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Privatizing Africa

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The rapid privatization of land is Africa is throwing millions of poor farmers off their land. This is thanks to the African middle class, western companies, and large Chinese investors.

A second set of culprits, also flying underneath the media radar and unbeknownst to many land rights campaigners in the West, are actually Western-based companies. A study reviewed in Mr. Cotula’s book showed that about half of all the land acquired in Africa between 2005 and 2011 was done by Western companies. European companies often lead the way – a situation that brings back bitter memories of colonial era land grabs. The same study showed that companies based in the United Kingdom, the United States and Norway were respectively the 1st, 2nd and 4th biggest external land grabbers in Africa.

Whereas the land grabbers of yore were mainly interested in plantation agriculture, the current generation is a diverse bunch. About 60% of the land acquired is for growing crops for biofuels to meet increasing energy demand in the West. Some of the land is used to plant trees to take advantage of carbon credit schemes. Norwegian companies are in the lead here having large tree plantations in Mozambique, Tanzania and South Sudan. Hedge funds are also involved, channelling money from Western pension funds, endowments and wealthy individuals into land deals hoping to cash in on any future rises in the price of land.

Naturally, the impact on people whose land is taken is devastating. Families have lost land to farm on and land for cattle grazing. Sometimes they’ve lost complete access to water resources. What’s most tragic is that the urban elite often acquire land not to make meaningful investments, but for purposes of conspicuous consumption or to speculate on land prices. Western companies who acquire land rarely even use it.

Outstanding–biofuels, the capitalist marketplace in carbon credits, and hedge funds are all involved in the active dispossession of African farmers. And of course being Africa, almost no one knows about any of this or cares.

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