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Land grabbing in Africa

Emmanuelle Landais
February 9, 2017

New research released on Thursday by the Rights and Resources Institute shows that despite improvements in respect for communities’ rights by global companies, land rights remain largely ignored.

South African bushmen walking in a bush
Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The study by Washington-based Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), a global network advocating for the land and forest rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, compares databases of conflicts in Africa and the world, focusing on three regions: West Africa, East Africa and Southern Africa. It finds that in West Africa, plantation agriculture—especially palm oil projects—drives a majority of disputes. Community displacement is the primary driver of 70 percent of the tenure disputes examined, while issues related to compensation are the primary driver for the remaining 30 percent.

Many investors view Africa as the last frontier for cheap land, and many African governments equate foreign direct investment with promoting economic growth. As a result,  entire communities get kicked off their land to make way for hydropower plants, agro-industrial plantations, mining operations, and other large-scale projects.

In it's latest annual report, RRI recommends that governments and investors must find new ways to address the concerns of local people or else face conflict and instability that actually could deter more investors.

A woman tills the ground for farming in Uganda.
Many African famers depend on land for their own livelihoodImage: Helle Jeppesen / DW

Andy White, a coordinator from RRI, was present during the launch of the report in Senegal's capital, Dakar: "On one hand, you still have governments promoting the types of investments that don't respect land rights so that's an unfortunate finding," White said.

Land rights linked to conflicts

"Another finding is that, when these local land rights are not respected then it does damage to local people in their livelihoods and it also promotes conflict," White said.

Many African communities that have inhabited land for centuries lack formal legal rights to their homes or pastoral lands. Far from providing improved economic well-being for all, some investments often drive conflict and competition over increasingly  scarce resources.

"Governments are supposed to protect their citizens first and foremost, private actors are supposed to obey the laws and frequently they do, but in many countries, because the laws don't respect the local people, they end up being hand maidens to this travesty even if they do have good principles," said White. Governments cannot sell off parcels of land or forests claiming not to know people exist there, he added.

Goldmine near Prestea in Ghana.
Evicted local communities have to make way for foreign investments such as miningImage: AP

Based on an in-depth review of 37 case studies from West, East and Southern Africa, RRI found out that 63 percent of disputes related to private sector land and natural resource investments in Africa began when communities were forced to leave their lands.

Kicked off of own land

It's something Senegalese farmer Ibrahima Seck, has experienced first hand. He's the president of the National Federation for Organic Agriculture of Senegal (FENAB). 96 percent of produce is cultivated by small family farms that depend on their crops for their livelihood.

A man walks with a donkey pushing a cart in Niger.
Land grabbing has led to scarcity of resources for indigenous peopleImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"We know that today there is an extraordinary amount of land takeovers of the family farms," Seck said. He said the practice was an abusive expropriation that "we are denouncing so that we can retake our land, or at least stay on the land that hasn't been acquired yet."

Seck said he and several families have been thrown off their land by a presidential decree. It was approved for the extraction of zircon, a gemstone of many colors, by Australian company MLD. "Today, they are exploiting the zircon and many minerals, and many peasants can no longer go to their fields simply because their land has been given to this enterprise," Seck said.

The Mubende coffee plantations and the bitter taste of eviction

According to Seck, compensation for the land was 350 CFA ($0.60, 0.56 euros) per square meter, not enough for the dozens of families who now cannot access the land they cultivated for decades.

Nearly 70 percent of Senegal's population works in agriculture. A 2012 report by agricultural non-profit organization GRAIN found that 12 percent of Senegal's arable land was in the hands of foreign interests.