Fred Pearce: The Landgrabbers

Land is arguably Africa’s most emotive issue. In most of southern Africa, the liberation wars were essentially fought to re-establish Africa’s sovereignty over this most precious resource. Land is central to life, feeding mankind and the final resting place of ancestors. Without land to grow crops and graze livestock, hunger is inevitable. And, more deeply, […]


Land is arguably Africa’s most emotive issue. In most of southern Africa, the liberation wars were essentially fought to re-establish Africa’s sovereignty over this most precious resource. Land is central to life, feeding mankind and the final resting place of ancestors.

Without land to grow crops and graze livestock, hunger is inevitable. And, more deeply, without land, a people’s identity is denied them.

This is why the growing trend of foreign ownership of land in Africa has become so controversial. It is tied into the soaring food prices and growing fears over future food security that are driving ‘investments’ in this most crucial commodity. The world, it seems, is taking up the US 19th century author Mark Twain’s exhortation:

“Buy land. They’re not making it any more.”

Author Fred Pearce is uniquely qualified to reveal the concerns over the profound environmental, economic and social issues that are now confronting the continent.

Yet it is notable that even as large tracts of land change hands for nominal sums and vague promises of knowledge transfer and employment prospects, scant attention is being paid to the long-term impact of land ownership.

At practically every investment conference and summit, it is noted that Africa possesses much uncultivated arable land, yet rarely are the African occupants of this land even mentioned.

Pearce tells us that he spent a year circling the globe to discover the truth about a new breed of land grabbers – and it is not just in Africa that he interviews both the grabbers and the grabbed.

He notes that almost everyone seems to be a land grabber these days, from super-financier George Soros and super-industrialist Richard Branson to Columbian narco-terrorists, Italian heiresses, an Irish dairy farmer in the Saudi desert, a former British army commander now tilling land in Guinea, and other characters who would seem almost unbelievable in even the most fantastic thriller novel. We meet an evangelical ex-prison boss from America draining bogs on the shores of Lake Victoria and the man who bought up a tenth of South Sudan before it even became an independent state.
It is a truly extraordinary story, and ties in some of the world’s most powerful political players. It features Saudi sheiks extending the world’s biggest sugar plantation in Sudan to Gadaffi’s doomed henchmen annexing black earth in Ukraine and yellow sands in Mali. And the ripples extend outwards too – take, for example, the contention that it may have been logging concessions in Central Africa that allegedly helped elect the former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

However, if you think this is just a book about wicked exploitation, you would be wrong. Pearce writes that just as he has been in awe at the grabber’s ambition so to he has been impressed at their open-hearted altruism. “Some want to save their nations from a coming ‘perfect storm’ of rising populations, changing diets and climate change. Others look forward to making a killing as the storm hits. Many believe they will do good along the way, but I have been appalled at the damage that often results from their actions.”

Nor does he exonerate the powers that be in Africa. He argues that it is often governments themselves that must share the blame for what is happening. He says that they have neglected the agricultural sector for so long, they are now desperate for a quick fix and see foreign investors as the answer. Consequently, they ask few questions, believing that new jobs, food and prosperity will inevitably follow. It rarely does, “for reasons that are social, environmental, economic, geopolitical – and sometimes a toxic mix of all four,” Pearce contends.

Later, the author writes angrily at the spectre of the “appalling injustice of people having their ancestral land pulled from beneath their feet”, and questions the “arrogance and ignorance surrounding claims, by home governments and Western investors alike, that huge areas of Africa are empty land only awaiting the magic of foreign hands and foreign capital.

He also has some tough words for “the patina of virtue that often surrounds the environmentalists eagerly taking other people’s land in the interest of protecting wildlife”. With barely concealed fury he asks: “What right do ‘green-grabbers’ have to take peasant fields and pastures to grow biofuels, cordon off rich pastures for nature conservation, shut up forests as carbon stores, and fence off wilderness as playpens and hunting grounds for rich sponsors?”.

In describing the land in Africa that is particularly prone to land grabbing, Pearce has no hesitation in identifying what is known as the Guinea Savannah Zone. This is a huge expanse of grassland half the size of the US that encompasses 25 African countries from West Africa to Sudan and then south through Ethiopia, Kenya to Zambia and Mozambique. It is approximately 4m sq km in area and despite the World Bank describing it as “the world’s last reserve of underused land”, is nevertheless the home of 600m Africans, in the main smallholder farming families The book describes many of the bigger projects that are under way across Africa that directly challenge the rights of many of these Africans that occupy the land being singled out for “development”.

Pearce says that African governments appear to be in thrall to the vision of introducing Western-style heavily mechanised agro-production, turning African bush into an American-style prairie.

He describes how Indian businessman Sai Ramakrishna Karuturi, working in partnership with Mohammed Al Amoudi, is busy creating a huge 100,000ha farm in Gambella, Ethiopia (with the conditional option of a further 200,000ha) to grow oil palm, sugar cane, rice, maize and sorghum on land so rich that it needs no fertiliser. That sounds like a reasonably beneficial project until you read the concession contract the government signed that promises the investors “vacant possession” and “adequate security free of cost against any riot, disturbance … as and when requested by the lessee”. It is simply a recipe for disaster as mass removals loom to make way for the mega-farm.

Land deals in South Sudan

An even bigger land-grabbing project has been under way in South Sudan where Jarch Capital has plans to develop 400,000ha of land in Mayom county in Unity Province. Jarch is a US corporate headed by its colourful chairman Philippe Heilberg. In 2008 it struck a deal with a local warlord, Paulino Matip and his son Gabriel Matip, who allegedly claimed ownership of the land in question. But it is by no means clear that the Matips had ownership of this land in the first place. Nevertheless, Heilberg is said to be negotiating to double his land stake.

Yet as Pearce discovered when researching this particular deal, the chairman of the Southern Sudan Land Commission, Robert Lado, insists that land is owned communally, and it can only be sold when there is a consensus among members of that community. Underpinning this view is the country’s new Land Act that stipulates “customary land rights … shall have equal force and effect in law with freehold and leasehold rights”.

Yet Jarch is not the only land grabbing player in South Sudan. So too are companies such as Nile Trading and Development and Kinyeti Development, both US based, with a 600,000ha stake, and the Abu Dhabi Ain National Wildlife, which has a 30-year concession to run Boma National Park, covering 2.3m hectares on the border with Ethiopia.

It is building resort camps for high-rolling Gulf tourists, but Pearce believes they are also in the business of capturing wildlife for zoos worldwide. These are only a few of the examples of land-grabbing that is taking place across Africa. Pearce takes us on a tour of many of the other striking examples of this troubling trend, from Mali and Ghana to Zimbabwe and Madagascar, Liberia and Kenya to Central Africa and Mozambique. He demonstrates that African land is being sold from beneath Africans’ feet.

What is truly disquieting is that an idea is taking root that in order for Africa to feed itself, it must turn to intensive large-scale agricultural techniques, requiring the removal of the African smallholder farmer in the interests of the mega farm and their investors. This approach is dismissed as entirely counter-productive by many experts. The World Bank, for example, states that investment in smallholder farming is “among the most efficient and effective ways of raising people out of poverty.” And, as long ago as 2009, it reported “there is little evidence that the large-scale agribusiness farming model is either necessary or even particularly promising for Africa”.

“There can be a green revolution in Africa,” Gordon Conway said, when launching the 2010 Montpellier Panel Report on African agriculture, “but it will be driven by smallholders, the 33m smallholders in Africa with less than two hectares.”

As Pearce notes: “For decades African governments have turned their backs on the countryside … and, even today, they spend less than $20 per year per rural inhabitant. Compare that to the huge subsidies, handouts and tax waivers now being offered to foreign investors.” He makes a powerful case for Africa to reject the overtures of the foreign investors and put a halt to the land grabs

Subscribe for full access

You've reached the maximum number of free articles for this month.

Digital Monthly

£8.00 / month

Receive full unlimited access to our articles, opinions, podcasts and more.

Digital Yearly

£70.00 / year

Receive full unlimited access to our articles, opinions, podcasts and more.