The Nordic Africa Institute and The Swedish University of Agricultural Science)


This article explores the scope and magnitude of large-scale land deals taking place in Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda and discusses how the land deals can be understood within the transboundary water management context of the Nile Basin. The article reveals that the total amount of intended land deals between 2008-2013 among the five studied riparian countries comprise an area of more than eight million hectares and that Egyptian actors have been involved in land deals in the upstream countries covering an area of about 1,7 million hectares.  The article discusses how particularly the Egyptian land deals can be understood and how they are intertwined in contemporary negotiations over the allocation of water between riparian states, ongoing hydropower projects and demographic engineering. The article suggests that the hydropolitical landscape of the Nile River Basin is about to shift, from a hydropolitical landscape dominated by an Egyptian ‘military discourse’ towards a ‘business discourse, in which new assemblages of actors become shareholders of the Nile waters. Considering the substantial size of some of these land and water deals, actors from countries outside the Basin may become important ‘hydropolitical players’ and be involved in the future negotiations of the Nile. The article concludes that conflicts over land and water resources in Nile Basin region may increase within countries, but not necessarily increase between countries.


Authors: Waheed Kadiri, Basirat Oyalowo and Afees Alabi (University of Lagos, Nigeria)


This study interrogates the widespread assumption of the exploitative nature of land deals across peri-urban areas in four states in Nigeria (Lagos, Ogun, Oyo and Kwara states). In the last decade, the landscapes of these peri-urban areas have undergone a dramatic change from a green-field area into a bevy of commercial real estate, planned and unplanned residential settlements, tourist centres, uniquely religious activities and commercial foreign-owned agricultural pursuits.
The study documents how the dynamics of democratic governance, the desire for private-sector partnerships, activities of indigenous land owners and weaknesses in the land tenure system in Nigeria has brought about these changes in the character of the case-study areas.
An elaboration of previous studies, it is based on purposive sampling technique. Interviews were held with 373 representatives of indigenous land owners across the peri-urban communities in the four states.
It was found that past government activities in seeking development partners was a major force driving the changing landscape resulting in both positive and negative externalities.  The study revealed that most of the large agricultural land acquisition deals were closed between the government and foreign investors without community participation. This has led to compensation inadequacy, social unrest and lack of agricultural investment framework that reflects national and local interest.
However, the reluctance to alienate land traditionally found in communal governance of land has given way to the commodification of land, often to the highest bidder. Thus wherever they are in actual possession of land, indigenous owners welcome large land acquisition deals with foreigners.
Employment generation and income from land alienation are key positive externalities.
The study proposes an inclusive approach for land management in these areas, which recognizes the changing dimensions under which land is being held by the indigenes.

8. Governance and Land Use in Eritrea: Land Grab, Forcible Resettlement and Internal Mobility

Author: Andebrhan Welde Giorgis (Free University of Brussels, Belgium)


The global food and financial crisis that set in in 2008 has induced transnational corporations, national governments and private equity funds to increase investment in land. There has been a global scramble for ‘land grab’ particularly in Africa, with its abundance of fertile land and growing population. While this may help attract investment in African agriculture, usher in a green revolution and raise food production, there is also a risk that malgovernance, weak state institutions, poor regulatory capacity, and rampant corruption may generate asymmetric benefits, aggravate poverty and fan social conflict. 
This paper examines the issue of land use and internal mobility in Eritrea. Traditional Eritrean society, where land, village, and community are interlinked, holds land in great value as the basis of livelihood, identity and affiliation [Andebrhan Welde Giorgis, 2014]. Having declared land state property, the government expropriates it without compensation and carries out forcible resettlement of people from one locale to another, without regard to the rights and wellbeing of both the forced settlers and the disowned host communities.
Eritreans have the right to freely live, work or own property in a locality of their choice in the country. In the context of economic growth, modernisation and urbanisation, individual self-interest drives domestic mobility in search of better opportunities. Yet, a policy of forcible resettlement, uprooting sedentary farmers from their villages and resettling them in pastoral lands, has raised cries of ‘land grab’ and concerns of justice and equity for both the settler and host communities. Totalitarian regimes have carried out forcible resettlements of targeted populations under various political or economic pretexts. Experience shows, however, that forcible resettlement is generally unwarranted, often fails to deliver its declared objectives, and invariably creates more problems than it resolves.
Given prudent land use and management, Eritrea possesses sufficient land for housing, farming, grazing, national parks, forestry, urban, and industrial use to ensure balanced development and prosperity for its relatively small population.

9. The end of large scale land acquisitions in Tanzania?

Authors: Linda Engström (The Nordic Africa Institute, Sweden) and Myra Posluschny (Swiss Peace Institute, Switzerland)


The new rush for land in Africa for large scale agro investments has received much attention worldwide, not least the production of biofuel crops, but also of food. Tanzania has been mentioned to be in the top ten countries in Africa to allocate land to foreign investors for this purpose. However, our research and others’, show that the extent to which land has been allocated to these kinds of land deals in Tanzania have been greatly overestimated.  This problem seems to apply for reports on land deals Africa wide, not only in Tanzania. A recent issue of Journal of Peasant Studies scrutinizes the methodology used when collecting land deal data as well as the links to transparency issues.  My empirical research in Tanzania takes the picture one step further. Even when derivative rights have been granted by the government, the investors face problems with becoming, and staying, operational. Today, there is not a single operational biofuel investment in Tanzania. The biofuel investments that have become operational have all gone bankrupt and/or sold to another investor. The two investors that have received derivative land title are delayed and they have switched to food production. I can also show that food investments in the new land rush face similar difficulty in becoming operational and profitable, referring to cases in Tanzania but also elsewhere in Africa. There are general as well as context specific mechanisms behind this trend of delays and failures. The widespread strategy among African governments of large scale agro investments seems so far to be a failure and I argue that these investments will most likely not play the role that was anticipated in the path forward for African agriculture.

10. Postponed Local Concerns? Implications of Land Acquisitions for Indigenous Local Communities in Benishangul-Gumuz Regional State, Ethiopia.

Author: Tsegaye Moreda (Erasmus University, The Netherlands)


In Ethiopia, large-scale land acquisitions have been looming ever larger over the last few years mainly in the lowland parts of the country. Substantial amount of land has already been acquired both by domestic and foreign investors in the Benishangul-Gumuz region. The land transfer processes underway in the region, based neither on the mapping of existing land uses nor on genuine participation of local communities and authorities, have been resulting simultaneously not only in the dispossession and displacement of communities from their villages and cultivated lands, but also the destruction of the natural environment that sustained ecological services and local livelihoods. Particularly, the Gumuz ethnic groups who depend on customary forms of land access and control as well as whose livelihoods based heavily on access to natural resources are being differentially affected. Despite the claims that the land investments bring social, economic, and environmental benefits to local communities, these anticipated benefits hardly occurred so far and are unlikely to happen at least in the short run. What appears certain is that apparent threats have been posed to their economic, cultural, and ecological survival. The threats are resulting from the exercise of hegemonic power by federal and regional governments over the allocation of land in the interest of commercial investments. In the process, local land-based social relations and practices have been or are deliberately overlooked. Emphasizing on power relations between local communities, local, regional and federal governments (and investors), this study examines the contradictions of the land investment process and its impacts on local communities through a case study in three administrative districts in Benishangul-Gumuz region. The paper places a particular concern on contests over land and authority and how this is played out in a federal context in which authority is redefined over some key areas as observed in recent land deals. Data was collected during an intensive fieldwork period from April to June 2012. 

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