Pet Hates, Dragons and Bio-fuel

The key story this week comes from a paper from the Oakland Institute on ‘land grabs’. There was a informative interview in Pambazuka News this week on the findings.


Commentators on the study have been particularly interested by breadth of different actors involved in land acquisition across Africa. In fact a large number of western funds and investors are heavily involved in the field.

The issue here is complex. High food prices worldwide have driven investors to new markets to secure arable land to produce food for the world market. At the same time the World Bank and the development community have increasingly returned to agriculture as a key engine for development in poorer countries.

However the two trends are not reinforcing. Whilst development literature has sought to encourage small scale labour intensive farming techniques, these investment schemes prey on informal land ownership to remove inhabitants from their land for the production of export crops. This serves to increase unemployment, and reduce food availability in the local setting.

In my opinion the worst offending export crops are the various bio-fuel crops. There are two dangers here. The first is that bio-fuels undeservedly benefit from an active and popular environmental narrative which serves to obscure the damage that can be done. The second is that the justification for bio-fuel crops is confused, and has to a large extent exacerbated the problem of high food prices.

The environmental justification is that bio-fuels remove carbon from the atmosphere while growing, which is then consumed in use. Therefore the carbon output can be considered near neutral. However this is dependent on the previous land use. Arable land is likely to be verdant previous to bio-fuel cultivation, so the carbon extraction was going on anyway. The subsequent carbon release during combustion of the processed bio-fuel would not occur in a wilderness area. Further to this high oil prices often mean that food crops are removed in order to grow crops for bio-fuel, increasing food insecurity.

The free market attributes the demand of Westerners for transport fuel as more pressing than the demand of poor locals for basic food crops, because they are able to pay more, not because they have a greater need. Domestic governments need to intervene here to ensure that local economies produce enough food to feed themselves. Malnutrition has far reaching effects through every aspect of the economy, reducing productivity, increasing poor health, and damaging long term development of children both physically and mentally.

A key point from the paper was that land grabs are not being driven by an avaricious Chinese colonialism, but by world food prices speculated on across the globe. The China Africa discourse has long been polluted by a pretense that China is somehow outside of this world market, and that Chinese investment in Africa is somehow detached from the West.

Chinese demand for commodities is growing, but not for its own consumption. If you follow the supply chain all the way up you’ll find your way back to Western consumers. This discourse is most apparent in the ubiquitous use of the word dragon in journalism and academic literature. The term has become an allusion to danger and mystery, outside of the conscientious Western sphere.

This is clearly demonstrated this week in a Voice of America briefing on China in Africa. The article calls for care in understanding China’s impact on the continent, but then goes on to provide a unbalanced and ill thought through critique of Chinese investment.

However the focus here should not be on who is to blame, but on the specific eventualities of the land acquisition issue. There are a great many well funded and well thought through agriculture projects on the continent, but African governments must be careful to avoid the pernicious impact of international investors who have no understanding or care for local conditions. This clearly a short-term and high risk policy. Creating a large pool of angry unemployed locals is not a recipe for long term project success. The overthrowing of apartheid policies in Zimbabwe and South Africa are ample evidence of the long term pitfalls of controlling arable for the benefit of the few.

One of the paper’s author’s Anuradha Mittal describes an encounter with a senior Zambian agricultural official who excuses a lack of oversight of investors by saying, ‘You and I both know that there is no such thing as a good foreign investor.’ Unfortunately for the most part the official’s statement is fair. Investors protect their own interests and not the fate of the countries in which they work. In the long run it is in both investors and governments interests to provide inclusive investment that benefits local communities.

The solution to the world’s food price crisis may well be found in Africa’s unemployed arable land, but exploitation is not sustainable. Lessons must be learnt from inclusive corridor project like the Beira project in Mozambique. Government’s must insist that investment meets acceptable standards. Much of China;s success in Africa has been down to good quality and low costs. African decision makers must avoid the politicised narrative of dragons and eagles and choose the best project for the country.                                                                 

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In a continent where most people rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, land is a crucial natural resource. The links between conflict and natural resources often focus on diamonds or oil. But its hard to find a single conflict in Sub Saharan Africa where ownership or access to land has not played a role - and in many it has sat at the center of the grievances and greed that fuel war. Like with blood diamonds or oil (war)fields, its looks like international markets might potentially drive further instability through natural resource accumulation, the creation of rents to capture and the marginalization of whole sections of society. And you're quite correct in asserting that this is not about China vs others when we talk about who is and who is not guilty: its about globalization, which China, and the rest of us, all exist in. The China-Africa discourse, whether popular, media or academic, still refuses to see it simply as a dimension of globalization. And as with all globalization, its up to African governments to get the best deal they can from investment in land, and for their citizens to make sure their governments do so. Because, Chinese or not, we all know "know that there is no such thing as a good foreign investor."

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