Invest in African farmers, don’t take their land (Pan African Land Hearings day 1)

The majority of land in Africa is not titled, yet this does not mean it is not the property of the people who hold it.

Lamine said, “We want to see consultation with communities, fairness and equity” whenever there are land transactions. Examples from Oxfam’s work in Ethiopia, Zambia and Tanzania showed how land grabs had disproportionately affected women, whose food crops were displaced by ‘male crops’ like sugarcane, and that industrial farming created few jobs, mostly for men, and was often poorly-paid and insecure. While governments often call this ‘development’, small-scale farmers who feed their families and market their surplus become workers on their own land, experiencing growing food insecurity.

Communities’ fighting for their land is part of a global phenomenon, explained Ruth Hall of PLAAS and Future Agricultures. Presenting an overview of the drivers and patterns of land grabbing in Africa, she showed how the convergence of food, fuel and financial crises from 2007 onwards had produced growing investor interest in accessing African farmland cheaply.

“The land is presented as unused and available”, she said, and Africa has been described as a “vast under-utilised land reserve” – yet this ‘vacant land’ discourse is fundamentally flawed. “Land is a basis for people’s livelihood, not just a commodity for trade and speculation.” Africa has been at the centre of the ‘global land grab’ precisely because most land is held under customary tenure, which states and investors do not recognise as constituting a real property right. For transactions to not be ‘grabs’, a basic first step is for customary rights to be recognised in law and in practice as holders of real property rights.

Such basic standards are already contained in the African Union’s Framework and Guidelines on Land Policy in Africa, as well as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Voluntary Guidelines for the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security. These frameworks establish norms and principles for land governance and recognition of rights, but steps towards their implementation are still in the early stages in Africa.

Delegates agreed that the non-recognition of unregistered rights enables land grabs, pointing out also the problems about who is consulted in communities, the roles of domestic business and political elites, and local traditional authorities, in facilitating deals without securing permission from landholders who stand to lose their land.

“We have companies that come and say they want to help us and invest in our land,” said Emily Tjale, who is from South Africa’s northernmost province of Limpopo, and is an activist with the Land Access Movement of South Africa. “We don’t know what happened with tribal authorities that made decisions and agreements on our behalf. They gave our small farms, mine of about 10 hectares, to the company for reducing those carbon emissions, and suddenly we find we do not own our own land anymore.”

Jesinta Kunda of Zambia spoke from the perspective of a community threatened with eviction, insisting that foreign investors are not the only ones at fault. “Our leaders suffer the same sickness. They go and proudly say how much land they have acquired.” Because politicians have their own interests in accumulating land, they are not ready to enact policies and laws that can protect customary rights, she argued. Zambia’s land policy has been in draft for the past 14 years, since 1999.

These concerns were echoed from West Africa. Mariam Sow-Enda from Senegal confirmed: “we know that these things are happening not only because of the international community but also because of our governments… How will we convince our governments [to secure land rights]?” she asked. “It is a question of will of our governments.”

Responses from participants quickly moved from the need to secure customary tenure rights to the need to provide alternative forms of investment. “African agriculture does need investment,” said Marc Wegerif of Oxfam GB in Tanzania, but external private investors should “invest in African farmers without taking their land.”