A shocking new report by the Oakland Institute has revealed a growing trend in major US universities to buy or lease vast tracts of African farmland. Universities such as Harvard or Vanderbilt are working through British hedge funds and financial speculators to invest their large endowment funds in agricultural land.
The immediate consequence of such land acquisition has been the displacement of thousands of people from their land. As a result, many Africans who had relied on small plots of farmland for sustenance and economic gain are forced to find some other way of making a living.
Asset management company Emergent claims it is a good thing for African agriculture and that they are “setting up businesses and employing people… we are doing it in a responsible way.”
But the Oakland Institute sees it more as a land grab. In addition to farmer displacement, they cite a lack of transparency in most of the contracts and reveal that many of the deals provide few jobs.
In my opinion, this is a classic example of the West exploiting developing countries for its own gain. There is a huge power differential between powerful Western corporations and the poor people of Africa. The West has the financial capital to buy up cheap agricultural land in the developing world, and African populations have no way to resist.
If you’re a subsistence farmer in Ethiopia with a small plot of land that your family has been harvesting for the last 40 years, you may in fact not have the legal documentation to prove it. However, Western corporations can come in and lease the land from the government, thus giving them the legal rights to the land and force off any former inhabitants.
This is exactly the wrong way to go about improving the economic sustainability of Africa and its population. Not only do Africans need the food, but this land can be a source of economic development for them. If we really want to help to improve the lives of Africans we should empower them to develop their own land, so that they may receive the profits from their crops. Employing them as cheap laborers will only exacerbate the situation and further entrench them as the poorest population in the world.
Image CC licensed by CIAT International Center for Tropical Agriculture: Farmland in Kenya