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date: 12 July 2020

Summary and Keywords

The currently extensive land appropriation across Africa signals the most radical shift in the distribution and tenure status of land since colonial times. The first alarms about “land grabs” by foreigners were raised by advocacy groups around 2007–2008. The search for land, always watered land, by foreign agents is driven by concerns about rising food and oil prices, and most of the acquired land is put under food crops, biofuels, and flex crops. The promises of profits from the exceedingly low price of land across Africa, as well as the rising demand for the mentioned crops, have also attracted speculation by private equity funds. With more detailed research on the processes and effects of this shift in rights to (and use of) land, the focus on a “new scramble” by foreign agents has extended to the multiple processes involved in the increasing demand for Africa’s land, internally and externally.

The increase in acquisition of land by international agents, not only for cultivation but for minerals, oil, timber, and so forth, exacerbates the accelerating demand for land within African countries by nationals such as salaried, middle-class people and politicians acquiring land for cultivation and for an investment fast increasing in value. The millions of small-scale users of largely “customary” land struggle to derive a livelihood from their smallholdings and access to dwindling and increasingly enclosed common land, including grazing and watering areas. These linkages among local, national, and global dynamics of land acquisition reveal mounting socioeconomic and political inequality across Africa. In addition, research on the land rush reveals competing visions for African agriculture, invoking the debate of large- versus small-scale agricultural futures, a long-standing question of agrarian studies now being asked within much changed political-economic, social, and environmental conditions.

Both macro-data and field studies show that most of the foreign acquired land is used for large-scale plantations, some of which include contract farming and outgrower schemes. Although, for a variety of reasons, some large land deals fold, the most recent Land Matrix data show most do move into production. Research on these large-scale projects has shown, however, that most fail to attain the projected aims of providing benefits to the countries and people from which they acquired the land. Most appropriated land was already in productive use by local users rather than “under-utilized” or “waste land” as described in many documents by investors and donors such as the World Bank; there were fewer benefits in the form of employment, higher and sustained income, and lower risk for most laborers, contract farmers, and outgrowers; far less infrastructure (schools, clinics, roads, etc.) built, as promised, for local populations; and output that is either exported or that proves unsuitable for the locales, with lower production value at lower efficiency compared with the land uses before the large-scale projects were put in place. These negative findings have to be set alongside the facts that the investors acquire the land at either extremely low cost (usually lease rather than sale) or even free, and receive tax, import/export and other “incentives.”

The failure to benefit the millions of small- to medium-scale users of land, despite the rhetoric of land investors, major donors such as the finance arms of the World Bank Group, and governments facilitating the deals, has emerged as a key problem in light of deepening poverty, and a dearth of sufficient employment to absorb the young population, let alone people “exiting” from the land. Numerous experts conclude that a continued rapid alienation of land, especially to large-scale investors, will exacerbate localized land scarcity, restrict the potential of smallholder-led development, and put unrealistic pressure on the non-farm economy to absorb Africa’s rapidly rising labor force.

Keywords: land deals, tenure, large- and small-scale agriculture, outgrowers, contract farming, smallholders, speculation, private equity, unemployment, conflict, multi-national corporations, African Politics

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