Resource exploitation in Africa is not new, but the scale of agricultural “land grabbing” in African nations is unprecedented, becoming the new colonization of the twenty-first century. State violence against Kenyan indigenous pastoralists and Nigerian civilians in oil-rich regions has heightened, leaving thousands dead as the military burns whole communities to the ground and police commit extrajudicial killings, rapes, beatings, thefts, arson, and intimidation.
The African land grab
In the midst of a severe food and economic crisis, the “land grabbing” trend has grown to an international phenomenon. The term refers to the purchase or lease of vast tracts of land by wealthier, food-insecure nations and private investors from mostly poor, developing countries in order to produce crops for export. Approximately 180 instances of such land transactions have been reported since mid-2008, as nations attempt to extend their control over food-producing lands and investors attempt to turn a profit in biofuels and soft commodities markets.
Why Africa? Because an estimated 90 percent of the world’s arable land is already in use, the search for more has led to the countries least touched by development, those in Africa. The accelerating land rush has been triggered by the worldwide food shortages that followed the sharp oil price rises in 2008, growing water shortages, and the European Union’s insistence that 10 percent of all transport fuel must come from plant-based biofuels by 2015. Devlin Kuyek, a Montreal-based researcher, said investing in Africa is 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 twenty-eight 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.
An Observer investigation estimates that up to 50 million hectares of land have been acquired in the last few years or is in the process of being negotiated by governments and wealthy investors working with state subsidies. For example, Ethiopia is one of the hungriest countries in the world, with more than 13 million people needing food aid, but paradoxically the government is offering at least three million hectares of its most fertile land to rich countries and some of the world’s most wealthy individuals to export food for their own populations.
The Africa-wide trend is being characterized by many as the new twenty-first-century colonization. Oromia in Ethiopia is one of the centers of the African land rush. Haile Hirpa, president of the Oromia Studies Association, said in a 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. “The Saudis are enjoying the rice harvest, while the Oromos are dying from man-made famine as we speak,” he said.
Leading the rush are international agribusinesses, investment banks, hedge funds, commodity traders, and sovereign wealth funds, as well as UK pension funds, foundations, and individuals attracted by some of the world’s cheapest land. Together they are scouring Sudan, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Malawi, Ethiopia, Congo, Zambia, Uganda, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Mali, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and elsewhere. Ethiopia alone has approved 815 foreign-financed agricultural projects since 2007. Any land there which investors have not been able to buy is being leased for approximately one dollar per year per hectare.
Saudi Arabia, along with other Middle Eastern emirate states such as Qatar, Kuwait, and Abu Dhabi, is thought to be the biggest buyer. In 2008, the Saudi government, which was one of the Middle East’s largest wheat growers, announced it would reduce its domestic cereal production by 12 percent a year to conserve its water. It earmarked $5 billion to provide loans at preferential rates to Saudi companies which wanted to invest in countries with strong agricultural potential.
A proponent of the land grabbing, Lorenzo Cotula, senior researcher with the International Institute for Environment and Development, coauthored a report on African land exchanges with the UN fund. While maintaining that well-structured deals could guarantee employment, better infrastructures, and better crop yields, he admitted that if 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. Indeed, the land grabbing has impacted African people’s human rights. According to Kuyek, the details of the land deals—usually made among high-ranking government officials with little consultation of local peasants—are often murky. And in many cases, land that officials have said was “unused” was actually managed by local peasants in traditional ways to provide food and water for their communities.
Indian ecologist Vandana Shiva maintains that large-scale industrial agriculture not only throws people off their land but also requires chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, intensive water use, and large-scale transport, storage, and distribution, which together turns landscapes into enormous monocultural 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,” she says.
To many, the land rush seems like yet another wave of African resource extraction—one that will benefit foreign governments and large corporations at the expense of Africans and small farmers. The International Institute for Sustainable Development and the World Bank have backed reports showing that “the most reasonable and most appropriate way to invest in food systems is to invest in small farmers,” Kuyek says. “But here, we’re just getting big industrial agriculture.”
Historically, with big industrial agriculture, comes the expansion of Western agricultural biotechnologies. The introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the US and other countries has primarily profited patent-holding companies, while creating farmer dependence on the chemical fertilizers and pesticides produced by a few US corporations and used to the detriment of human health, soil quality, and the environment.
A tangled consortium of multinational corporations, funded by taxpayer dollars via the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), seeks to further the aims of biotech abroad, especially in Africa, where Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, and Zambia were singled out and have been the testing grounds for this strategy. The obvious beneficiaries of such international development are the handful of corporations which own the patents and the technology, and which produce the herbicides and pesticides required by the use of such seeds. While biotechnology has been promising drought tolerance and higher yields for years without delivering, there are real answers available now—like drought-tolerant varieties, suited to certain areas, which are naturally bred; science that focuses on building the quality of the soil and the capacity for that soil to hold more water; or push-and-pull solutions that deal with pests naturally by attracting beneficial insects or planting compatible species that act as decoys for those pests.
The G8 recently pledged $20 billion in aid to promote food security in Africa, but biotech-friendly advisors in the current administration are most likely to direct those funds to multinational corporations promoting biotechnologies and land acquisition. These strategies have proven to further African resource extraction and to impoverish the real basis of food security—investment in Africa’s small farmers.
Oil an underlying cause of police and military attacks on civilians in Kenya and Nigeria
Kenya: During 2009 and 2010, the Kenyan government carried out a brutal campaign of violence against the indigenous Samburu people in north-central Kenya. Kenyan police forces conducted armed assaults on at least ten Samburu pastoralist communities in Samburu East and Isiolo Districts, committing extrajudicial killings, rapes, beatings, thefts, arson, and intimidation multiple times. Their actions have caused the Samburu people to suffer death, injury, terror, displacement, economic hardship, property loss, and vulnerability to disease and famine. These crimes have been reported and protested, but no action has been taken by the government of Kenya to investigate or prosecute the offending officers or their superiors. While police say operations in Isiolo and Samburu East were intended to bring greater security to the region, unconfirmed reports that a Kenyan military officer has leaked documents that suggest this ongoing campaign is aimed at forcing the Samburu to abandon their [pastoral] way of life have surfaced. A further motive for the aggression against the Samburu was suggested when, on October 12, the Kenyan government announced that it had awarded a $26 million lease to a Chinese firm to drill for oil fifteen miles away from Archer’s Post, one of the areas most affected by the violence and cattle confiscations. It is the first of eighteen contracts the government is negotiating with Chinese firms for oil.
Nigeria: The Nigerian military has carried out helicopter and gunboat attacks by land, air, and sea on the oil-rich Niger Delta; reports indicate hundreds, possibly thousands, of Nigerian civilians may be dead. Entire villages have reportedly been burned to the ground. Nigerian military reportedly carried out attacks in the area in an effort to oust from the region groups protesting decades of environmental exploitation, destruction, and human rights violations, including the torture and execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Nigerian activists. As many as thirty thousand civilians have been displaced without adequate food or water, and aid agencies have been barred from the region.
For years, activist groups in the Niger Delta have advocated for fair distribution of oil wealth to local communities in the impoverished region. One of the main groups in the Niger Delta, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), declared an oil war and threatened all international industry vessels that approach the region. Eighty percent of the oil extraction in Nigeria is in the Niger Delta. Major oil firms in the area, Shell and Chevron, have made record profits in recent years. Yet the oil-rich Niger Delta remains impoverished, with no schools, no health facilities, or basic infrastructure. Most food in the region is imported due to the decades of contamination of the water and soil by oil and gas companies operating in the region. Thus, the military blockade ultimately means starvation for thousands of people.
Update by John Schertow
In the months following this report, Kenyan police forces led two more full-scale attacks against the Samburu, one of Kenya’s seven distinct indigenous peoples. These attacks, like the ones that occurred throughout 2009, were unprovoked.
For centuries, the indigenous peoples have competed with each other for scarce water resources, to replenish cattle stocks in times of drought, to covet pastures for grazing their animals, and to gain favor in their communities. But for the past fifteen years, arms traders have made weapons available to the population, turning the peoples’ traditional struggle of survival and dignity into one of needless violence.
The government therefore ordered the police to get rid of the illegal weapons and restore peace and stability to the region. However, once they arrived, the police immediately criminalized the Samburu and began to attack their villages, steal their possessions, and confiscate their cattle.
“The brutal intrusion . . . [has] altered and dismantled our oral history. We shall never be the same again,” states Michael Lolwerikoi, in a heartfelt letter on behalf of the Samburu to the US-based group Cultural Survival (CS).
In January 2010, CS sent a research delegation to gather evidence of the attacks. They had been receiving reports from Africa since February 2009. The research delegation was not able to verify some of the reports, including those concerning the military; but after spending two weeks in Kenya, the reason for the Samburu’s “limbo state” was clear. In April 2010, they published a report on their findings: “When the Police Are the Perpetrators.”
Ultimately, the organization’s visit to Kenya played a key role in ending the unnecessary attacks on the Samburu. After their report was received by Kenya’s Minister of Internal Security, the police were ordered to stop using force and to conduct the disarmament operation peacefully. Since then, CS says there have been no further full-scale attacks on the Samburu. However, there is still room for history to repeat. “It’s something that clearly needs international pressure, because the police in Kenya continue to enjoy impunity,” comments Paula Palmer, a member of the research delegation and one of the authors of the report. “[It] mirrors what occurred during the post-election violence being investigated by the International Court of Justice,” she adds.
There is an equal need for international exposure—and there has never been any major coverage of these tragic events. Palmer says they have tried to reach out to journalists from the Guardian, the New York Times, and others but none of the journalists have responded.
The Samburu are asking the government to compensate them for their heavy losses. And they, along with the Borana, Rendille, Turkana, Somali, Meru, and Pokot, want to build lasting peace in the region with the help of their traditional elders. And everybody is eager to get rid of the weapons. “It’s something everybody wants,” says Palmer.
For more information and to learn what you can do to help, please visit www.culturalsurvival.org.
John Vidal, “Food, Water Driving 21st-century African Land Grab,” Mail & Guardian, March 7, 2010, http://www.mg.co.za/article/2010-03-07-food-water-driving-21stcentury-african-land-grab.
Paula Crossfield, “Food Security in Africa: Will Obama Let USAID’s Genetically Modified Trojan Horse Ride Again?” Civil Eats, August 6, 2009, http://civileats.com/2009/08/06/will-obama-let-the-usaid-genetically-modified-trojan-horse-ride-again.
Thalif Deen, “Land Grabs for Food Production Under Fire,” Inter Press Service,
October 23, 2009, http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=48979.
Stephanie Hanes, “Africa: From Famine to the World’s Next Breadbasket?” Christian Science Monitor, December 17, 2009, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Global-Issues/2009/1231/Africa-from-famine-to-the-world-s-next-breadbasket.
Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, “Massive Casualties Feared in Nigerian Military Attack on Niger Delta Villages,” Democracy Now!, May 21, 2009, http://www.democracynow.org/2009/5/21/nigeria.
Justice in Nigeria Now, “Military Attacks Raze Niger Delta Villages Killing Civilians; Civil Society Groups Call for Immediate Ceasefire,” May 21, 2009, http://uk.oneworld.net/ article/view/162969/1.
OneWorld.net, “Nigeria Oil Violence Forces Thousands from Homes,” May 26, 2009, http://us.oneworld.net/article/363376-new-outbreak-violence-niger-delta.
John “Ahniwanika” Schertow, “Stop Killing and Starvation of Samburu People in Kenya,” Intercontinental Cry, November 20, 2009, http://intercontinentalcry.org/stop-killing-and-starvation-of-samburu-people-in-kenya.
Paula Palmer and Chris Allan, Kenya Human Rights Research Delegation, “When the Police are the Perpetrators: An Investigation of Human Rights Violations by Police in Samburu East and Isiolo Districts [Kenya],” Cultural Survival, April 20, 2010, http://www.culturalsurvival.org/files/Samburu%20Report%20Final%205-5-2010.pdf.
Shepard Daniel with Anuradha Mittal, “The Great Land Grab: Rush for World’s Farmland Threatens Food Security for the Poor,” Oakland Institute (Oakland, CA), www.oaklandinstitute.org.
Andrew Rice, “Is There Such a Thing as Agro-Imperialism?” New York Times, November 16, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/22/magazine/22land-t.html.