Africa’s new global role for the 21st century?

Hands up anyone who thought that the G8 and G20 conferences were modern inventions at which the rich and powerful decide the fate of the world. It could be contended that they had a precursor one hundred and twenty-five years ago.

Between November 15, 1884, and November 26, 1885, the major European colonial powers met in Berlin at a conference under the leadership of the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

The stated aims of the Berlin Conference were promoted as controlling the slave trade and the furthering of humanitarian aims and ideals on the African continent.

The conference did indeed pass resolutions concerning the welfare of Africa and the ending of the slave trade. However, all of this was just so much window dressing. The true purpose of the Berlin Conference was to divide up the continent of Africa among the imperial powers in such a way that they would not come into financially expensive and wasteful armed conflict with each other.

And how they succeeded.

A look at a political map of the African continent will show some very strange boundaries, many of them long and straight, unlike, for example, Europe. This came about as a result of the Berlin Conference.

As the Berlin Conference divided the continent between the European colonial powers the borders that the conference decided upon did not follow mountain ranges, rivers nor even ethnic groupings.

Indeed, the arbitrary borders that the conference imposed meant that ethnic groups were split by those borders, a situation which continues to be a source of trouble which haunts the continent of Africa to this day.

However, nothing remains forever and, as time moved on, one by one the countries of Africa declared their independence from their imperial masters. But now, at the start of the 21st century there are fears that a new and very controversial form of colonialism is taking place in Africa, and again, as in the 19th century, it is the rich and powerful who are doing the colonising.

The 21st century’s version of colonialism is all about food. Vast tracts of the African continent are being bought up or leased for the production of crops for export.

Those buying or leasing the land are a mixed but not too surprising bunch. Among them are rich and powerful countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and India among many others, but also to be found are the usual suspects of capitalism, those you can find wherever there are opportunities for exploitation — hedge funds, pension funds, commodity traders, investment banks, multinational corporations, grossly rich individuals, &c., pretty much the usual collection of spivs and profiteers who will turn up like a shark unerringly following a blood trail whenever the poor are to be exploited for profit.

There are various reasons for the rush to what many have described as a land grab.

  • The global food shortages following on from steep rises in the price of oil in 2008.
  • The EU’s assertion that, by the year 2015, 10% of all fuel used for transport has to be obtained from plant-based biofuels.
  • Growing global water shortages also play a part..

To achieve the EU’s required 10% biofuel target it is estimated that an area half the size of Italy would have to be turned over to biofuel production, surely an obscenity in a continent where millions go to bed hungry each night.

Saudi Arabia has another good reason for outsourcing its crop production. It is one of the Middle East’s biggest wheat growers but recently announced that it intends to reduce domestic wheat production by 12%. The Saudis intend to make up the shortfall by purchasing/leasing land in Africa to grow crops on. This tactic will also help to conserve Saudi Arabia’s scarcest asset, namely its precious water supply.

Water, oil, food—the resource wars of our oncoming century.

With the world population estimated to grow to around 9.1 billion by the middle of this century and global demand for food likely to rise by 50 per cent, the lack of fresh land for cultivation domestically means that many developed nations are now taking steps to secure their food supply by growing crops in Africa for export to and consumption by their own domestic markets.

What makes Africa such an attractive agricultural opportunity for capitalist countries / transnational businesses? The cheapness of the land is one of the major attractions. As arable land grows scarcer in Europe and the USA, it can be purchased for around $350-$500 per hectare in Zambia. That same hectare in the United States would cost round about 10 times as much.

But land and its ownership is a contentious thing in Africa.

The United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organisation believe that only about 14 per cent of land suitable for cultivation is presently being used. But very little land in Africa has documented ownership and much is community owned or even in some cases state owned. Even land that is apparently empty may be subject to intricate patterns of customary usage.

Yet governments in Africa are keen to sell and lease their land in order to provide income from what they see as an underdeveloped resource and also to bring employment to their countries. The reality of the jobs that will be created is that most of them will be as low-paid agricultural labourers or in the provision of security for the foreign investors. The corporations investing in these schemes are probably not head hunting new CEOs among Africa’s tribes.

International Land Coalition policy specialist Michael Taylor put it this way:

If land in Africa hasn’t been planted, it’s probably for a reason. Maybe it’s used to graze livestock or deliberately left fallow to prevent nutrient depletion and erosion. Anybody who has seen these areas identified as unused understands that there is no land in Ethiopia that has no owners and users.

It is estimated that in the last three years that 50 million hectares of land in Africa has been acquired, or is in the process of being acquired, by wealthy countries, individuals and corporations. To give a perspective on that figure, 50 million hectares is more than twice the area of the United Kingdom.

Ethiopia has over 13 million of its population dependent on food aid, making it one of the world’s hungriest nations. The Ethiopian government, however, in deals done with wealthy countries, corporations and individuals, is prepared to lease out three million hectares of its best land to them.

Nyikaw Ochalia, a native Anuak from Ethiopia’s Gambella region, in an interview in The Observer, dated March 7, 2010, stated:

All of the land in the Gambella region is utilised. Each community has and looks after its own territory and the rivers and farmlands within it.

It is a myth propagated by the government and investors to say that there is waste land or land that is not utilised in Gambella.

The foreign companies are arriving in large numbers, depriving people of land they have used for centuries. There is no consultation with the indigenous population. The deals are done secretly. The only thing that local people see is people coming with lots of tractors, to invade their lands.

All the land round my family village of Illia has been taken over and is being cleared. People now have to work for an Indian company. The land has been compulsorily taken and they have been given no compensation. People cannot believe what is happening. Thousands of people will be affected and people will go hungry.

The Oromo people form about 50 million of the 80 million population of Ethiopia. In an open letter dated February 25, 2010, to Ban Ki-Moon, secretary-general of the United Nations, Haile Hirpa, president of the Oromo Studies Association, describes his people’s plight.

In the letter he tells of how the Oromos are being evicted from their land by the Ethiopian government and how their confiscated land is being sold to various countries, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, China, India and Egypt among them.

On March 4, 2009, the first food crop arrived in Saudi Arabia which had been grown in Saudi farms abroad. At the same time in Ethiopia the Oromo people were dying in a man-made famine.

Ethiopia, is, of course, by no means alone, and other countries affected by the new agri-colonialism of Africa include Uganda, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Sudan, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia and the Congo.

The Congo (DRC) has done a deal with South Africa whereby it will lease nearly one-third of its land to South African investment for a period of 99 years. If the South Africans use the same model for agricultural development in the DRC as they did domestically it does not bode well for the small-time farmers.

Millions of subsistence farmers and labourers in South Africa were forced to leave the land and move to the squalor of the townships of the big cities as their land rights were taken from them.

Again, the problem exists for the indigenous people of the DRC, and indeed, almost anywhere in Africa, that virtually no documentation exists to prove their legal right to the land, making it easy to evict them in the name of progress.

There is also a huge environmental cost to the deal between the DRC and the RSA in that any rainforest obstructing the deal will be destroyed. Any threatening protests are to be dealt with by the military.

None of this should surprise us, really.

The historical record of colonial powers and transnational corporations regarding showing a duty of care towards indigenous populations is somewhere on the spectrum round about the area occupied by the Easter bunny and the unicorn, that is, very imaginative but with not much actual basis in reality.

As foreign money pours in to buy or lease land from poor African countries a couple of examples, one from the past and one currently taking place on another continent, may shed some light on what might be expected to occur.

The lesson of Liberia regarding exploitation of its rubber plantations is instructive. In 1926, the tyre manufacturer Firestone leased huge tracts of land at six cents an acre to harvest the sap of the rubber tree used in the manufacture of tyres. It is the largest rubber operation in the world yet there is very little benefit to the local communities and the use of child labour has been widely reported.

OK, it’s quiz time!

In 1926 Firestone struck a deal whereby they would pay 6 cents an acre to Liberia for land to grow rubber trees on. In the nearly eight decades between 1926 and 2005 there have been many major events and changes—the world has seen global conflict, man has progressed from flying in rickety bi-planes to walking on the moon and every home in Scotland now has an inside toilet. Bearing all this in mind, how much do you think that Firestone were paying Liberia per acre in 2005? Don’t forget to factor in 79 years of inflation as you work out the answer.

To make it a little bit easier the answer is multiple choice, so have a guess if you’re not sure. Was it:

  • (a) An appalling 10 cents
  • (b) A miserly 12 cents
  • (c) an astonishingly generous 15 cents

Ha Ha! Gotcha! Trick question!

Firestone continued to pay six cents an acre until 2005, when the price per acre was increased to 50 cents, then in 2008 it rose again to $2 per acre, still by any measure a huge bargain.

For a major international corporation to pay the same price for nearly eight decades to a poor African country for the use of its land is beyond exploitation, the word exploitation is simply not big enough to encompass the corporate greed involved in this shabby deal.

In an interview with in August 2008, Elmira Woods, who has Liberian roots, and is director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, an independent think tank and research institute based in Washington DC., said,

We know that Africa has been at the centerpiece of the global economy for five hundred years since the days of slavery.

From the time that we as African people were pushed into slavery to sustain the economies of the West until today, you have had the African economies, the resources that come from the continent whether it is steel or iron ore that creates the steel that comes from Africa, or it is rubber that you could not have the tires on the cars without, the rubber that comes from Africa.

These vital resources for the global economy come from the African continent. What has happened, just as in the days of slavery and in the days of colonialism, Africa is looked to as a place to extract the resource and not really to develop the people.

I think that there has been a sustained effort to under develop Africa, really for five hundred years.

So you have corporations whether it’s the big oil companies now, that are celebrating historic high profits and yet the communities on which the oil lies will have no schools, poor housing, inefficient or non-existing health care and no roads to speak of.

I mean complete degradation of these communities, in spite of the fact that oil has been flowing from some of these communities in Nigeria, for example, since 1956, yet the communities remain without any of the basic necessities of human survival.

This is the problem, especially multi-national corporations going after their greed, going after resources and not seeing the people. And just as it was wrong in the days of slavery, it is as wrong today, to have this type of exploitation of a continent.

Another example of how Africa’s indigenous populations should perhaps expect to profit from the current inward agricultural investment can be found across the Atlantic in South America, specifically Brazil.

The development of industrial scale farms dispossessed many of Brazil’s indigenous farmers as the Brazilian government opened up its huge savanna to soy production. US agribusinesses subsidiaries make vast profits and huge soy farms are owned and run by US farmers. In global terms Brazil is now an agricultural superpower, exporting soy, beef, coffee, sugar and much more.

However, despite this agricultural/economic miracle, 25 per cent of the population, that is 44 million people, live on a daily income of less than $1.06 per day. By any definition this is known as extreme poverty.

Brazil is expected to become the world’s fourth largest economy in the near future. That such an economy could have so many people in dire poverty tells us much about capitalist notions of what a successful economy should look like.

And yet, there is a chance that all the rich, powerful countries and various capitalist spivs currently exploiting Africa may yet have their best laid plans undone.

In July 2008 the giant Daewoo corporation leased 1.3 million hectares of land for the production of maize and palm oil in Madagascar. When the population heard of the plans violent protests broke out which eventually led to the overthrow of Madagascar’s government in a coup, and the cancellation of the deal. People power at work?

And there is another spectre haunting the world which may make many or even all such land grabs void. Climate change may yet wreak havoc on African land deals.

Consider this. Seeking to entice sheikhs to invest in buying land for crop growth the government of Pakistan held a road show in Dubai. They promised tax breaks and exemptions from labour laws and even threw in a 100,000 strong security force solely for the protection of their investments. All this, it should be noted, while Pakistan is at war with the Taliban.

Yet the events of July/August 2010 in Pakistan may prove a warning to all those investing or planning to invest in land deals to grow crops abroad for domestic consumption. Unusually heavy rains have produced floods of biblical proportions, made 15 million people homeless, and destroyed domestic crops in the fertile lands of Pakistan. Last week, on August 27, Pakistan suspended all wheat exports.

At the start of September, 2010, there were food riots in Mozambique after the government increased the price of bread by 30 per cent. The root cause of this massive increase was to be found far away in Russia. Due to wildfires much of the Russian wheat crop has been destroyed and a ban has been placed on the export of wheat.

Russia is the world’s third-largest wheat exporter and the export ban has created a global wheat shortage. This has led to a huge increase in the price of wheat on world markets. As a country which imports over 60 per cent of the wheat that it needs the poor people of Mozambique are being forced to pay the price for international capitalist markets.

As the world heats up currently fertile lands may be hit by drought, flood or some other extreme weather events.

If this were to happen would the distressed and starving indigenous population be forced to look on as any crops that survived but were grown on land purchased by outside investors were driven past them for export, accompanied by an armed escort? Surely something like that would never happen.

Was it just me or did anyone else just hear the mournful melody of The Fields of Athenry?[1]

At the G8 summit held in Italy in July 2009 the Japanese delegation tried to push through a code of conduct to govern land grab deals. Never mind any firm legislation, the proposed code of conduct proved too much for the other seven members to support. Eventually, Japan’s proposal was watered down to a promise to develop proposals on principles and best practices for foreign agricultural investment in land with partner countries and international organisations.

Did you have to read that several times before realising that it is so vague and wrapped up in gobbledygook that it is meaningless? Do you suspect that nothing will actually be done regarding regulating this new colonisation of the ‘dark continent’?

At a time when we are expected to pay for the folly of a rich elite’s reckless pursuit of profit through cuts to our vital services, who, reading this, expects that the same elite will pass up the opportunity to exploit the poorest on our planet? It beggars belief, given their past record, that they will pass up the chance of a profit because it might contravene humanitarian ideals.

Was that an echo rolling down the centuries that I just heard from the promises made at the Berlin Conference?

[1] The Fields Of Athenry is a song about the failure of the potato crop, resulting in the 19th century Irish Potato Famine. The failure of the crop that the poor depended on for sustenance meant that millions either starved or were forced to emigrate. During the famine grain was exported to England under armed escort as the starving Irish population looked on. Due to death and emigration the population of Ireland was reduced by one-third in the famine. When French and American ships tried to land with food and clothing to alleviate the suffering of the Irish they were met by British gunboats and diverted to English ports. There the goods were offloaded and reloaded on to English ships (at a price) to be transported to Ireland. Such was the length of the delays that most of the foodstuffs had rotted by the time they sailed for Ireland. Newspapers of the day, including The Times, published articles and editorials in which they claimed that the potato blight in Ireland was God’s punishment because they were a largely Catholic country.

The Fields of Athenry

By a lonely prison wall
I heard a young girl calling
Michael, they have taken you away,
For you stole Trevelyn’s corn
That the young might see the morn,
Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay.


Low lie the fields of Athenry
Where once we watched the small free birds fly.
Our love was on the wing
We had dreams and songs to sing
It’s so lonely ’round the Fields of Athenry.

By a lonely prison wall
I heard a young man calling
Nothing matters, Mary, when you’re free,
Against the Famine and the Crown
I rebelled, they ran me down,
Now you must raise our child with dignity.


By a lonely harbour wall
She watched the last star falling
As that prison ship sailed out against the sky
Sure she’ll wait and hope and pray
For her love in Botany Bay
It’s so lonely ’round the Fields of Athenry.