Around the Institute

The New Form of Imperialism in Africa

September 23, 2011  • Kremena Krumova

As originally run in The Epoch Times

Transfarm Africa’s John Guinan is quoted on his views on the new form of imperialism in Africa.

Much like in the 19th century, when European colonial powers expropriated Africa’s rich mineral resources, pushing the local people onto marginal land, today foreign governments and wealthy corporations are staking out vast plots of arable land across the warm continent in a form of second colonization.

“I see no reason why land grabbing should be any different from oil, diamonds, etc., in this regard. Local people will lose their land, and their source of food,” wrote John Ashworth, adviser from the Sudan Ecumenical Forum, via email.

Facing a future where domestic resources will not be able to provide for their populations, investors from countries such as China, Saudi Arabia, India, South Korea, and Qatar are seeking land elsewhere to establish plantations for rice and other staples in African nations like Ethiopia, Sudan, Tanzania, Kenya, and Mali.

The leases are generally long-term and include tax holidays, with few environmental, labor, or social safeguards. The land is typically advertised as being empty, and little consideration is given to the impact on the food security of resident smallholder farmers edged out by outside investors.

There is a growing perception in Africa that a new colonial era has begun.

“It’s a new colonialism, it’s like the scramble of Africa in [the] 19th century whereby our resources were exploited to develop the Western world,” says Makambo Lotorobo, field officer at the Friends of Lake Turkana, an environmental grass-roots organization in Kenya.

“Currently, as the world food prices are rising up day-by-day, Africa will end up paying more for food that is grown on its own land,” Lotorobo wrote via email.

From Juba, South Sudan, Gurtong Trust correspondent Waakhe Simon Wudu, shares a similar opinion.

“I too regard it as a new colonialism. In South Sudan, I have fears that Arabs and other foreign investors will, with time, totally control the economy and make our government dependent on them,” wrote Wudu in an email.

The journalist said that despite incorporation of few South Sudanese into the foreign companies, like Chinese companies in the oil field, most workers are not local, but skilled foreigners. Also, Arabs have invested in most key areas of the economy, such as petroleum. So when there was shortage of fuel, the government was powerless to intervene, and then the foreign companies decided to increase fuel prices.

According to Wudu, one of the reasons for the current situation is the immaturity of governments in Africa.

“My personal analysis is that African governments are developing ones where most of the politicians are both power and money hungry. This leaves them with limited control over foreign investors. They are always easily bribed with large sums of money,” added Wudu.

According to a report by U.K.-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), very little is known about the exact terms of these land deals. Negotiations usually happen behind closed doors, and only rarely do local landholders have a say in the negotiations. Often the legal context offers little to safeguard local interests and the environmental consequences. Few contracts are made publicly available.

“When Chinese or Saudi Arabians come to Africa, they have no sort of stake of what is happening there. They only look at the bottom line, namely to lower food prices in their own countries,” said Danielle Nierenberg, director of the project Nourishing the Planet of the Worldwatch Institute in a telephone interview.

“What I saw in Africa was a lot of cheap chemicals and fertilizers from China being used. When African farmers use them, they cannot read the Chinese labels and use them improperly or overuse them. This will continue, because when these companies come to Africa, they have no long-term stake to the environment and the health of Africans.”

Nierenberg adds that exactly the lack of investments by African governments in their own agricultural economies has led to what we see today; investors are invited to come in some cases. In all of Africa, there are only seven African nations that invest 10 percent of their national budgets on agriculture, says Nierenberg. Meanwhile, these same governments are happy to have foreigners invest in the land instead.

“Because the governments want to evolve the economy and evolve the gross domestic product, they are very shortsighted when it comes to long-term consequences, including food security, economic vitality, and farmers’ situation,” said Nierenberg.

Joe Guinan, director of TransFarm Africa at the Aspen Institute, thinks that in the present situation it is inevitable foreign entities will look to Africa.

“If African countries and donors do not develop Africa’s agricultural potential, it is clear that—given the pressure of rising global demand for food—outside investors will,” Guinan wrote in an email.

Blaming the Victim


Henzanani Merakini (seated), 26, in Dakatcha Woodlands, Malindi District, Kenya, lives about 100 yards from a pilot plantation, and she feels under the constant threat of eviction from the land where her relatives lay buried. (Courtesy of ActionAid)

Henzanani Merakini (seated), 26, in Dakatcha Woodlands, Malindi District, Kenya, lives about 100 yards from a pilot plantation, and she feels under the constant threat of eviction from the land where her relatives lay buried. (Courtesy of ActionAid)

Harwood D. Schaffer, Research assistant professor at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, says that it’s unfair to blame Africans, the victims of land grabs, for their situation.

“When we come and see how Africans crop, we blame them for their poor farming practices. But it is strange to blame Africans that someone came and took their land and made it unavailable for the vast population; that is blaming the victims,” said Schaffer in a telephone interview.

“When people talk about investment in agriculture, they always do it from a Western perspective, in which case it means putting money in researching crops and making the land available for plough. For peasants, the investment they make is invisible to us, because it is their labor,” added Schaffer.

Yet Western-style large-scale investment in land in Africa is also no guarantee of success. There have already been some example projects that have left the land degraded. The Gezira Scheme Project in Sudan is one of them. Nearly 2.5 million acres was given to investors in the 1970s, but the land was not suitable for mechanized production, and much of that land has now been destroyed.

“So we already have examples of such investments from 20-30 years ago, which did not work well,” said Michael Taylor, program manager, Land Policy and African Region in a telephone interview from Rome.

Recently, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the World Bank’s private sector department, announced Responsible Agricultural Investment (RAI)—an initiative with the purpose “to better spread the benefits and balance opportunities with risks in major investment programs” while ensuring that the rights of existing land users are respected.

But at least some observers don’t think the World Bank is working in the best interest of Africans.

A report by the Oakland Institute published earlier this month says the World Bank has been facilitating a shift toward prioritizing large-scale commercial agribusiness in Africa.

One way it has done this, according to the report, is that the IFC has “been working—often behind the scenes—to ensure that African countries reform their land laws and fiscal regimes to make them attractive to foreign investors.”

On the Horn of Africa, which is facing widespread famine and its worse drought in 60 years, what’s at stake is not merely control over its land, but access to the most precious commodity of all, without which the land is of little use—wate