Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Land is Holy

"In some areas, people go without their main food staple, rice, for four to six months," says Patrice Charpentier, project manager for food security in Madagascar, at Land O'Lakes , an aid group. "Production is erratic. People don't want to overproduce if they're not sure they can sell it on the market. So they produce just enough to survive."

By all rights, Africa could be a breadbasket for the world. Its fertile land, lengthy rivers, and farm labor tempt investors from around the globe. But the continent continues to import the bulk of its staple food items, including corn, wheat, and rice from richer countries. The attraction of Africa's last great resource – its fertile land – is drawing dozens of foreign corporations and even national governments to the African mainland

The recent price spike was a temptation for large agricultural companies to divert corn intended for food staples like cornmeal into more profitable biofuels like ethanol instead nand it sparked a land rush to buy up farmland across Africa.

A sample of countries targeted by foreign agricultural investors documented in the past five years by the International Food Policy Research Institute includes:

Democratic Republic of Congo: 7 million acres secured by the Chinese firm ZTE to grow oil palm for bio­fuels; and 24.7 million acres offered to the South African farmers' union, AgriSA.

Mozambique: Nearly 250,000 acres secured by the Swedish firm Skebab to produce biofuels.

Tanzania: Nearly 1.25 million acres requested by the Saudi Arabian government for food production; more than 110,000 acres purchased by the British firm CAMS Group for biofuels made from sweet sorghum.

Sudan: 1.7 million acres secured by the South Korean government to grow wheat; nearly 1 million acres secured by US-based Jarch Capital; nearly 75,000 acres secured by the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development to grow corn and alfalfa.

Ethiopia: More than 32,000 acres secured by the German firm Flora EcoPower to produce biofuels.

Many land deals are decidedly one-sided, with all food produced sent away for export. Legal systems little changed since colonial times don't offer individual farmers much protection in terms of land rights.
"As much as 90 percent of Africa is under customary tenure, which means it's held by the state on behalf of the community, who are then given the customary right to the land," says Ruth Meinzen-Dick, a land-rights ­specialist at the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research, the one responsible for India's green revolution in the 1960s. Many African small-holder farmers know they can be moved off their land at any time, and the growing number of farming deals confirms their worst fears. As a result, many African farmers are reluctant to invest in their land or to improve their techniques, knowing the benefit may be taken away in the future.
"The question is, do people have an expectation that they will have their land in 10 years?" says Ms. Meinzen-Dick. "If they don't, they're not going to plant a tree that will give fruit later.... They're not going to make long-term decisions that increase their productivity."

Local people still viewed that land as belonging to their ancestors. The farmers have an unusual emotional attitude. It's not their land: It's their ancestors' land.
"Land is holy," Rajaonary, a farmer, says, leaning on his hoe in the late-afternoon sun. "Land that I inherited from my ancestors – I couldn't sell it, because even now, after they died, it still belongs to them. They are watching what I am doing with the land. So I will do what they have done for me. I will pass my land along to my family, too."
Rajaonary says his political leaders simply don't understand how important land is to an ordinary Madagascan. It is one's cradle, table, home, workplace, and grave, he says.

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