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African Land Grab

9 May 2009

 African Land Grab

By Gwynne Dyer

In the past two years, various non-African countries — China, India, South Korea, Britain and the Arab Gulf states lead the pack — have been taking over huge tracts of farmland in Africa by lease or purchase, to produce food or bio-fuels for their own use. Critics call them “neo-colonialists”, but they will not be as successful as the old ones.

The scale of the land grab is truly impressive. In Sudan, South Korea has acquired 690,00 hectares of land to grow wheat. The United Arab Emirates, which already has 30,000 hectares in Sudan, is investing in another 378,000 hectares to grow corn, alfalfa, wheat, potatoes and beans.In Tanzania, Saudi Arabia is seeking 500,000 hectares.

Even bigger chunks of land are being leased to produce bio-fuels.China has acquired 2.8 million hectares in the Democratic Republic of Congo to create the world’s largest oil-palm plantation (replacing all that messy rain-forest and useless wildlife with tidy lines of palm trees), and is negotiating for two million hectares in Zambia to grow jatropha. British firms have secured big tracts of land in Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nigeria and Tanzania.

Only rarely is there protest from local people. One striking exception is Madagascar, where the announcement of a 99-year contract to lease 1.3 million hectares to South Korea’s Daewoo corporation to grow corn helped to trigger the recent revolution. “Madagascar’s land is neither for sale nor for rent,” said the new leader, Andry Rajoelina, who cancelled the deal.

After the revolution, it turned out that another 465,000 hectares of land in Madagascar had been leased to an Indian company, Varun International, to grow rice for consumption in India. That deal is also being cancelled by the new government — but elsewhere, the acquisition of huge tracts of African land by Asian and European governments and companies goes ahead almost unopposed.

Why Africa? Because that’s the last place where there are large areas of good agricultural land that aren’t already completely occupied by local farmers. There are usually some peasants scratching a living from the land, but they are few and poor, and they can easily be bought or driven out.

For the foreigners, the lure is profit, or food security, or both. For those who are investing in bio-fuels, there are real profits to be made, at least in the short term. But for those seeking food security, the new African food resources will probably become unavailable just when they are needed most.

It was the surge in grain prices in 2007-2008 that drove many countries that depend heavily on imported food to start acquiring African farmland. The immediate reason for a doubling or tripling of the price of wheat, rice and corn (maize) was a couple of local crop failures and the diversion of large amounts of American corn into bio-fuel production, but the underlying cause was that the global food supply is falling further and further behind demand.

Since 1945 the world’s population has tripled, and so has its food production, growing at an average of about 3 percent annually through the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and most of the 90’s. But for most of the past decade grain production has essentially flat-lined, while the global population has gone on growing.

By 2006, just before the prices soared, the world grain reserve (the amount that is left in the storage bins each year just before the new harvest comes in) had shrunk from 116 days of food for everybody in the world in 1999 to only 57 days. Last year’s generally good harvests brought prices back down, but the outlook for this year is dire, with drought in about half of the world’s main grain-growing areas.

So wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to compete for scarce stocks of grain at inflated prices on the international grain market when prices soar? Wouldn’t it be great if you could rely instead on your own food supply, even if it isn’t located in your own country? That’s why it’s mostly countries that depend heavily on food imports that are involved in the current land-rush in Africa — but they are forgetting two things.

The first is that sovereignty trumps contractual obligations every time. If the African countries that are leasing their land fall into difficulties in feeding their own populations, as they are likely to do if world grain prices rise sharply, the first resource they will turn to is the foreign plantations on their territory. Governments that cannot feed their populations face overthrow, and will break contracts without the slightest hesitation.

The second is that when things really get tough — when climate change starts to bite, grain yields are falling in most places, and what remains of the international grain market cannot meet demand at any price

— Africa is not the place to be sourcing your emergency supply of grain.

Almost the entire continent lies in the tropics or the sub-tropics, which is where food production will be hit worst.

The “neo-colonialists” will make some money in the short term, and they may even enjoy a false sense of security for a while, but they will not get much for their investment in the long run. Trouble is, Africans will not get much out of it either, although some of their leaders certainly will.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“Only…unopposed”)

HECTARES TO ACRES (in the order that they appear in the text):

690,000 hectares is 1.7 million acres

30,000 hectares is 74,000 acres

378,000 hectares is 959,000 acres

500,000 hectares is 1.2 million acres

2.8 million hectares is 6.9 million acres

2 million hectares is 4.9 million acres

1.3 million hectares is 3.2 million acres 465,000 hectares is 1.1 million acres

Mayotte Gives Up On Africa

24 March 2009

Mayotte Gives Up On Africa

By Gwynne Dyer

On Sunday (29 March), the 180,00 people of the island of Mayotte will decide whether they would like to become the 101st department of France. They live on a tropical island in the Indian Ocean, they are almost all Sunni Muslims, and their cultural heritage is overwhelmingly African and Arab. They could become independent just by ticking the right box — but they will vote instead to become fully, irrevocably French. Why?

Sure, it’s the money. Per capita income on Mayotte is $2,600, compared to $1,142 in the other Comoro islands (the other three islands of the group declared independence from France in 1975), and even less in Madagascar, Mayotte’s giant neighbour on the other side. But why does being ruled by France make Mayotte richer?

There hasn’t been much by the way of subsidies from France over the years, and even after Mayotte becomes a full-fledged department the money is not going to flood in. The population will have to give up local customs like Islamic courts, polygamy and child marriages right away to conform to the French legal code, but they will only gradually gain access to French social benefits over the next twenty-five years.

Nor has Mayotte a very advanced economy. Most of the population works in agriculture, and there’s no big export crop. Somehow or other, just making sure that all the kids are in school, and that everybody has enough to eat, and that there is a reasonable degree of public security and official honesty, produces a much better economic outcome. Is that enough to make a large majority of them decide to be French? Apparently so.

This is not about how wonderful France is. It’s about how awful Africa is for most of the people who live there. So awful that most other people in the continent would, like the citizens of Mayotte, vote to be French if they were given the choice. Or Hungarian or South Korean, for that matter.

You’re not supposed to say this, but it’s the most obvious thing about Africa. There are oases of hope here and there — most other Africans would also vote to join South Africa, for example — but most countries in the continent are broken. Consider what the people of Mayotte see when they look at their neighbours.

South of them is Madagascar, where the latest coup took place just last week. It has been lucky as African countries go: no civil wars, and none of its dictators were monsters. But are its people any better off economically than they were when Madagascar got its independence from France 49 years ago? Not much.

Madagascar’s economy has grown since independence, but average income barely kept up with population growth for the first forty years.

There was then a twenty percent rise in average income over the past decade, but the present and prospective political upheavals will probably cancel that out. As for democracy, it comes and it goes, but mostly it’s gone.

Mayotte’s other neighbour, the Union of the Comoros, has had TWENTY military coups in its thirty-four years of independence, some of them carried out by foreign mercenaries (mostly French) who were hired by the various local rivals for power. Two of the three islands even seceded in

1997 in an attempt to put themselves back under French rule, but France refused to take them on and the revolts were bloodily suppressed.

Population growth is high, and per capita income has been falling for decades.

On the whole, you would not choose to be born in the Union of the Comoros. Indeed, almost one-third of Mayotte’s population is made up of people from the other islands who have moved there to place themselves back under colonial oppression.

So now Mayotte will become an integral part of France, and in another generation or two it’s likely that most people there will speak nothing but French. (Only slightly over one-third of the parents of school-age children are fluent in French, but almost all of the 10 to 14-year-olds are.) Living standards on Mayotte will probably never match those of metropolitan France, but they will draw further and further ahead of the rest of the neighbourhood.

Becoming an overseas department of France is not a “happy ever after” ending. Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean and Reunion in the Indian Ocean, other islands with the same status that Mayotte seeks, have all seen major social unrest in recent months, mainly because of the huge income differences between local white minorities and the rest of the population. But most Africans would still choose these problems over those that they have now.

There will be a great outburst of indignation and much anti-imperialist bluster by the representatives of Africa’s ruling elites after Mayotte’s voters make their choice. But not one of those privileged people would be willing to live as an ordinary citizen of the Union of the Comoros, which is the only practical alternative available to the residents of Mayotte. And most of their own fellow-citizens at home would make the same choice as the voters of Mayotte if it were offered to them.

You can discuss it and analyse it as much as you like. You can hypothesize causes and postulate solutions. But half a century after the first great wave of decolonisation gave most Africans back their independence, this is the bitter truth about the continent.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“So now…have now”)