Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Land Grab Again

Socialist Banner seems to encounter never-ending press stories of land-grab abuses. Population growth and rising consumption around the world are fuelling global land acquisitions and Africa is a “prime target”. Africa accounts for 134 million hectares of reported land deals. Worldwide, between 2000 and 2010, deals under consideration or negotiation amounted to 203 million hectares. Critics feel that land acquisitions could imperil the food security of millions of people.

“The best land is often being targeted for acquisition. It is often irrigable, with proximity to infrastructure, making conflict with existing land users more likely,” says the International Land Coalition. “Urgent action is needed to bring harmful land transfers to a halt.." the Coalition says.

Overall, most of the land deals, critics say, would be put under biofuel production and agricultural food exports. With many local small-scale farmers off the land there could be national food shortages. Weak economies cannot afford food imports, and might in fact be forced to receive food aid from countries whose multinationals, ironically, produced that very same food in Africa in the first place. Although governments might make the case for such land deals, critics of such contracts in Africa say local elites are most likely the only national beneficiaries.

Ousman Badiane, the International Food Policy Research Institute's Africa director, says: “Foreign investors interact with, and act through, national intermediaries or interlocutors who may operate independently or as government agents. One should, therefore, expect the emergence of secondary markets and derived demand in the form of influential national actors who will seek to gain access to land at the expense of local communities. Anticipation of future demand by foreign investors; this is where real damage can be done.” If local communities are to be protected in these land deals, he says, foreign investors should improve the capacities for local governance; contract negotiating skills; and foster business partnerships between local communities.

The latest disclosures comes from Sierra Leone. Foreign land investment is on the rise in Sierra Leone and, as with many of its neighbours, the government wants more companies to come in to boost the economy. According to Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Lands, around 70 percent of arable land is available for investment, outside of protected forest reserves. “Foreign land investments are a good thing,” says William Farmer, director of surveys and lands in the Ministry of Lands. “Civil society makes a lot of noise about land-grabbing. But if the investment is well-planned then it can create employment and improve lives.”

But as more and more companies flock to the country to lease large tracts of land, murmurs of protest and unrest are cropping up among local populations who are unhappy with the way the deals are done; and civil society groups are growing increasingly concerned that foreign land deals are not producing the win-win scenarios they had hoped for. The problems arising are the same as in many other developing countries: the power imbalance between negotiating parties and the lack of regulation means local communities can lose a lot through land deals, says Joseph Rahall, director of Green Scenery, an NGO working on environment and human security issues in Sierra Leone. There are currently no laws regulating large land deals in Sierra Leone. The Ministry of Agriculture has produced guidelines suggesting a land lease payment of $5 per acre per year ($12.36 per hectare per year) to landowners who agree to give up their land for a lease period of up to 50 years, with an option to renew for another 21 years. But Rahall says the amount is far too small.
“Even where companies pay the full amount, the government is taxing the people 50 percent,” he says. “Half of the company’s payment goes to the District Council, the traditional leader and to the central government.There are so many ways companies are coming into the country… When communities are so weak [compared to big companies] that they don’t have lawyers, they cannot afford lawyers and government is not providing them, this is problematic.”

Sahid Abu-Dingie, who works on land reform at the UN Development Programme (UNDP) agrees: “It is not possible for [former landowners] to survive on the amount of money they are given per acre,” he says. “Even the nuclear family will find it hard, let alone the whole extended family who have rights to the land.”

In March 2011, the agro-industrial company Socfin Agriculture Company Ltd., a subsidiary of the Belgian company Bolloré, signed a 50-year land lease with the government of Sierra Leone to produce palm oil on 6,500 hectares of land in Pujehun’s Malen chiefdom. In October 2011 residents of Malen blocked Socfin’s operations in protest over low labour costs ($2.30 per day) and the amount paid for compensation and surface rent. 15 Malen residents were charged with “riotous conduct” for their protests over wages await their court hearings.

Tommy Silman, landowner and resident of Kortumahun, says he wishes he had not given up his land: One month ago he leased all 3.04 hectares (ha) of his land for the next 50 years to the government. He used to cultivate oil palm trees for direct sale to process into the cooking oil used by most Sierra Leoneans. “It was not a fair deal,” Silman says, explaining that he received no receipt for the land sold and now has no idea of where he stands. Several landowners in Pujehun told IRIN that before these deals they had been managing to support their families through the revenues they earned by cultivating palm oil. Tommy Silman, for instance, calculated he earned on average $861 annually from the three harvests produced on his 3.04 ha. It is the landless farmers who get the worst end of the deal as they lose the land they farm and do not get any compensation.

Kortumahun village chief Bockarie Juana says he was not involved in negotiations on the land lease with the company. He told IRIN he received money for his land, but was given no documentation such as a copy of the land lease or a receipt for the amount paid. “One of the difficulties is that the Paramount Chief [district chief] came to us and asked us for our land on lease. But they have now uprooted everything [all the trees] and this is what we were using to look after our responsibilities [live off],” he told IRIN.

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