Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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African Farmers Pawns in Global Economics

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Saturday,  December 12 / 09

Zack Gross

While the world focuses on climate change negotiations in Copenhagen this month, many involved in issues of global survival are concerned about another situation developing out of the November World Food Security Summit held in Rome. 

The United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimates that, over the past three years, almost US$1 billion dollars has been spent by foreign governments and corporations on the purchase of farmland in Africa, accounting for something in the range of 20 million hectares.

 This move, particularly on the part of Asian and Middle Eastern governments – Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and China being most prominent – has been prompted by the spike in staple food prices that hit the globe in 2007-08, creating hunger and political instability in both poorer and wealthier countries. 

Rising food prices this decade, coupled with the global economic recession, have added more than 100 million people to the official ranks of the hungry, bringing that total to over one billion – almost one-sixth of the world’s population. 

While states such as Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia control 45% of the world’s oil, they can no longer rely on existing markets, regionally or internationally, to feed their populations.

By 2050, it is projected that the world’s population will have reached nine billion (almost 50% higher than it is today). 

Thus, many changes will have to be made in how we feed the globe, or the system – already teetering, will fail. 

Exacerbating this dilemma are factors such as climate change.  Previously abundant food production areas are now subject to desertification, rising temperatures and frequent storm systems. 

As wealthier governments move to insure their food supply, formerly domestic food production lands in Africa (particularly in East Africa) are leased or purchased for bio-fuel development or export agriculture.  Questions then arise about what mutual benefit African countries and their farmers can see in this potentially neo-colonial situation.

Spokespeople for “developing world” think-tanks, such as environmental and economic experts Vandana Shiva and Waldon Bello, particularly criticize two recent historical developments. 

Firstly, they point out that African countries at independence in the 1960s and ’70s were self-sufficient in food production and indeed were exporters. 

Now, rural people in these same countries have become poorer, cannot feed their communities, and are subject to losing their lands and relocating to urban slums (or working their former lands as low paid labour). 

As well, bio-fuels being grown on their land and produce being exported after production in their countries will not feed them.  That production is destined for European, Middle Eastern and Asian vehicles and dinner tables.

What exists now is a debate:  Will these purchases of land help to create wealth and employment in African countries, or is this just a new form of colonialism and feudalism? 

How is this different from the situations where countries and corporations, in the past and still today, have “invested” in the development (or exploitation) of other natural resources, from oil and diamonds, to rubber, coffee and sugar? 

It is the old and on-going debate, but now land would appear to be the commodity in question.

Many are urging that a Code of Conduct be put in place as quickly as possible, so that African farmers retain their rights and their wealth. 

Asian and Gulf countries want to be able to access food directly, and thus own and control “off-shore” lands. 

What does this mean for the people living there now? 

What must be assured is that Africans, who are the most vulnerable people on Earth to climate change, conflict and poverty, will be able to access the food that they need and be compensated for any foreign intervention in their economy, society and environment.

How would Canadian farmers and consumers feel if millions of acres of our land were bought up by foreign interests for export back to their countries? 

We would either ban such as practice, or at least ensure that our own interests were not put at risk. 

While some on the international stage are promoting the idea of a ban on what they call a “land grab”, others are more circumspect, saying that with a Code of Conduct, decisions can be made on a case by case basis. 

Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations and now head of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in African (AGRA), said in Rome that “governments must consult widely with their farming population before signing deals that may increase poverty”.

It would appear that farmers are yet again pawns in the global food chess game.

One remedy for this situation is for rural and agricultural people to determine what is in their best interests and how power can be shared between those who produce our foods and those “buy” them.

 It is a tall order, and not one with a good track record!


Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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