The land rush doesn’t have to end in a poor deal for Africans

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

If dodgy emails offering millions in return for your downpayment to repatriate a stranded Nigerian astronaut do not tempt you, then maybe this will appeal to your speculative side. A hectare of fertile African land, a 99-year lease, and all for $1 a year. Think about it: crop prices are soaring, land is appreciating and import-dependent rich nations virtually guarantee you a never-ending export market.

It’s starting to sound like that Nigerian astronaut deal.

But this is not a scam. Sadly for anyone who happens to live on that farmland there are countless examples of governments handing it over at bargain prices to foreign investors, ranging from hedge funds to biofuel producers.

Critics call it “land grabbing”. The trend of buying or taking out long-term leases on land first came to prominence during the 2008 world food crisis. As food riots raged from Mexico to Bangladesh, speculators and countries with their own food security fears quietly sealed deals with African nations. Others call it “neo-colonialism”. Expanding, industrialising populations in need of plentiful food sources with cheap workforces take over vast swaths of Africa.

But proponents, including some at the World Bank, see overseas investment in foreign farmland, particularly in Africa, as a way to modernise agriculture there, bringing more food and profits to the local population.