The Global Land Grab: Our Birthright For A Mess Of Pottage?


The Great Global Land Grab has arrived in Ethiopia.  And there are strong voices on either side of the resulting debate. Is there a middle ground that can help achieve what we all seekwithout giving up too much in return?

Editor’s Note: While this article was originally published in 2009 at perhaps the height of the outcry against land grabs in Africa, it is just as relevant today and will probably remain so for quite some time.

The adage ’History repeats itself’, while not wholly accurate, encapsulates what many view as a replay of the 19th century colonial land grabs which were symptomatic of the economic supremacy of the Western world.    Since 2000, wealthy but land-strapped countries have been engaging in an increasingly hectic acquisition of land in developing countries.  Estimates vary, but since 2004, at least 2.5 to 3 million hectares of land, in Africa alone, have been acquired by former colonial powers such as Holland,  or powerful newcomers, such as Saudi Arabia, South Korea and India.  Worldwide, the International Food Policy Research Institute reports that since 2006, 37 million to 49 million acres of land in developing countries, valued at $20 to $30 billion, have been either sold or are under negotiation for sale to foreign buyers.

In contrast to 19th Century colonialism, these acquisitions are strategic as well as commercial, with many purchases undertaken to insure the investor’s home country against future global food and energy crises.  It is not only nation states engaging in ‘agricolonialism’: Corporations and financial institutions are also grabbing their slice of the earth cake. Jim Rogers Jr. a partner of George Soros at the Quantum Fund, reportedly stated “I’m convinced that farmland is going to be one of the best investments of our time”. And while Morgan Stanley recently acquired almost 100,000 acres of Brazilian farmland, Philippe Heilberg, chairman of New York-based Jarch Capital, controls nearly 2 million acres of land in south Sudan. The global land grab is particularly fervent in Africa.  According to a recent Food and Agricultural Organization study of five African countries, 6.2 million acres of farmland valued at $920 million have been acquired or leased by foreign investors since 2004.   In Ghana, for example, nearly 1 million acres of land has been acquired for biofuel production, whereas in Madagascar, a proposed land purchase by the South Korean Khybol Daewoo, was a significant factor in the public outcry that led to the overthrow of President  Ravalomanana.


Libya is set to draw on its wealth of petro-dollars to purchase over 250,000 acres of Mali rice producing land in Mali, whereas the Sudanese government has granted 99 year leases of 1.5 million hectares of prime farmland to the Gulf States, Egypt and South Korea.  Paradoxically, Sudan is also the world’s largest recipient of foreign aid, with 5.6 million of its citizens dependent on food aid.  The Ethiopian government recently concluded a land deal with Saudi Arabia worth around 100 million dollars, yet it has also approached the World Bank for an equivalent amount of food aid.  The background to the current world-wide land grab phenomena is the spiraling cost of food, with powerful state-backed entities attempting to ensure a stable source of cheap food for their domestic and export markets.  This is all taking place while the Common Agricultural Policy of the EU actively encourages producers to maximize output, much of which will be earmarked for destruction.  Furthermore, contributors to the World Bank routinely discard food which has passed the manufacturer’s ‘Best Before’ date; it is estimated that in the UK this accounts for 6.7 million tons or £10 billion pounds worth of food annually.

Developing countries such as Ethiopia are encouraging large-scale foreign acquisition of land, arguing that it represents a faster route to investment in the agricultural sector which will result in benefits for all. Whether this is true remains to be seen but there are critics who would argue that we are once again observing another cycle of dependence on foreign loans and food aid, thereby damaging the prospects for self-sustainability throughout Africa. Governments of developing countries should adopt transparent measures to ensure that tangible long-term benefits accrue to their respective countries as a result of foreign investments.  Benefits not just for the elites, who often take more than their fair share, but for society as a whole, and particularly for the farmers and labourers in the agricultural sector who will be directly affected by land acquisitions.   ‘Codes of Conduct’ and ‘Good Practice’ guidelines such as those developed by the Dutch horticultural enterprises in Ethiopia, are a start, but are not sufficient.

Ethiopians both want and need to be at the centre of agricultural investment in Ethiopia.  Our rallying cry could be ‘Yes to land development, No to land encockroachement’.  In the midst of land acquisitions by foreign investors, there should be clear mechanisms for enabling the measurable transfer of technology and training from developed to developing countries.  This is especially vital for countries such as Ethiopia whose lands are being used to grow export crops such as rice, which because of cultural conservatism, do not have  significant internal demand.  If Ethiopians will insist on subsisting on injera, then let rice be grown and exported out of Ethiopia, but one should also allow Ethiopians to benefit from agricultural knowledge and skills in both the production and marketing of rice.   Let us by all means utilize the lands that are our birthright for the benefits of our people, but in so doing let us hearken to our Christian teaching which advises us to beware, lest we sell our birthright for a mess of pottage.

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