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“Land-grabbing” in Africa (2)

John Vidal

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Even Sudan, emerging from civil war, is not off-limits to investors seeking land and profits, John Vidal writes. Ethiopia, too, is a land-rush centre where many deals are condemned as “new colonialism”.

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Nowhere is now out of bounds. Sudan, emerging from civil war and mostly bereft of development for a generation, is one of the new hot spots. South Korean companies last year bought 700,000 hectares of northern Sudan for wheat cultivation; the United Arab Emirates have acquired 750,000 hectares and Saudi Arabia concluded a 42,000-hectare deal in Nile province in February.

The government of southern Sudan says many companies are now trying to acquire land. “We have had many requests from many developers. Negotiations are going on,” said Peter Chooli, director of water resources and irrigation, in Juba recently. “A Danish group is in discussions with the state and another wants to use land near the Nile.”

In one of the most extraordinary deals, buccaneering New York investment firm Jarch Capital, run by a former commodities trader, Philip Heilberg, has leased 800,000 hectares in southern Sudan near Darfur. Heilberg has promised not only to create jobs but also to put 10% or more of his profits back into the local community. But he has been accused by Sudanese of “grabbing” communal land and leading an American attempt to fragment Sudan and exploit its resources.

Devlin Kuyek, a Montreal-based researcher with the NGO Grain, said investing in Africa was now seen as a new food-supply strategy by many governments. “Rich countries are eyeing Africa not just for a healthy return on capital, but also as an insurance policy. Food shortages and riots in 28 countries in 2008, declining water supplies, climate change and huge population growth have together made land attractive. Africa has the most land and, compared with other continents, is cheap,” he said.

“Farmland in sub-Saharan Africa is giving 25% returns a year and new technology can treble crop yields in short time-frames,” said Susan Payne, chief executive of Emergent Asset Management, a UK investment fund seeking to spend US$50 million on African land, which, she said, was attracting governments, corporations, multinationals and other investors. “Agricultural development is not only sustainable, it is our future. If we do not pay great care and attention now to increase food production by over 50% before 2050, we will face serious food shortages globally,” she said.

But many of the deals are widely condemned by both western non-government groups and nationals as “new colonialism”, driving people off the land and taking scarce resources away from people.

We met Tegenu Morku, a land agent, in a roadside café on his way to the region of Oromia in Ethiopia to find 500 hectares of land for a group of Egyptian investors. They planned to fatten cattle, grow cereals and spices, and export as much as possible to Egypt. There had to be water available and he expected the price to be about 15 Ethiopian birr (US$1.10) per hectare per year – less than a quarter of the cost of land in Egypt and a tenth of the price of land in Asia.

“The land and labour is cheap and the climate is good here. Everyone – Saudis, Turks, Chinese, Egyptians – is looking. The farmers do not like it because they get displaced, but they can find land elsewhere and, besides, they get compensation, equivalent to about 10 years’ crop yield,” he said.

Oromia is one of the centres of the African land rush. Haile Hirpa, president of the Oromia studies’ association, said in a recent letter of protest to UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon that India had acquired one million hectares, Djibouti 10,000 hectares, Saudi Arabia 100,000 hectares, and that Egyptian, South Korean, Chinese, Nigerian and other Arab investors were all active in the state.

“This is the new, 21st-century colonisation. The Saudis are enjoying the rice harvest, while the Oromos are dying from man-made famine as we speak,” he said.

The Ethiopian government denied the deals were causing hunger and said that the land deals were attracting hundreds of millions of US dollars of foreign investments and tens of thousands of jobs. A spokesman said: “Ethiopia has 74 million hectares of fertile land, of which only 15% is currently in use – mainly by subsistence farmers. Of the remaining land, only a small percentage – 3 to 4% – is offered to foreign investors. Investors are never given land that belongs to Ethiopian farmers. The government also encourages Ethiopians in the diaspora to invest in their homeland. They bring badly needed technology, they offer jobs and training to Ethiopians, they operate in areas where there is suitable land and access to water.”

The reality on the ground is different, according to Michael Taylor, a policy specialist at the International Land Coalition (ILC). “If land in Africa hasn’t been planted, it’s probably for a reason. Maybe it’s used to graze livestock or deliberately left fallow to prevent nutrient depletion and erosion. Anybody who has seen these areas identified as unused understands that there is no land in Ethiopia that has no owners and users.”

Development experts are divided on the benefits of large-scale, intensive farming. Indian ecologist Vandana Shiva said in London recently that large-scale industrial agriculture not only threw people off the land but also required chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers, intensive water use and large-scale transport, storage and distribution, which together turned landscapes into enormous mono-cultural plantations.

“We are seeing dispossession on a massive scale. It means less food is available and local people will have less. There will be more conflict and political instability and cultures will be uprooted. The small farmers of Africa are the basis of food security. The food availability of the planet will decline,” Shiva says. But Rodney Cooke, director at the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), sees potential benefits. “I would avoid the blanket term ‘land-grabbing’. Done the right way, these deals can bring benefits for all parties and be a tool for development.”

Lorenzo Cotula, senior researcher with the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), who co-authored a report on African land exchanges with the UN fund last year, found that well-structured deals could guarantee employment, better infrastructures and better crop yields. But badly handled they could cause great harm, especially if local people were excluded from decisions about allocating land and if their land rights were not protected.

Water is also controversial. Local government officers in Ethiopia told the Observer that foreign companies that set up flower farms and other large intensive farms were not being charged for water. “We would like to, but the deal is made by central government,” said one. In Awassa, the al-Amouni farm uses as much water a year as 100,000 Ethiopians.

Part one: A historical land rush

Copyright Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

Homepage image from United Nations Photo


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没有土地被“霸占”。只是在进行着愿买愿卖的交易。贸易?对于数年租赁期间的使用安排。这不是欧洲“殖民者”在北美,南美,东南亚(如澳大利亚和新西兰)枪口下的强抢,还有在臭名昭著的1885年“争夺非洲”柏林会议后对非洲的瓜分 。 请停止进行反穆斯林式的宣传!公平一点。

" Land-Grabbing" in Africa?

No land is being "Grabbed".It is being bought in a willing-seller/willing- buyer trAnsaction.=Trade?And it is being used in a 'Lease-hold' for a number of years arrangement. It is not being STOLEN at gun-point, as the Europeans "Colonialists" did in North & South America,in SE Asia(i.e. Australia & New Zealand), or as in Africa after the notorious European "Scramble for Africa"(1885). Pls stop carrying anti-Muslim propoganda! BE FAIR.



Missing the point

It has much more to do with the worst aspects of capitalism than Islam.

The local people whose land is being grabbed tend not to have been given their prior free and informed consent. They have also not yet had a chance to appreciate the implications of the land grab - guns will be primed when they do.



If the land were wisely used

Land transaction within a sound structure may ensure good employment status,better the infrastructure and improve the crop production.----There is a wide range of utilizable territories and little population in Africa, so why can't they rent the land to other countries?If the utilization wouldn't cause land degradation and environmental demage,and add profit to the local employment, then it will be a great approach to cooperation.The land-trade companies in Africa sold the grain at a lower price to the local people, or give them grain as a subsidy.We all know the reason why Africa has struggled with hunger for so many years.I don't believe that the "New colonialism" is the one to be blame.

Translated by Yaqing



Developers should be moral, for the benefit of locals

Developers should exploit fertile land in an uncontaminated way, in case of impoverishment of the soils in the future. On the other hand, they should benefit indigene, give feedback to local and seek mutual prosperity. The local government in Africa should not sell their lands for only financial interest. Developers and local governments should have ethics and responsibility, in order to avoid various crises to the local people.







Comment 3: Why do local people in Africa suffer from hunger?

Sorry, I do not know why Africa struggles to escape hunger.

Is it because the local people are African, their governments' land-use policies are corrupt, because more than two generations ago their countries were colonies?

Or is it because, although they are good farmers, the land and weather are not conducive to greater output on a sustainable basis? It may also be that they feel that their local values are superior to materialism?

As those old enough would remember, many large scale agriculture projects failed during the 1970s and 80s.
It is widely known that climate change caused by others (particularly, China, Europe, India and the USA) is increasing the risk of crop failure in much of Africa.

Displacing local people by agri-business is obviously not a solution. Neither is industrialisation - China would outcompete them. Benign family planning and education for women would be a help - but aid agencies and politicians refuse to promote this.


商业化农业不是解决之道,工业化更不是。但是谁为中国树立了错误的榜样,进行工业化发展?谁又为非洲国家树立了错误的榜样,要进行工业化发展?资本家和政治家是不希望"the proles"变得聪明起来的,他们怎么会愿意提升教育?

Comment 5 : you are right

Why do you say that you don't know the reason of Africans suffering hunger? I think every item that you said is right. Because they are developing countries, their government are corrupt, and they were colony before the last century. Because the Climate change aggravated their failure of land farming.
Neither commercializing agriculture is the solution, nor the industrialization. But who set the wrong model for China, toward the industrialization? Who set the wrong example for Africa, headed to the industrialization still? The capitalists and politicians would never hope the "proles" becoming smarter, so how are they willing to improve the education?
(Translated by


For some countries this is implicitly about water trading. Saudi Arabia has given up agricultural self-sufficiency as depletion of water resources was unsustainable. For others it is a commercial opportunity. Accusations of new colonialism are misplaced. More to the point is the willingness of governments to engage in meaningful land reform and to give local people a voice in what happens to the land. Commercial agriculture has its place but should not be at the expense of small holders.



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