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Inside the great African land rush

By Marie Toulemonde
Posted on Friday, 2 April 2021 17:53

Land used across the continent (Jeune Afrique)

Over the last 20 years, upwards of 35m hectares of land in Africa have been sold to foreign investors. Who are the buyers, where are they investing their money and what do they produce on the land they acquire?

According to the Land Matrix public database, Africa is targeted by large-scale land acquisitions (LSLAs) more than any other world region. Since 2000, many Chinese, Emirati, Lebanese, American and European investors have acquired several tens of millions of hectares of arable land in Africa – covering a surface area slightly larger than Côte d’Ivoire – through concession agreements.

Such investments, which peaked shortly after the 2008 food price crisis, tend to be perceived by host countries as a way to spur the attainment of food self-sufficiency, develop and industrialise their agriculture and reduce poverty.

In theory, land deals create domestic jobs and represent a significant source of tax revenues, although it is difficult to accurately estimate just how much because concession agreements are not made public. Employment creation is mentioned in 15% of the contracts signed on the African continent, according to Land Matrix.

A wide range of impacts

Ten years after the land rush, these investments have had a wide range of impacts. A number of the projects have become profitable and benefited local communities by providing access to pasture land, training, knowledge transfer and decent permanent employment opportunities.

That said, loose property laws and policy-making in other countries have paved the way for large-scale acquisitions, which in some cases have forced local farmers off their land, triggering more than 50 conflicts, according to data from Land Matrix.

Concession agreements, signed for an average term of 30 years, can also adversely impact the environment, such as by causing long-term soil erosion due to intensive farming or massive deforestation, a particularly widespread problem in the Congo Basin.

No less than 800 contracts have been signed in Africa since 2000, around 100 of which have been abandoned, to farm crops including flowers, sorghum, soy and agrofuels. In addition, 91 deals are under negotiation. Some 92% of land transactions were completed by private companies and over 50% of projects are either partly or entirely export-oriented.