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Beware the second Scramble for Africa

Current Affairs

Beware the second Scramble for Africa

Judging by the rate and scale of land purchases in the area between the East African Rift Valley and the Nile River Valley, it would appear that corporate agribusiness has decided that the centre of Africa is the future. By Kalundi Serumaga

In just 2009, more than half of the land deals completed or under negotiation globally took place in Africa, comprising some 39.7m acres. Researchers tell us that this is more than the combined cultivated areas of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

The Great Lakes countries, particularly Uganda, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, sit at the epicentre of this bounty. According to a 2015 mapped estimate, it is those areas that are projected to create the greatest yield per hectare.

Uganda lies at the heart of this enterprise. With the exception of the greatly environmentally challenged Lake Chad (which has shrunk from being in seven to only five countries now), just about every other significant fresh water body on the continent lies within 1,000 kilometres of Uganda. Not surprisingly, the nation has very close ties with all the important Western countries.

With the world’s population set to reach over 9 billion by 2040, and to be comprised of largely landless urban people, this could become a very lucrative and captive market for anyone able to produce cheap, basic foodstuffs on a mass basis.

Studies are yet to reveal key factors driving the epidemic of large-scale land acquisitions, but my money is on the argument that this is the only way one can explain why well-connected Africans who have neither the experience nor the expertise to manage large-scale mechanised agriculture are at the forefront of grabbing fertile land. What are they anticipating? What do they know that we don’t?

Three major concerns

But this new thrust for African land throws up at least three major concerns around its future ownership, and its fertility and uses.

The first is mass displacement. This is a dangerous prospect faced by a growing number of communities all over the Great Lakes region. And it is an old story. A lot of the fighting in the Nuba mountains and pre-partition Southern Sudan was actually driven by the need of Khartoum-based wheat oligarchs for more and more vacant, fertile land.

What is presented as intractable and inexplicable “tribal fighting” often masks very cold financial calculations. It was ever thus: mystification of African events has always been used as both a justification, and a cover for foreign financially-driven interventions – reaching all the way back to the colonisation of the continent.

The second concern is the issue of food dependency. The anthropologist Norah Owaraga has documented how the production of crops for the cash market has eaten into the ground space intended for food production in homesteads, and how this reinforces gender imbalances and creates household-level food insecurity.

The third concern is the inevitable introduction of genetically modified seeds as well as hyper fertilisers deep into the food production system. Science is divided on this matter. However, official Africa tends to agree with those who argue that such an India-style 1970s Green Revolution, is just not what Africa now needs.

Pan-Africanist Professor Dani Nabudere described this as capitalist scientific agriculture attempting “to destroy the small farmer and livestock keeper who have historically produced and reproduced natural seeds and domestic animal husbandry.”

India’s “Green Revolution” “was the first to witness the dispossession of the peasant farmers (who) had to leave the countryside and join the jobless and landless living in the shantytowns”, he explains.

While the intensive use of industrial fertiliser in India resulted in a massive increase in yield, it also changed the character of the land and seeped into water systems, making large tracts unsuitable for agriculture as well as uninhabitable for people or animals – thus increasing the rush to the slums in cities.

Indian agronomists are now busy trying to repair some of the damage caused by the intensive use of fertilisers. Is Africa ignoring the lessons learnt and rushing into the same fate? NA   

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