Changes in ownership have coincided with serious food shortages in the sub-region, a global financial crisis and a growing emphasis on the promotion of bio-fuel, with Senegal heavily promoting the planting of the controversial Jatropha tree, the seeds of which are used for the production of fuel for diesel engines.
Under the previous administration of Abdoulaye Wade, the government pushed high profile schemes like the Return towards Agriculture plan (REVA) and the Grand Agricultural Drive for Food and Abundance (GOANA), with an emphasis on promoting agri-business and bio-fuels.
“These initiatives have led to a glut of private operators, including religious leaders and senior state officials moving in on land in rural areas,” complains Mariam Sow, coordinator of the Natural Protection Programme of international NGO ENDA. Sow says the loss of farmland in areas like Gandon is sapping farmers’ morale and not bringing the hoped-for benefits. “In losing their land, peasant farmers lose a part of their identity,” Sow argued. “With the amount of land allocated, the local population feels squeezed while only a small proportion of the land area is actually cultivated. The promises on creating jobs and infrastructure are not kept.”
In a May 2011 report, the Agricultural and Rural Prospective Initiative (IPAR), a sub-regional NGO which aims to provide “strategic analysis” of rural and agricultural issues, highlighted the volume of land deals in northern Senegal. IPAR drew particular attention to the case of Mbane in Saint Louis Region, where it said 232,000 hectares had been distributed to politicians, religious leaders and private operators with strong political connections under the GOANA project. The IPAR report noted that, at the time of writing, much of the land acquired had yet to be exploited.
Rosnert Alissoutin of Gaston Berger University in Saint Louis says there are obvious points of conflict between traditional land arrangements and modern legislation on land allocation. “Legislation passed at national level gives the state control over all land in the country, while the peasant farmer is convinced that the land he exploits is inalienably his, inherited from his ancestors,” he told IRIN. Inevitably, situations arise where the acquisition of land by private investors, although legally authorized, is at odds with the customary legal rights demanded by local farmers, the majority of whom do not have title deeds.
The main land legislation in Senegal dates back to July 1964 and stresses free access to land and the importance of communal ownership under state control. The law argues against land being re-appropriated by private owners. Land is awarded to members of the community on the understanding that the concessions granted are properly developed. But the laws give little indication of how the development can be properly evaluated.
Among the large-scale private sector operators to encounter strong local resistance has been the manufacturing conglomerate Senhuile/Senethanol, backed by Italian investors. It acquired 20,000 hectares by presidential decree near Fanaye in 2011 with the stated intention of cultivating sweet potatoes to produce ethanol and later sunflower oil for export. The project had its supporters, particularly those hoping it would bring jobs and generate wealth. But local communities bitterly resented the loss of pasture. The company had promised thousands of jobs, but as of today there are only 30 people from the community on Senhuile’s payroll. Given such conditions, young people do not have a reason to stay and so they leave for the towns.