Farming in Africa has become a "wild west" of sorts.

Farming in Africa has become a "wild west" of sorts. Photo: Supplied

A gold rush is 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 to foreign companies that want to grow and export food to places such as Saudi Arabia, China, India and Europe.

One-third of the Gambela area in western Ethiopia, for example, is being leased for the next 50 years by the Bangalore 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.

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.

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

It is a question being asked not only in Ethiopia but across Africa. 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. 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 per cent 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 non-profit group GRAIN estimates that millions of peasant farmers are losing their land as a result of forced resettlement schemes.

According to Olivier de Schutter, the UN 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.

To make matters worse, the land-grab phenomenon also fosters 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, warn scholars at the independent academic research organisation the New England Complex Systems Institute.

Wealthy countries have always looked to faraway, resource-rich lands for food exports. Europe established plantations throughout the world in the 19th century; 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 such as 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 was a wake-up call heard around the world - especially in 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 cash and technology, were willing partners. The United Nations has proposed 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 Jose Graziano da Silva, the head of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, ''and we need a sheriff and law in place.''

This lack of effective regulation threatens the livelihoods and basic rights of millions. In a scathing 2012 report on Ethiopia's Gambela region, Human Rights Watch documented arbitrary arrests, rapes, beatings, and killings of people who resisted leaving 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 from local food production, which has boosted food prices.

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 Awash River to irrigate a Malaysian plantation project, which threatens to drive them from their villages in a fertile floodplain. And when South Korea's Daewoo struck a deal to lease half of all the arable land in Madagascar for the production of corn and biofuels, an uprising led to the ouster of president Marc Ravalomanana.

There is also potential for violence in South Sudan, where the government has lost no time in leasing nearly 10 per cent 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 last year.

''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.''

Nobody denies that Africa's agriculture needs to be improved, and soon, if the continent is to feed its rapidly growing population. But to ensure future food security, a fair balance needs to be struck between increasing agricultural exports and serving local needs. For this to happen, the playing field between local and foreign interests must be levelled. Binding rules need to be established by international bodies - and agreed to by governments and multinational corporations - which will protect indigenous farmers, as well as ensure the integrity of Africa's environment, soil, and water. Otherwise, the hastily negotiated land deals will continue to short-change the long-term interests of millions of Africans, leading to more hunger.

  • Richard Schiffman is an environmental journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post and The New York Times.