Report

Green Rush

How big agriculture is carving up Africa for industrial farmland.

There is a gold rush happening in Ethiopia, but it's not a hunt for the yellow metal. It's a quest for the green gold of fertile farmland. A nation more associated with periodic famine and acute childhood malnutrition than with agricultural bounty is leasing millions of hectares -- an area the size of Belgium -- to foreign companies, who want to grow and export food to places like Saudi Arabia, China, India, and Europe. 

One-third of the fertile Gambella area in western Ethiopia, for example, is being leased for the next 50 years by the Bangalore-based food company Karuturi Global. Forests are being clear-cut, swamps drained, rivers diverted, and whole villages moved to make way for flower farms and palm-oil and rice plantations. "It is very good land. It is quite cheap.... We have no land like this in India," effused Karuturi's project manager Karmjeet Shekhon to the Guardian soon after the lease was settled in 2011.

The government in Addis Ababa says it needs foreign companies like Karuturi Global to help create jobs, raise Ethiopia's income from food exports, and develop the agricultural technology and infrastructure that can bring the impoverished country into the mainstream of the global market economy. It has enticed investors with tax breaks alongside rock-bottom lease rates (as little as $1 per hectare per year).

But at what cost -- to land rights, to human health, to the environment, to national stability?

It's a question being asked not only in Ethiopia but across Africa. As I report in the current issue of the journal Ethics and International Affairs, many other countries are also welcoming big agricultural projects bankrolled by foreign investors whose goal is to send food abroad. Liberia has reportedly signed concessions for nearly one-third of its national territory in recent years. (Liberia, like many other African nations, claims government ownership of all the country's arable land.) Half of the Democratic Republic of the Congo's agricultural lands are being leased to grow crops, including palm oil for the production of biofuels. Perhaps the largest single venture to date is the ProSavana Project in northern Mozambique, where an area roughly the size of Switzerland and Austria combined has been leased by Brazilian and Japanese companies to produce soybeans and maize for export.

Critics question the wisdom of producing food for foreign consumption in regions where many go hungry -- especially when the land deals displace local subsistence farmers. In Mozambique, where more than 80 percent of the overall population depends on family farming, authorities claim that the land seized for ProSavana is unoccupied. But surveys by the country's National Research Institute show that it is an area of shifting seasonal cultivation and grazing, and the nonprofit group GRAIN estimates that millions of peasant farmers are losing their land as a result of forced resettlement schemes. In Ethiopia, meanwhile, 1.5 million farmers and pastoralists have been moved off of their land to make way for new industrial farms.

According to Olivier de Schutter, the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food, the reverse transfer of agricultural wealth is a new form of colonialism. Outside powers, with the help of local governments, claim that they are helping countries develop, de Schutter says, when their real motive is to exploit resources to ensure their own food security. "Small-scale family agriculture, on which most of the world's rural poor still depend," he argues, "is threatened by large-scale plantations, export-led agriculture, and the production not of food but commodities."

To make matters worse, the land-grab phenomenon also threatens to foster instability and conflict over scarce resources, population shifts, and the best way to feed expanding countries. Lack of access to food and farmland will likely lead to social unrest in future years, warn scholars at the independent academic research organization the New England Complex Systems Institute. "Conditions of widespread threat to security are particularly present when food is inaccessible to the population at large," they write. "In [such cases] even the threat of death does not deter actions that are taken in opposition to the political order."

Wealthy countries have always looked to faraway, resource-rich lands for food exports. European established plantations throughout the world in the 19th century, and multinational food companies have done the same in the post-colonial era. But recent land grabs are different, and not just in scope: Whereas in the past, most export agriculture focused on products that couldn't be grown at home (bananas, citrus, coffee, cocoa), today's projects often grow staple food crops like soy, wheat, and rice, as well as oils for biofuels.

The African land grabs began in earnest after the global food crisis peaked in 2008. The start of the Arab Spring, which was in no small part a response to the price of wheat more than doubling in under a year, was a wake-up call heard around the world -- especially in countries like the Gulf States and the Asian tiger economies with limited capacity to grow their own food. Corporations in these countries started acquiring terrain in Africa, the continent with the highest percentage of available arable land, as an insurance policy against extreme price volatility on the global market. And African governments, desperate for infusions of cash and technology, were willing partners. 

The United Nations has proposed some basic ground rules to regulate these land deals, but they are non-binding and frequently flouted, leading to a chaotic situation. "It appears to be like the Wild West," said José Graziano da Silva, the head of the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, "and we need a sheriff and law in place."

This lack of effective regulation threatens the livelihoods and basic rights of millions of Africans. In a scathing 2012 report on Ethiopia's Gambella region, Human Rights Watch documented arbitrary arrests, rapes, beatings, and killings of those who have resisted leaving their villages to make way for foreign projects, as well as starvation among the newly landless. This hunger is caused in part by the diversion of agricultural land away from local food production, which has boosted food prices. Graham Peebles, the director of Create Trust, a Britain-based charity that runs education projects in Ethiopia, writes that the leasing of fields formerly used for the cultivation of the staple teff "is largely responsible for costs of teff (used to make injera -- the daily bread) quadrupling in the last four years."

On the security front, controversial land deals have already sparked violence. In Ethiopia, members of the Suri tribe have taken up arms against the military to try to stop the diversion of the Koka River to irrigate a Malaysian plantation project, which threatens to drive them from their villages in a fertile floodplain. And when the South Korean industrial giant Daewoo struck a deal to lease half of all the arable land in Madagascar for the production of corn and biofuels, a bloody uprising led to the ouster of the country's president, Marc Ravalomanana. (His successor's first act in office was to revoke the unpopular deal.)

There may be trouble ahead for Liberia as well. An op-ed by two land rights activists in the New York Times last year argued that massive land transfers threaten Liberia's fragile stability. "These concessions come at a delicate time," Silas Kpanan'ayoung Siakor and Rachel Knight wrote, "as violent local-level land disputes both between and within villages are still widespread throughout Liberia." Emmanuel Jangebah, a tribal chief in Totoquelle, a village slated to be "developed" for oil palms by a Malaysian corporation, put the matter bluntly: "If we see bulldozers in the bush, we will take our machetes and run to meet them," he told OnEarth magazine

There is also potential for violence in the newly formed nation of South Sudan, where the government has lost no time in leasing nearly 10 percent of its territory to foreign investors -- an alarming development, according to David Deng, research director of the South Sudan Law Society. "It is fairly clear to us all that poorly planned investments can contribute to conflict, particularly in fragile, post-conflict states," Deng told the Guardian in 2012. "But conflict can also attract investment, as opportunistic companies come to take advantage of power vacuums, and in the case of South Sudan, of a massive transfer of wealth to a bureaucratically weak government."

These are just a few of the places where instability looms, if land acquisitions are not better regulated and managed. Troublingly, however, some African governments are expressing discontent over land grabs for reasons other than the threat of conflict and human rights violations. In Ethiopia, the Karuturi project is lagging behind schedule due to flooding, poor infrastructure, and other issues. Addis Ababa, in response, says it will pull support and licenses for utilizing land from projects that do not develop as quickly as it wants. "If the failure is their failure then we will be obliged to take the measure," Agriculture Minister Tefera Deribew said in an interview with Bloomberg in late November. (Research has estimated that some multinationals are also waiting for the right market conditions before they exploit land they've obtained, letting it lie fallow in the meantime.)

Nobody denies that Africa's agriculture needs to be improved, and soon, if the continent is to feed its rapidly growing population. (The population of Ethiopia, for instance, is expected to triple from 90 million to more than 278 million by 2050.) But to ensure future food security, a fair balance needs to be struck between increasing agricultural exports and serving local needs. Stephen O'Brien, parliamentary under-secretary of state for international development in Britain, says it's vital that "the interests of the poorest and most marginalized groups are taken into account, both in the decision-making process when looking at whether to sell agricultural land, and in getting their fair share of the subsequent benefits, whether financial or food produced." 

One way that local farmers can be served is by sharing with them the latest knowledge about small-scale, "agroecological" or low-input sustainable farming, which does not require costly agrochemicals, genetically modified seeds, and mechanized farm equipment in order to succeed. Agronomists have developed inexpensive ways to boost the productivity of small family plots, which can produce equal and, in some cases, higher yields than large plantations do.

The Oakland Institute, a California-based think tank that focuses on agriculture and land-rights issues, cites the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) along the Niger River in Mali as a model operation. The SRI, a low-input cooperative irrigation system, involves tiny plots of only one-third of a hectare. Yet it grows an average of nine tons per hectare, more than twice the production of Moulin Moderne du Mali, a major multinational investor, and its farmers are able to earn $1,879 a year, more than double Mali's average per-capita income. 

Such small-scale projects can potentially keep huge numbers of family farmers profitably employed and produce food for local markets while preserving land for future generations. And critically, undertaking these projects doesn't mean abandoning the large-scale production of food for foreign markets. (Export dollars, after all, do matter economically.) Multinational corporations can help accomplish both goals: In exchange for being granted licenses to grow food for export, corporations should be contractually required to invest in local agriculture and offer technical assistance and infrastructure improvements for small landholders.

For this to happen, however, the playing field between local and foreign interests must be leveled. Binding rules need to be established by international bodies -- and agreed to by African governments and multinational corporations -- which will protect the rights of indigenous farmers, as well as ensure the integrity of Africa's environment, soil, and water. Otherwise, the hastily negotiated land deals will continue to shortchange the long-term interests of millions of Africans, leading to more hunger, displacement, even turmoil.

AFP PHOTO/JENNY VAUGHAN

Report

Kerry’s Return to Vietnam Is All About Blocking China

...and dealing with Beijing's thirst for energy.

John Kerry is back in Vietnam -- his first time as Secretary of State -- with a mission different from the dozen he's taken before. This latest round of U.S. support for Vietnam is largely about energy: who can develop it, how they can develop it, and what the consequences will be.

That is especially important for countries bordering the South China Sea, theoretically a potential motherlode of oil and gas in the future, but a source of constant low-level conflict today.

Beijing estimates that there are more than 100 billion barrels of oil under the South China Sea, about ten times more than U.S. officials see there. And the Chinese are doing their best to keep that oil to themselves. Chinese vessels have interfered with Vietnamese and other foreign ships looking for oil in recent years. Just one year ago, a Chinese ship apparently deliberately interfered with Vietnamese oil-survey efforts by cutting the survey ship's cable. In November, Vietnam and India reached a deal for additional oil exploration in the South China Sea, which drew an immediate rebuke from China.

The United States announced Monday a new maritime partnership with Vietnam that on paper will help Hanoi police its waters. In reality, it's a way to give Vietnam a bit more muscle to defend its territorial interests in the potentially oil- and gas-rich but contested waters of the South China Sea.

At the same time, Kerry breathed new life into the so-called "Lower Mekong Initiative" that's meant to help Vietnam and its southeast Asian neighbors develop in a sustainable way, deal with the ravages of climate change -- and keep China's seemingly bottomless appetite for energy from wrecking Southeast Asia's agrarian economy.

The maritime partnership with Vietnam is particularly intriguing, because it gives the United States a way to strengthen a country that isn't an ally and to whom sales of military hardware are limited by law.

As part of a regional maritime partnership, the United States will provide Vietnam with $18 million "to enhance the capacity of coastal patrol units," including the provision of five fast patrol boats for the Vietnamese coast guard. Nominally, the State Department said, that's part of an aid package to help Vietnam and its neighbors deal with traditional constabulary duties such as anti-piracy, drug trafficking, and the like.

But Secretary Kerry made clear in Hanoi that the patrol boats will have a more important mission: "Peace and stability in the South China Sea is a top priority for us and for countries in the region. We are very concerned by and strongly opposed to coercive and aggressive tactics to advance territorial claims," he said, in a clear reference to China, which has used strong-arm tactics to lay claim to nearly the entire sea, most notably through the notorious nine-dash line. That's China's not-so-subtle way of trying to grab entire swathes of the South China Sea that are claimed by five other countries (six, if you include Taiwan).

Vietnam, like other countries surrounding the South China Sea, has long had confrontations with an increasingly aggressive China. The whole region has plenty of interests at stake in the South China Sea. It's one of the busiest waterways in world trade, and one of the most important fisheries in Asia. And then there's the potential for oil, which makes the South China Sea conflict fundamentally different than the territorial disputes and grandstanding that characterize tensions in the East China Sea.

Granted, a handful of patrol boats won't make Vietnam the maritime peer of China. But symbolically, at least, the deal shows how "the U.S. will help claimants strengthen their ability to resist coercion," said M. Taylor Fravel, a professor and expert on Chinese maritime issues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Significantly, U.S. aid comes in the form of a stronger Vietnamese coast guard. On the one hand, that's because U.S. military aid to its former enemy is constrained. But in the maritime games of chicken in the South China Sea, civil defense and fisheries-enforcement ships -- rather than fully-armed naval vessels -- are the currency of power. China, in particular, has beefed up its civilian maritime presence to press its claims, rather than its newly invigorated navy.

"Civil maritime capabilities are key to the territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea. China is effectively using its predominance in this area to bully and coerce its neighbors, without resorting to direct military action," said Ely Ratner, Deputy Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

"It's therefore critical that other countries, while unable to match China pound for pound, at least have the ability to police their own shores and maintain a degree of maritime domain awareness about what's happening in their territorial waters," he said.

Onshore, Kerry also brought a little cash and a lot of encouraging words for the Lower Mekong Initiative, a plan launched by his predecessor Hillary Clinton that is meant to spur unity and sustainable development among countries in southeast Asia.

Like the maritime partnership, greater support for the Lower Mekong Initiative is one way the United States can help bolster countries that are wrestling with an aggressive China. Chinese hydroelectric development in its southern provinces threatens the flow of a river that's crucial for about 60 million people downstream.

"From Hanoi's perspective, Beijing's ability to regulate the river, the ecological and environmental impact of China's dams, and those planned by its upstream Southeast Asian neighbors hangs like a sword of Damocles over the Mekong Delta," concluded a 2012 report from the Mekong Policy Project at the Stimson Center.

So far, much as China has sought to deal with southeast Asian countries bilaterally when it comes to maritime disputes, Chinese hydropower development has played up divisions between downstream neighbors. That reduces their ability to push back in unison against development practices that could imperil the livelihoods of millions in the region.

That's one big reason the United States is trying to get downstream countries, including Vietnam, to work more closely together on hydroelectric development and policies for watershed management.

"No one country has a right to deprive another country of the livelihood and the ecosystem and its capacity for life itself that comes with that river," Kerry said Sunday, after a peaceful ride on the river he used to patrol on a swift-boat.

Richard Cronin, Southeast Asia program director at the Stimson Center, said that Kerry's reference to upstream countries and the threat they pose to Lower Mekong countries echo historic comments made by Hillary Clinton in 2011 in Hanoi. She made headlines, and raised hackles in Beijing, by wading into the territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

"We don't have the money to offer, and we can't compete on aid, but we can remind countries that they need to hang together, or they'll hang separately," Cronin said.

Of course, Kerry being Kerry, climate change also came to the forefront on his stop in Vietnam. (He called it the biggest global challenge in a speech in Washington on December 11.) He announced $17 million in aid to help Vietnam adapt to climate change. And he called the lower Mekong the "rice basket of Asia," warning how climate change could lead to sea level rise, threaten millions in the region, and lead to widespread displacements.

Don't expect that focus on the climate threat to dissipate during the rest of Kerry's trip, either. Next stop: The Philippines, including typhoon-ravaged Tacloban.

HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images