Germany's Federal Minister of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection Ilse Aigner opposes the practice of land grabbing in Africa. She says states should take responsibility for themselves and their people.
Land has become a hot commodity in Africa
Last year alone, China is said to have bought 2.8 million hectares of land in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And many other Asian, Gulf and Western states have been involved in similar deals. Investors are drawn to land grabbing by the prospect additional space on which to grow food for their own populations, and the likelihood of rising land prices. The controversial practice, which is most widespread in Africa, means countries struggle to meet their own food needs and often have no choice besides expensive imports. The issue tops the agenda of this year's Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) annual conference, being held in Rome this week. Germany's Minister of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection Ilse Aigner is taking part.
Deutsche Welle: How can you prevent land grabbing?
Aigner: I'm in Rome to negotiate with 191 other countries on voluntary guidelines which reflect responsible actions regarding land. The problem that the land is not sold by any old person, but by the countries themselves, and we need to begin by addressing that.
So would the guidelines only apply to buyers or to the vendors as well?
Both. Two years ago we agreed on the importance of ensuring food for local populations before factoring any other priorities. Unfortunately we now have an additional problem, and that is why we want to agree on these voluntary guidelines.
But that right to food has not borne fruit, because many countries, such as Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are not selling land for food production, but for things like growing flowers.
Yes, that's right and it's a problem, but it is up to local countries to farm their land in such a way that it benefits their own people. The investments being made prove that climate is not always an issue, but that what matters is knowledge, and reliable access to things such as water. And unfortunately there are major deficits on that front in Africa.
Aigner encourages locals to farm their own land
African governments earn a lot of money through sales to private investors or other governments. How will voluntary guidelines stop that?
It is a moral question. We say they have a responsibility, but we also want to influence it through development aid, by attaching conditions or charging taxes on investments in rural development and local farming.
But controlling development aid has been a problem for years, because rather than reach those who need it – such as farmers – governments hang on to it.
Investment in rural areas used to be limited, but that has changed over the past couple of years, and we've been working with the local communities we support to organize it together. We are also involved in bi-lateral projects such as one in Ethiopia where we are building a knowledge transfer center to help inform local farmers.
Fifty million hectares of African land has already been divided up. Can the FAO guidelines do anything about that or is it too late to change contracts already signed?
All we can do is to prevent the sale of more land in the future unless the sales are of benefit to the country's own population. There is no way to force countries to abide by voluntary agreements, but we use development aid to focus on co-operation, and that can be influential.
So you use it as leverage?
Yes, we need a bit of pressure.
Many crops in Africa are grown by women
Land grabbing proponents always talk about its positive effects in terms of infrastructure. How do you see that?
If that infrastructure means improved transport routes and storage possibilities for agricultural produce, that is certainly a good thing for producers. African farmers lose up to fifty percent of their goods after harvest, so secure storage and delivery are very important. And we want to support that, but it has a lot to do with knowledge and technology.
What do NGOs say about the alleged positive effects?
We have very good experience with NGOs, we support them at a local level and sometimes invite them to take part in conferences. And we are also involved in co-operations which influence and drive the success on the ground.
A further problem, especially in Africa, is making land accessible for women. How can that be improved?
Women truly are the pillars of the farming world. Seventy percent of farmers are female, and there are many development aid measures in place to support them. Access to education is key, but so is reliable access to land. There are not very many land register fields, and if a farmer plants his or her crops on one, there is no knowing if they will be able to harvest them the following year. Those are local problems which have to be tackled on the ground.
Interview: André Hatting / DLR/ tkw
Editor: Anke Rasper