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July/August 2011
Vol. 36, No. 4

Africa: Food security, land use

In many African countries, the inequity of land distribution persists as one of the main reasons that millions of small holder farmers continue to work on poorly fertile rain-fed land. The following article, part three of a series of articles on African agriculture and food security, is an overview of persistent trends in land use that present obstacles to African food security.

When looking at land use, it helps to recognize the biases that shape the world view of those most likely to make decisions about how land is used. Entire societies based in northern countries favor urban life as the pinnacle of culture and deem rural settings as backward. These preferences are shaped by an understanding that humans are separate from (and more important than) the natural world – which leads to prioritizing human needs and desires over the absolute needs of Earth and its species. Indeed, the history of land use in Africa is shaped by this world view with the caveat that even some human communities are more important than others.

Colonial history in Africa left a legacy of land use where even today men, women and children are forced to work under slave like conditions to produce or extract raw products (coffee, cacao, tea, cut flowers, cotton, fruit, oil, diamonds, precious minerals and the like) for export. Several years after independence many African countries have yet to put in place meaningful reform such that land use benefits the majority of African populations.

Even when African nations have been more sensitive to indigenous land rights (see NewsNotes March-April, 2010) land is not always used equitably. Throughout Africa women are responsible for at least 70 percent of food staple production. Other agricultural activities, like food processing and marketing, cash cropping and animal husbandry, for the most part depend on women's labor. In addition to the constraints that most small-scale farmers face, women farmers are challenged with gender-related barriers.

Dual systems of Western and traditional or religious law often disadvantage women. A joint study by the UN Development Program (UNDP) and World Bank in 2000 on gender and agriculture in Africa argues that in reality, inheritance rights for women do not exist. The study highlights Kenya's Succession Act which provides for equal rights to inheritance for both men and women; it goes on to state that when a man dies without a will, the customary law relating to land inheritance will prevail. Since few men write wills and most Kenyan communities do not allow a woman to inherit property from her husband or father, the equality provisions of the Succession Act generally do not apply.

In more recent history African nations seem to be giving up control of how land is used as large tracts have been leased or sold to foreign interests. Much of these "land grabs" are meant to produce crops that will not directly benefit Africa, but will ensure the investors' own food and energy security needs. Countries like Saudi Arabia and others with arid climates have purchased land to grow food, while rising economic powers searching for alternative energy sources, like China and South Korea, are securing African land holdings to produce crops like palm, sugar, and corn among others to convert into biofuels.

Vast amounts of land are being grabbed up. For example Maplecroft's Global Risks Portfolio cited that "in conflict torn Democratic Republic of Congo alone, China has a contract to grow 2.8 million hectares of palm oil, whilst in the last year in Sudan companies from South Korea purchased 700,000 hectares and the UAE (20) 750,000 hectares." Though the World Bank, International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) met recently to operationalize the Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment (RAI) framework, voluntary guidelines fall short in terms of stemming the tide of land-grabs spreading all over the African continent (see NewsNotes May-June 2011).

During the World Social Forum in Senegal in February 2011, social movements and organizations released a collective appeal against land grabbing. Over 150 mostly African organizations signed the petition demanding that governments, the Regional Unions of States, FAO and other national and international institutions immediately implement the commitments that were made at the 2006 International Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (ICARRD) to secure land rights of users; and to revive agrarian reform processes based on fair access to natural resources and rural development for the welfare of all.

The Dakar statement goes on to demand that states, regional organizations and international institutions guarantee people's right to land and support family farming and agro-ecology, calling attention to the fact that the land grabbed up by foreign investors is being mono-cropped in huge industrial agriculture projects which bring few jobs and little benefit to local people while causing ecological destruction. The statement underscores that African countries should implement appropriate agricultural policies that consider all different types of producers (indigenous peoples, pastoralists, artisanal fishermen, peasants, agrarian reform beneficiaries) and answer specifically to the needs of women and youth.

Fr. Ken Thesing, MM, a missioner in Kenya, comments: "People who are 'subsistence farmers and pastoralists' are being displaced [from] the land being taken by these 'land-grab' or investor projects from abroad. If no immediate 'year around' jobs are created to absorb these people they just become squatters on the edge of towns and cities with most having 'subsistence' jobs at best, day laborers." For many African nations over 60 percent of their people are employed in agriculture or animal husbandry. When rural displacement happens, the cities simply do not have the industrial base to provide jobs for the newly unemployed.

For far too long a perspective held predominantly by economically powerful people in the global North has ruled decisions about how land is used in many countries around the world, including Africa. The underlying assumption is that "progress" or "development" is defined by industrialization, city dwelling and a life of over consumption. Since this worked for many northern countries, it's become the modern model of development.

While the economic and social ways that this model is not working in Africa have been explored, ecologically speaking this development model and the biases that shape it are not sustainable. By their very definition, cities stretch beyond the carrying capacity of the land. As more and more of the world's people become urban dwellers, they lose a real sense of the limits of the natural world specific to the place they live. Such knowledge is critical if we are to make decisions about living in a world of limited and diminishing resources. The drafters of the Dakar statement had this in mind as they expressed the importance of preserving the knowledge held by small family farmers claiming that small family farmers are best placed to meet dietary needs for themselves and surrounding populations; to ensure food sovereignty; to provide employment to rural populations; to support and maintain economic life in rural areas; to produce with respect to the environment; and to conserve natural resources for future generations.

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