Assessing African Land Grabs

landgrabsLand grabbing is a hotly debated topic and nowhere is it more contentious than in Africa. On the one hand large-scale land investments are praised for their potential to bring job opportunities and boost economies while on the other, some deals have led to irresponsible and damaging use of natural resources and to the displacement of inhabitants without compensation.

Launched last year, the Land Matrix Global Observatory aims to analyse what appears to be a growing trend for private and national investors to acquire large tracts of land in developing countries. Early results show that over 46 million hectares of land have changed hands in 756 verified land deals. Approximately half of all these deals have taken place in Africa, many in Mozambique and Ethiopia.

Contrary to media reporting, the Observatory’s database finds China’s involvement and the impact of an increasing demand for biofuels to be less than estimated. But there are major concerns. While agriculture needs both private and public sector investment if it is to meet the needs of a growing population, this investment must be transparent.

Obtaining information regarding acquisitions can be very difficult, especially as private investors can act almost invisibly through such things as contract farming or by buying stakes in local agribusinesses. Instituting fair systems of land titling would at least ensure fair compensation is paid to those individuals whose land is appropriated.

In a new book, The Great African Land Grab?, Lorenzo Cotula, discusses the history of land acquisitions, the situation now and the impacts of land grabbing on African people. The book appraises the consequences of land deals, both good and bad, and provides a balanced account of what is a controversial and polarised issue in a bid to generate open and, in Cotula’s words, “a more constructive debate”.  As Olivier De Schutter, UN special rapporteur on the right to food, states, “Invest in small-scale farmers, not in the land on which they depend, and read this book, if you care at all about the future of agricultural development in poor countries.”

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