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Land grabbing and food sovereignty in West and Central Africa

It is a long-standing tradition in many African countries to frown upon the selling of land. When land is snapped up by large agribusiness interests in these countries, it is experienced as a brutal violation of this tradition, one that compromises the lives and livelihoods of entire generations to come. This phenomenon of large-scale land appropriation really took off with the food crisis of 2008. As the many cases of land grabbing identified in West and Central Africa have demonstrated, profit seems to be the only motive pursued. The whole model is inimical to – really a frontal attack on – the goals of food sovereignty, which is fundamentally about human survival, especially in African countries that are still largely rural.

While seeds, water, financing, and energy are all necessary to agriculture, there is one obvious requirement that comes before all of them: you cannot grow food without land. But land grabbing by foreign governments (Kuwait, China, Saudi Arabia, and others) or by wealthy individuals, be they foreigners or nationals, deprives small farmers of that indispensable factor in the food equation. In fact, it turns them into farmworkers on their own land.

At a workshop held by Synergie Paysanne, GRAIN, and RAPDA (the African Network for the Right to Food) with the support of the group Bread for all in Ouidah (Benin) from 7 to 9 February 2012, thirty or more participants representing small-farm organisations and NGOs active on the land grabbing issue in West and Central Africa engaged in a wide-ranging and trenchant discussion on this issue.

Land grabbing and food sovereignty: the inimical relationship

Food sovereignty is a concept developed by Via Campesina in 1996 as an alternative to neoliberal policies and the industrial model of production. It signifies the right of peoples, nations, or unions of nations to define their agricultural and food policies without outside interference, and is inclusive of all stakeholders concerned by the food question.

“Food sovereignty includes:

••prioritising local agricultural production in order to feed the people, access of peasants and landless people to land, water, seeds, and credit. Hence the need for land reforms, for fighting against GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms), for free access to seeds, and for safeguarding water as a public good to be sustainably distributed.
• the right of farmers [and] peasants to produce food and the right of consumers to be able to decide what they consume, and how and by whom it is produced
• agricultural prices linked to production costs : they can be achieved if the countries or unions of states are entitled to impose taxes on excessively cheap imports, if they commit themselves in favour of a sustainable farm production, and if they control production on the inner market so as to avoid structural surpluses;
• the populations taking part in the agricultural policy choices;
• the recognition of women farmers’ rights, who play a major role in agricultural production and in food.”
– La Via Campesina, Porto-Alegre, 2003

The possibility of any of the above goals being realised is threatened by land grabbing, since the land in question is almost always put into industrial agriculture, regardless of whether it’s foreign or domestic interests doing the grabbing.
(19 September 2012)

Africa: Land, Water and Resource-Grabbing and Its Impact on Food Security

Obang Metho,
Text of an address to the 1st Africa Congress on Effective Cooperation for a Green Africa (ECOGA) in Bremerhaven, Germany

As I speak about the relationship between land, water and resource use related to food insecurity; particularly related to what I have called the “Second Scramble for African Land, Water and Resources,” I will not only be speaking of Africa as a whole, but I will be speaking as an insider—as someone who comes from this land and soil called Africa; in particular, from the Gambella region of Ethiopia in East Africa, which enables me to use my own experience as a microcosm of what is most at risk on the continent. Yet, the issues of Africa are also global issues that will positively or negatively impact our global society. As global citizens, we will best flourish when we respect the rights of others for “no one will be free until all are free.” This is a fundamental principle of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia (SMNE), the social justice movement of which I am the executive director.

We are all connected together not only by living our lives together on this planet, but by the God-given humanity within each of us, which should be a bridge to valuing “others” – including those unlike us—putting “humanity before ethnicity” or any other differences. This is another fundamental principle of the SMNE for our humanity has no ethnic, religious, political or national boundaries while the dehumanization of “others” has repeatedly led to genocide, injustice, exploitation, corruption, poverty and deadly violence. When I speak, I am talking not only about my life and the future of my children and grandchildren but also of yours. It is that same inter-connectedness that brought me here today to address this audience made up of some of the top thinkers and decision-makers related to a “Green Africa,” even though I grew up in one of the most remote and marginalized regions of Ethiopia, on the border of South Sudan.

I come from a tiny, previously unknown, and now what some consider to be an endangered people group called Anuak, which means, “people who eat together, who laugh together and who share.” Anuak indigenous land stretches between eastern South Sudan and western Ethiopia, dividing the Anuak between two separate countries. When the civil war was going on in Southern Sudan, tens of thousands of refugees from every ethnicity, passed through our land, seeking refuge and peace. The Anuak of Gambella, Ethiopia would often supplies food and water to the weary refugees as they fled war-torn Sudan.

Sadly, right now, the Anuak, nearly all small subsistence farmers, are becoming refugees in their own land as they are internally displaced from indigenous land their ancestors have possessed for centuries. They have become “discardable” people by a regime that wants their land, but not them, in order to lease it to foreigners and regime-cronies for commercial farms. They are not alone; millions of other Ethiopians and Africans from countries all over the continent are facing the same plight.

One of the greatest threats Africa has ever faced is the impact from this new phenomenon of land-grabbing. In many places, these land grabs are going on without any input from stakeholders and without any compensation for lost lands, homes, crops and livelihoods. Small farmers are ill-prepared for the sudden dispossession of their land and with it, the means to their livelihood. Lacking education or training for other jobs, some have become a source of cheap labor as they are left without alternative means for survival. These foreign investors, countries and regime cronies are often making secretive leasing agreements with authoritarian regimes that give them millions of hectares of land for next to nothing for periods of time as long as 99 years in some cases.

With the current concerns for food security, especially in a changing climate where our soaring world population is expected to reach nine billion inhabitants by 2050—only 38 years from now, unused and underutilized land, with access to water for irrigation, has become the new “precious commodity” sometimes called “green gold.” Add to that the ever-increasing global need for resources like minerals, oil, natural gas and commodities in general and where do eyes turn but towards Africa, a continent with great reserves of rich, untapped resources. This is what is driving the second scramble for Africa…

No one will argue with the fact that Africa desperately needs development, investment and economic growth, but what is needed is the right kind of investor and development. In western countries, laws protect the people, but in most of Africa, those laws are absent or not enforced. The people of Africa seek investors who will partner with the people in mutually beneficial and sustainable economic opportunities; however, most of these kinds of investors, developers and partners shy away from much of Africa because of the very real risks of doing business there.

Those ethical foreign and local investors and developers, who do take the risk, usually do so with caution and on a limited basis; however, many simply refuse to even attempt to do business in Africa—or within most countries of Africa—because of its corruption, its lack of infrastructure, its insecurity and the unreliability of the forever changing whims and politics of its authoritarian political leaders…
(21 September 2012)

Antonio Trejo, Honduras rights lawyer, killed at wedding

BBC Online
A human rights group in Honduras says a prominent lawyer who represented peasants in disputes with large land owners has been killed.

Antonio Trejo was shot dead by unknown gunmen after walking outside the church, where he was attending a wedding, to answer a phone call.

Mr Trejo represented lands rights groups in the Bajo Aguan, a fertile palm-oil-producing region.

Dozens of people have been killed in land conflicts there in recent years…

Human rights groups have called on the Central American government to investigate the deaths of dozens of peasants and campaigners in the Bajo Aguan area, in Honduras’ northern Colon department.

“A long-simmering land conflict erupted in May 2011 when peasants occupied land being cultivated by large privately owned agricultural enterprises,” says the pressure group Human Rights Watch in a report.

“Many victims were members of peasant associations who were allegedly gunned down by security guards working for the enterprises.”

The palm oil produced in the area is used mostly to make biofuels for vehicles…
(23 September 2012)

Chinese villagers protest at slow progress over land dispute

Reuters, The Guardian
One of China’s most celebrated experiments in grassroots democracy has shown signs of faltering, as frustrations with elected officials in the southern fishing village of Wukan triggered a small and angry protest.

On the first anniversary of an uprising that gave birth to the experiment, more than 100 villagers rallied outside Wukan’s Communist party offices to express anger at what they saw as slow progress by the village’s democratically elected governing committee to resolve local land disputes.

“We still haven’t got our land back,” shouted Liu Hancai, a retired 62-year-old party member, one of many villagers fighting to win back land that was seized by Wukan’s previous administration and illegally sold for development…

A year ago Wukan became a beacon of rights activism after the land seizures prompted unrest and led to the sacking of local party officials. That in turn led to village-wide elections for a more representative committee to help resolve the rows…
(21 September 2012)

The global need of non-violent struggle around land rights: a path for change?

Marie Bohner, Landportal
In India, Ekta Parishad tackles the issue on behalf of the bottom 30% of the population who are landless, homeless and are therefore marginalized, by undertaking large-scale non-violent actions to advocate for pro-poor comprehensive land reforms and respect of basic rights for the most vulnerable, especially women. Ekta Parishad has planned two national actions. In October 2011, Rajagopal PV and a team of activists started the “Jan Samwad Yatra”, a travel of one year through 350 districts of India. Meeting villagers and officials every day, the Jan Samwad Yatra has gathered 1000s of grievances related to land rights and poverty, has gained the support of around 2000 voluntary organizations and people’s organizations, and mobilized thousands of people for a large-scale non-violent action, the March “Jan Satyagraha”. Jan Satyagraha – ‘the March for Justice’ – will happen in October 2012 bringing together 100 000 poor villagers, adivasis1, dalits2 and other landless peasants from many states of India in what will be the largest ever non-violent action for land, water and forest rights. The marchers will walk the 350 km distance from Gwalior to Delhi to present their demands to the government (for the comprehensive demands, check ).
(10 September 2012)

Image credit: John Spooner