The Great African land grab – myth and reality: review of a very welcome and much-needed book – by Keith Somerville 

Lorenzo Cotula, The Great African Land Grab? Agricultural Investments and the Global Food System, London, Zed/African Arguments 2013, pp. 238, £12.99 

Sometimes reading the media you get the impression that large areas of Africa have now been grabbed in legal, semi-legal or totally illegal ways and that this is one of the major problems facing the continent.  As usual with much media coverage of Africa it not only treats it as single process that is the same everywhere but fails to provide sufficient detail to put events into context. Land grabbibbing is the new threat, according to this discourse  There is no doubt about it, the “grabbing” of land is a serious issue and does seem to be increasing, but, as Cotula’s timely and finely balanced book shows, it is nothing new and while it is a problem for rural communities it is not the simplistic process in the media.  There is, as Cotula concludes an “unfolding rush for Africa’s land” but it is “far from being a new phenomenon, today’s land rush has deep historical roots” (p. 173).   Most of all, it is something that needs to be understood in an historical, a social and an economic perspective but particularly from the point of view of land rights and of the perpetual marginalization of rural people and their absence from decision-making about their own lives and the land they work.

The book is well-structured and has at its heart this issue of marginalization and a lack of agency on the part of rural people – which one might say lies at the heart of the serious problems of the faltering development of meaningful democracy in much of Africa and the concentration of power and wealth in very few hands.  The author starts well with the story of an individual community in Mozambique and its loss of land for a massive national park (fromj one point of view sensibly setting aside land for conservation that could have an economic benefit through tourism – but at the expense of the people who worked the land), but the promise of other land for the villagers affected. But this other land was then allocated for a bio-fuel project based on sugar-cane.  The villagers remained in the park and were angry having been hit by a land loss double whammy that at no point involved them making choices or having power over their futures.  But even then, the second tranche of land “grabbed” from them was not fully utilized because of the global financial crisis and its future is in some doubt, though seems not to be destined to be handed over to the rightful new Mozambican owners rather than foreign agribusiness.  A not unusual story repeated in many African countries, but a story that must be put into context.

The underdevelopment or even total lack of development of small-scale agriculture is a major problem across Africa.  Many rural farmers produce mainly subsistence crops and perhaps some other produce marketed locally. Productivity is low and is very vulnerable to weather conditions and any factors that affect manpower – be it conflict, AIDS or the draw of employment or the hope of it in urban areas.  There has been a lack of investment, of extension services and attempts to improve productivity and enable rural communities to progress and increase their incomes.  It is problematic and not easy to solve and so for a variety of reasons investment in agriculture has gone into large-scale commercial farming, often involving foreign companies or, increasingly now the leasing of land to companies or even countries in order to increase productivity.  This does not just affect Africa – areas of south-east Asia (such as Cambodia) are also affected.  But in Africa there is the issue of land being leased to companies or countries like Saudi Arabia, South Korea or China (and contrary to much media reporting China is not primarily “to blame” for the land leasing) when the country whose land it is has a food deficit. So we are seeing land taken to grow food solely for the benefit of other countries, when the country where the land is located has food security problems or imports food at a high cost.  This may involve communities affected negatively by food security losing land rights and subsistence opportunities in the interests of the rents received by the government for leasing the land.  The one issue I would have liked to have seen covered more overtly and in greater detail in the book is leasing of land as part of the strategy of the “gatekeeper” elites in Africa, who use resources to exact rents which accrue to their personal or political benefit and help maintain patron-client relationships at the cost of the people who work the land.

That apart, the book does a very good job in looking at the long historical roots of land alienation from local people for massive colonial projects for the growing of cotton, palm oil and rubber – the Gezira cotton scheme in Sudan and Firestone’s ownership of huge swathes of Liberia being just two examples.  The colonial period is important, as Cotula explains because it not only saw the integration of Africa “in the capitalist economy as a producer of minerals and agricultural commodities” (p.19) under unfavourable terms but also the weakening of land rights and their reduction to “mere use rights” (p.20) which could easily be abused whether by local traditional authorities or the colonial and later the independent state.  Modern states, like Tanzania with its expropriation of land from the Maasai for use by a UAE-based hunting company, use the state or “traditional” ownership of land as a means of alienating land from the people who work it.  In other countries, like Ghana, land may be vested in traditional authorities but post-colonial land acts enabled the government to acquire it for public use, “which included commercial ventures” (p.23). Across Africa, and this is a generalization backed up in the book by many examples, the major problem is not simply that foreign concerns can lease land but that rural people have very weak rights to the land which are hard or impossible to pursue in the courts, especially if the courts are effectively controlled by governments which want the rents from the land.

Cotula then works through many of the land deals which have been concluded in recent years. One salutary point he makes is that while China has been involved in African agriculture and acquisition of land, the media and public perceptions “have overplayed China’s role in the rush for Africa’s land” (p.63).  There are many criticisms that can be made of China’s economic relations and business strategies but they must be based on fact and not on the convenient Western-inspired idea that China is single-handedly taking over African and exploiting it.  There is exploitation, of that there is no doubt, but it takes place as part of a relationship with African gatekeepers that benefits them, too, even if again it may be the rural African who suffers or pays the price.

In conclusion, the book sets out the complex and multi-faceted nature of this new land rush. And its role in “profound social transformations…namely, the growing penetration of international capital in African societies….[and]it does entail a large-scale shift in land control that penalizes small-scale growers and herders and favours diverse constellations of public authorities, corporate investors and local and national elites” (pp.175-6).  Agriculture in much of Africa needs modernization and investment but the way that it is now being pursued – based on a historical model that has evolved but not changed out of all recognition – is something that damages those who always seem to bear the brunt of change (whether through climate, war or economic policy), “those who lose their land and have their lives turned upside down” (p. 178), the small peasant farmers.  The author cautions against romanticizing this situation and ignoring the lack of productivity, the inequalities between men and women and the failure of small-scale agriculture to progress. This lack of progress may be to a great extent due to a lack of government interest in the sector but also what Goren Hyden has called the failure of modern African states to “capture” the peasantry[1] and the innate conservatism of the peasantry which combines with inadequate agricultural polices to hold back modernization and production and increase marginalization in economic and political terms. This in turn means that increasing productivity has come to mean alienating land for plantation style farming or use by foreign agribusiness. Cotula calls for a change in policy and a challenging of the accepted “truths” about large-scale farming being the only way forward.  He calls for strengthening land rights for the users of the land and for a new stress on “investing in farmers, rather than in farmland” (p.181) as the way of using investment in agriculture to both increase productivity and empower rural people.  The ideal is to make it “time for the aspirations of rural people to become centre stage in the decision-making processes that shape the future of Africa’s agriculture” (p.192).  The bit question is how do you convince Africa’s gatekeeping, urban-based elite of this? They enable land grabs to happen, because it is in their political and perceived economic interest to do so.

  1. Goren Hyden, African Politics in Comparative Perspective,  Cambridge University Press, 2013, p. 161one of the major problems facing the continent.  As usual with much media coverage of Africa it not only treats it as single process that is the same everywhere but fails to provide sufficient detail to put events into context. Land grabbibbing is the new threat, according to this discourse  There is no doubt about it, the “grabbing” of land is a serious issue and does seem to be increasing, but, as Cotula’s timely and finely balanced book shows, it is nothing new and while it is a problem for rural communities it is not the simplistic process in the media.  There is, as Cotula concludes an “unfolding rush for Africa’s land” but it is “far from being a new phenomenon, today’s land rush has deep historical roots” (p. 173).   Most of all, it is something that needs to be understood in an historical, a social and an economic perspective but particularly from the point of view of land rights and of the perpetual marginalization of rural people and their absence from decision-making about their own lives and the land they work.

The book is well-structured and has at its heart this issue of marginalization and a lack of agency on the part of rural people – which one might say lies at the heart of the serious problems of the faltering development of meaningful democracy in much of Africa and the concentration of power and wealth in very few hands.  The author starts well with the story of an individual community in Mozambique and its loss of land for a massive national park (fromj one point of view sensibly setting aside land for conservation that could have an economic benefit through tourism – but at the expense of the people who worked the land), but the promise of other land for the villagers affected. But this other land was then allocated for a bio-fuel project based on sugar-cane.  The villagers remained in the park and were angry having been hit by a land loss double whammy that at no point involved them making choices or having power over their futures.  But even then, the second tranche of land “grabbed” from them was not fully utilized because of the global financial crisis and its future is in some doubt, though seems not to be destined to be handed over to the rightful new Mozambican owners rather than foreign agribusiness.  A not unusual story repeated in many African countries, but a story that must be put into context.

The underdevelopment or even total lack of development of small-scale agriculture is a major problem across Africa.  Many rural farmers produce mainly subsistence crops and perhaps some other produce marketed locally. Productivity is low and is very vulnerable to weather conditions and any factors that affect manpower – be it conflict, AIDS or the draw of employment or the hope of it in urban areas.  There has been a lack of investment, of extension services and attempts to improve productivity and enable rural communities to progress and increase their incomes.  It is problematic and not easy to solve and so for a variety of reasons investment in agriculture has gone into large-scale commercial farming, often involving foreign companies or, increasingly now the leasing of land to companies or even countries in order to increase productivity.  This does not just affect Africa – areas of south-east Asia (such as Cambodia) are also affected.  But in Africa there is the issue of land being leased to companies or countries like Saudi Arabia, South Korea or China (and contrary to much media reporting China is not primarily “to blame” for the land leasing) when the country whose land it is has a food deficit. So we are seeing land taken to grow food solely for the benefit of other countries, when the country where the land is located has food security problems or imports food at a high cost.  This may involve communities affected negatively by food security losing land rights and subsistence opportunities in the interests of the rents received by the government for leasing the land.  The one issue I would have liked to have seen covered more overtly and in greater detail in the book is leasing of land as part of the strategy of the “gatekeeper” elites in Africa, who use resources to exact rents which accrue to their personal or political benefit and help maintain patron-client relationships at the cost of the people who work the land.

That apart, the book does a very good job in looking at the long historical roots of land alienation from local people for massive colonial projects for the growing of cotton, palm oil and rubber – the Gezira cotton scheme in Sudan and Firestone’s ownership of huge swathes of Liberia being just two examples.  The colonial period is important, as Cotula explains because it not only saw the integration of Africa “in the capitalist economy as a producer of minerals and agricultural commodities” (p.19) under unfavourable terms but also the weakening of land rights and their reduction to “mere use rights” (p.20) which could easily be abused whether by local traditional authorities or the colonial and later the independent state.  Modern states, like Tanzania with its expropriation of land from the Maasai for use by a UAE-based hunting company, use the state or “traditional” ownership of land as a means of alienating land from the people who work it.  In other countries, like Ghana, land may be vested in traditional authorities but post-colonial land acts enabled the government to acquire it for public use, “which included commercial ventures” (p.23). Across Africa, and this is a generalization backed up in the book by many examples, the major problem is not simply that foreign concerns can lease land but that rural people have very weak rights to the land which are hard or impossible to pursue in the courts, especially if the courts are effectively controlled by governments which want the rents from the land.

Cotula then works through many of the land deals which have been concluded in recent years. One salutary point he makes is that while China has been involved in African agriculture and acquisition of land, the media and public perceptions “have overplayed China’s role in the rush for Africa’s land” (p.63).  There are many criticisms that can be made of China’s economic relations and business strategies but they must be based on fact and not on the convenient Western-inspired idea that China is single-handedly taking over African and exploiting it.  There is exploitation, of that there is no doubt, but it takes place as part of a relationship with African gatekeepers that benefits them, too, even if again it may be the rural African who suffers or pays the price.

In conclusion, the book sets out the complex and multi-faceted nature of this new land rush. And its role in “profound social transformations…namely, the growing penetration of international capital in African societies….[and]it does entail a large-scale shift in land control that penalizes small-scale growers and herders and favours diverse constellations of public authorities, corporate investors and local and national elites” (pp.175-6).  Agriculture in much of Africa needs modernization and investment but the way that it is now being pursued – based on a historical model that has evolved but not changed out of all recognition – is something that damages those who always seem to bear the brunt of change (whether through climate, war or economic policy), “those who lose their land and have their lives turned upside down” (p. 178), the small peasant farmers.  The author cautions against romanticizing this situation and ignoring the lack of productivity, the inequalities between men and women and the failure of small-scale agriculture to progress. This lack of progress may be to a great extent due to a lack of government interest in the sector but also what Goren Hyden has called the failure of modern African states to “capture” the peasantry[1] and the innate conservatism of the peasantry which combines with inadequate agricultural polices to hold back modernization and production and increase marginalization in economic and political terms. This in turn means that increasing productivity has come to mean alienating land for plantation style farming or use by foreign agribusiness. Cotula calls for a change in policy and a challenging of the accepted “truths” about large-scale farming being the only way forward.  He calls for strengthening land rights for the users of the land and for a new stress on “investing in farmers, rather than in farmland” (p.181) as the way of using investment in agriculture to both increase productivity and empower rural people.  The ideal is to make it “time for the aspirations of rural people to become centre stage in the decision-making processes that shape the future of Africa’s agriculture” (p.192).  The bit question is how do you convince Africa’s gatekeeping, urban-based elite of this? They enable land grabs to happen, because it is in their political and perceived economic interest to do so.

  1. Goren Hyden, African Politics in Comparative Perspective,  Cambridge University Press, 2013, p. 161

Keith Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London; teaches in the School of Politics and International Relations and the Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent; and runs the Africa – News and Analysis website (www.africajournalismtheworld.com).