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Land Grabbing: The New Scramble for Africa / E 10 Agrofuel Intensifies Hunger

Since the food and financial crisis in 2008, a race for arable land has started worldwide. States, corporations, banks and funds of rich countries buy up large chunks of land to produce agrofuels and grow crops for food - or just to speculate. The consequence: Food prices are going up sharply, hunger increases. E 10 agrofuel also contributes to the food crisis, says Evelyn Bahn of the Inkota Network, our guest at the Berlin studio of Kontext TV. Also in the programme: Environmental activist Nnimmo Bassey from Nigeria, Wangui Mbatia from Kenya und Ibrahim Coulibaly of La Via Campesina. They talk about the concrete impacts of Land Grabbing on Africa.


Evelyn Bahn (Inkota Network), Ibrahim Coulibaly (La Via Campesina / Coordination Nationale des Organisations Paysannes du Mail), Nnimmo Bassey (Friends of the Earth), Wangui Mbatia (People's Parliament, Kenia) and others


David Goeßmann: A key issue at the World Social Forum in Dakar was Land Grabbing – the large scale buying-up of farmland by states, corporations, banks and funds. Our guest now is Evelyn Bahn from Inkota, a network of grassroot groups working on development policy. Welcome to Kontext TV, Evelyn Bahn. What exactly is land grabbing and how much land is transferred through land grabbing worldwide?

Evelyn Bahn: Land grabbing is a process that is relatively new. It has appeared since 2005/2006. Land grabbing means the take-over of large-scale arable land. These forms of take-overs are being done by European states and corporations in developing countries. They buy up large chunks of land to grow crops for energy plants and food for export. It's not about growing crops for the populations in these countries. It is for the rich countries. Concerning the amount of land: It's not easy to say how much land is being affected by land grabbing. There are several studies. The latest study that came out is from the World Bank. It says that 115 million acres of land have been bought up since 2008.

Fabian Scheidler: Which is almost a quarter of the arable land of the entire European Union – just to get a sense of the dimensions of land grabbing.

David Goeßmann: Financial institutions have been increasingly interested in the so called land grabbing. Which role did the financial crisis in 2008 play in this?

Evelyn Bahn: In 2008 it became clear that the real estate bubble had burst especially in the U.S. That meant financial institutions and equity funds were searching for new ways to invest. So farmland came into focus. It was expected that farmland will run short while we rely on it to feed the world.

Fabian Scheidler: At the World Social Forum in Dakar, we talked to Nnimmo Bassey, Chair of Friends of the Earth International, Wangui Mbatia from the People’s Parliament in Kenya, and representatives of the international peasant network La Via Campesina about the impacts of land grabbing.

Nnimmo Bassey: Landgrabbing is actually a new phenomenon that came up may be a couple of years ago. People have been buying up chunks of land along the coastline to build up hotel resorts for tourists on the continent. But a couple of years ago when thoses always proposed false solutions for climate change suggested to the world that biofuels would be the solution to climate change and would replace fossile fuels. Then all the governments said: "Yes, we need to replace fossile fuels to combat climate change through biofuel production. And then the question was: were do you cultivate the crops that you will use to produce this biofuels. And the answer was of course in the tropics. And Africa has a large territoriy. And you had one before they said Africa was overpopulated but when they came to look for land for biofuel production they who were proposing it said Africa is underpopulated. Africa has so much land. So it depends on who's convenience it is to define what is the situation of land in Africa. So we had this definition that we had to much land in Africa so you can take as much as you want to cultivate crops for the production of energy. So we have European companies you have some Asian companies to some extent to come to the continent to buy up land you have American companies. In fact you had recently the independence vote in Southern Sudan. Before that came up you had already some companies who speculated when Southern Sudan would be free rather would be independent from Northern Sudan. Since some countries have no economic and political relations with Sudan as it is now they look at the creation of Southern Sudan as an opportunity. So they began years back to buy up thousands of square miles of land there. We have some African leaders who are acting as middle men for European companies to have them buy up land in Africa. The land being bought is not only for production of biofuels to supply energy to Europe and North America. People are also buying up land to grow crops for food for other regions. This is actually mainly by countries in the Gulf region. So some Arabian countries are buying up land in Africa to grow crops for themselves. The most scandalous example was when a South Korean company aimed to buy over a million hectars of land in Madagaskar to grow crops for their own consumption not for Madagaskar but for export back to South Korea. That created a lot of political storm which almost let to the downfall of the government. So we have this going on. So the land is bought through deception. You find companies going to some villages in Africa. They relate to the chiefs, heads of the villages who are not very literate and draw up agreement for them to taunt print agreements. So land are being bought without really saying for how long they are selling the land to whom they are selling the land and for what purpose. We call this the second scramble for Africa.

Wangui Mbatia: Yes, unfortunately. One of the most devastating things to deal with is the fact that countries that have money, because our countries are so poor, countries that have money now, are actually taking over our most arable land. In Kenya last year I think we lost about fifty thousand acres, hectares of land to Qatar. Qatar wants to come to Kenya to grow vegetables and our president was flown to Qatar go inside the deal so many of us don’t know exactly what we are getting for giving up that much land. But the most important thing to see is that at the same time when we were giving land to Qatar to grow vegetables, Kenya was in the same week begging for food because Kenyans were starving. That doesn’t make sense.

Nnimmo Bassey: Land grab has very direct impact on farmers and food production on Africa. The people who are grabbing land are not grabbing small pieces of land. They have to grab large chunks of contiguous land. And this means that those who are using parts of this land have to be driven off the land. So land that is owned communely maybe the chief or the ... so the farmers, tenants or who were using the land have to be driven off. And in some countries land is held by governments so supposetely it's for the people. Using avialable laws to allocate large areas to commercial farmers coming from Europe or somewhere else. So this means clearly that farmers are driven off the land, they lose land, land rights, land titles are not respected. And also those who want to remain as farmers they are now forced to sell their labor to this new farmers. So rather farmers for themselves they now become laborers for other farmers. So hunger is being manufactured on the continent. The more land is being grabbed, the more hunger is exported to Africa. Because also this is large scale farming and is going to involve mechanised farming and because the farmers coming are producing for biofuel production they can bring in genetically engeneered crops which is a big risk to bio diversity of the continent. And they are not regulated about what they are doing. Land grabbing of course has a direct impact on food prices. When land that was used to cultivate crops or food is now used to produce crops for machines of course food available to people becomes more expensive. But it is also believed that the crisis we are facing is not because there is less food in the world. There has never been a time in history of mankind when more food had been produced. We could feed everybody two, three times over. So it is not an absence of food. It is believed that food prices are going up because of speculation. Speculators who are have been carrying out the train of the prices in the future are buying up food before it is even generated. So the more the food prices go up the more hunger increases in the world, the more agro business makes profits.

Ibrahim Coulibaly: The food crisis and the financial crisis have shown that the economy based on speculation has reached its limits. As a consequence, many investment funds have decided to invest in land which has a growing value. So the food crisis has led to massive investments in farmland to make fast profits. Apart from investment funds, there are also states buying up land. States which don’t have enough agricultural surface to feed their people, for example Libya and the Gulf States. These states have created funds to ensure their food sovereignty in the future. They know that food is going to become a global field of conflict. That’s why they are investing. Africa now is about to lose its capacity to feed itself in the future. The best soils are being sold. In the case of Mali, all irrigable land – more than two million acres – is about to be sold to ten foreign investors. If we sell our best land, we undermine our capacity to feed ourselves in the future. Today, Mali has 15 million inhabitants, in 50 years it will be 40 million. How shall we feed ourselves then, if two million acres are sold to foreign investors? The second big problem is that land grabbing is connected to massive violations of land rights. Peasants are not recognized to have a right to the land they are cultivating. Legislation in most cases allows the state to do whatever it likes to do with the land. If peasants cannot use the land any more, millions of jobs will get lost. Family farming makes up 60 to 75 per cent of employment in Mali. The family is the basis of agriculture. If this is destroyed and instead investors are coming using large machines and employing only few people, unemployment will be manufactured and the social fabric destroyed. But people won’t let that happen so easily, they won’t just die of hunger, but put up resistance. So land grabbing is undermining peace. People are already mobilizing. In Mali, an investor and peasants met in confrontation, and the state has used the army against the population. Resisting peasants are sued in court. Social movements are upset, they are mobilizing for resistance. We have launched an appeal to the government to stop all repression against the people immediately. La Via Campesina is networking worldwide to resist effectively. We are also accusing the World Bank for its current policies. With its „principles for responsible investments in agriculture“, the Bank tries to legalize land grabbing. We are against these principles. The World Bank has destroyed our agricultural policies and our capacity to feed ourselves in the first place – and now they want to hand over our farmland to financial interests.

Fatimatou Djibou: Women are affected most severely by land grabbing in Africa. 70 per cent of agriculture is based on women’s labour. But women only possess two per cent of the land rights. If farmland is sold, women are most affected. As land is cultivated mostly by women, their employment will diminish massively – or even vanish. The whole workforce in agriculture is going to be diminished, unemployment will rise, most significantly among women.

David Goeßmann: At the World Social Forum in Dakar, a declaration on land grabbing has been adopted. Here is an excerpt:

Fatimatou Djibou: We appeal to parliaments and governments to stop the massive land grab wich is taking place now and which is coming up in the future, and to rstore all stolen land. African people are hit hardest by land grabbing. But also in Latin America and Asia, millions of acres are bought up by agriculture funds, often to produce agrofuels. These fuels have recently been heavily criticized in Germany.

Fabian Scheidler: Evelyn Bahn, what do the so called E 10 fuel and other agrofuels have to do with land grabbing? And what are the impacts on the food supply especially of the poorest people?

Evelyn Bahn: The blending of 10 percent of bioethanol that is produced from cane sugar and corn intensifies the problem of land grabbing since more and more land is being reserved for energy production instead of growing crops for food. Food goes in the tank but not on the plate. Thus the German government is extensively contributing to the fact that the number of starving people is rising.

Fabian Scheidler: Would you say that E 10 fuel should be stopped?

Evelyn Bahn: The Inkota network is calling for a boycott on E 10 fuel. Every car driver can join us on a daily basis by deciding against E 10 at the gas station. Drivers should be aware of the fact that by using E 10 it is actually food that is filled into their tank. By this, they contribute to a great deal to the problem of hunger in the world.

Fabian Scheidler: Many say we need agrofuels to combat climate change. What’s your perspective? How could the climate crisis and the traffic crisis be solved?

Evelyn Bahn: It is a myth that agrofuels are contributing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There are several studies proving that agrofuels have mostly a negative climate balance. For example, the destruction of rain forests to clear land for agrofuel plantations has to be taken into account. There would be several alternatives, for example speed limits, hard limits for cars on fuel consumption and carbon emission and so on. But these are not discussed in the political debate.

David Goeßmann: Are there also German companies involved?

Evelyn Bahn: Yes. An important player is the „Deutsche Bank Group“, particularly its DWS Investment fund which is heavily investing in farmland.

David Goeßmann: The German airline Lufthansa has announced to use agro-kerosine on some routes. Your assessment.

Evelyn Bahn: It’s very problematic. If airlines like Lufthansa are going to use agro-kerosine and convert their airplanes accordingly, the pressure on land will rise, more agricultural surface will be used for fuel production and food production will be even more marginalized.

Fabian Scheidler: The World Bank and the UN Organization for Food and Agriculture FAO have developed voluntary „principles for responsible investments in agriculture“. The EU commission is working on similar principles. Are such voluntary measures able to stop violations of land rights, displacement, and hunger, resulting from land grabbing?

Evelyn Bahn: No. We don’t think that the negative impacts of land grabbing can be stopped by such means. The very process of development of these principles has shown that they are not meant to protect the affected people who were not even consulted, who were not asked what their needs are. There is no concept of how such principles could be monitored. Voluntary means have proven not to work in the past, especially with transnational corporations pursuing a maximization of profit. We – and many other organizations in Europe and worldwide – are against these principles. There has to be a stop of land grabbing. And from the side of the German government, the support of agrofuel production has to be stopped.

David Goeßmann: Thank you, Evelyn Bahn.

David Goeßmann: Land grabbing is only a part of large scale appropriations of Africa’s natural resources. We talked with Wangui Mbatia about the seizing of water reserves and genetic resources by European corporations.

Wangui Mbatia: We have increasingly governments forcing African governments to seed land to do projects for the benefits of Europe. Right now there is a big discussion about using the Saharan desert to generate solar power for Europe, but why doesn’t the Saharan desert generate power for Africa, we need it, too. And that thinking, that Africa is a country where you can go and take things has been in existence for centuries and we need to stop it. It isn’t just that, it is that in Kenya for instance besides companies, besides governments, there are companies that are using our fresh water for flowers at the time when we have no food. So we are producing as a country Kenya, we are giving 31% of the flowers in the European market every year and our people are starving, can not afford food and it goes on and on and on. It isn’t just the land, it is the fact that even animals - I don’t know where the Berlin zoo gets its elephant but I know that there are no elephants in Europe - and every year we must give more and more and more and now we have the second crisis of having a lot of our things getting patented by people who are not in the country. We have lost a lot of the right to make medicine from our own traditional medicine of plants. There is a tree in my village called with the scientific name of prunus africanus. A French company owns the right to make medicine for prostate cancer from it. As a result, it is nearly impossible now for us to use that tree.