24 April 2010

The scramble for Africa

By Marguerite Finn

A recent report from the United Nations University (UNU) commented on the tragic irony that India is a country now wealthy enough for half of the people there to own mobile phones while the other half cannot afford the basic necessity and dignity of a toilet. In fact, India has some 545 million cell phones – enough to serve 45 per cent of the population, while only 366 million people have access to decent sanitation.

That is just one of many humanitarian challenges facing India today. Another is finding enough food to feed its growing population - currently standing at over 1 billion – approximately 15 percent of the world's population. One method they have chosen is to join in the 'land grabbing' currently occurring in Africa. The Indian Government has lent money to 80 companies to buy 350,000 hectares of land in Africa on which to grow food for their domestic market.

Nowhere in Africa is out of bounds in this 21st century scramble for Africa. Leading the rush to grow food there are investment banks, agribusinesses, commodity traders as well as UK pension funds. But not all the land is used for growing food. Land to grow biofuel crops is also in demand and the biofuel land grab in Africa is displacing both farmers and food production. For example, China has just signed a mega-contract with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to grow 2.8 million hectares of palm oil for biofuels. South Korea's Daewoo recently signed a 99-year lease for 1.3 million hectares of agricultural land in Madagascar to grow biofuels.

What is driving developed countries to re-colonise Africa in this way? The finance wizards say it is both an investment risk and an opportunity – but it is not clear that safeguards are always built into negotiations to protect the African farmers turfed off their land. The head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation warned that the controversial rise in land deals could create a new form of colonialism – with poor countries producing food for wealthy countries at the expense of their own people.

A major trigger for this new phenomenon was the food crisis in 2008, which caused prices to soar and caught many countries off-guard. Frightened by the food crisis, some net food importers like the UK are investing in foreign farmland and exporting the food to themselves.

The availability of water is another factor in the land-grabbing business. For example, Saudi Arabia is thought to be one of the biggest buyers and in 2008 actually reduced its domestic cereal production by 12 percent a year to conserve its water! This means that Saudi Arabia is not only acquiring Africa's prime agricultural land but also is securing for itself the equivalent of hundreds of millions of gallons of Africa’s scarce water every year. Concern is now mounting in the international community because so much land is being targeted for its good water supplies.

Where does Britain stand in all this? British firms have secured vast tracts of land in Angola, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Tanzania to grow flowers and vegetables. A report in The Independent on 19 April warns that a potential global water crisis in coming decades could cause UK food prices to "skyrocket" - damaging the UK economy.

Direct water consumption in the UK is around 145 litres per person per day, but this does not include the “virtual water” which is embodied in the food, clothes and goods we import. When virtual water is taken into account the average daily water footprint of people in the UK is 4,643 litres per person.

Bearing this in mind, does it make sense to build an 'eco-town' on agricultural land at Rackeath, straining existing water supplies?. Wouldn't it be better to use that precious land to grow our food and not import food from countries where the population is often starving?

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