The colonies became independent long ago and Bwana big white man went home to reflect on his sins. Or so we thought in our ignorance. In fact, of course, until they were actually chased out they hung on, as France still does in the Francophone nations, as they are called. French troops and French interference are a fact of life in countries such as Chad, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire and the Republic of Congo. In other cases Bwana merely changed the colour of his skin. And sometimes he was actually a native who took on the attitude. So the Great Arica Land Grab is a more complex business than it seems, but the interest in buying, leasing or getting control of land has grown by leaps and bounds.

One major reason for this is declining yields and growing populations in many countries. India, for instance, has 17 per cent of the world’s population and just 2.5 per cent of the land. China has 20 per cent and 9 per cent of the land. About 25 per cent of India’s 160 million hectares of cultivated land is degraded. The organic content, for instance, is 0.5 per cent to 0.1 per cent compared to the ideal average of 4 per cent. China’s case cannot be too different as soil degradation is a fact of life in a regime of excess fertiliser and pesticide-herbicide use, unsustainable even in the medium term of 10-15 years.    

Africa by contrast has some 60 per cent of the world’s arable land, much of it extremely fertile. Moreover, many of the countries do not achieve even 25 per cent of the estimated yield. So land is the new currency as populations rise, yields fall, and countries search for food security. Given its resources Africa is again the mother lode but this time its own governments are making the deals, unlike colonial times when foreigners ruled the roost. Eight years ago, Sudan leased 1.5 million hectares of prime farmland to the Gulf States, Egypt and South Korea for 99 years. All these countries are major food importers. That year, ironically, 5.6 million Sudanese citizens depended on food aid from abroad. Egypt also has 840,000 hectares in Uganda for wheat and corn. A real concern with these massive land transfers is that the citizen takes his place at the end of the queue.

In 2009 also, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) handed over 500,000 hectares of abandoned state farms to South African farmers on a 105-year lease. A Wall Street Journal report of 2014 produced the startling figure of 600,000 sq km, an area the size of France, open for lease in a programme to boost farm yields, jobs and attract technology and investment. Its neighbour the Republic of Congo-Brazzaville offered South African farmers 10 million hectares for maize, soya bean, poultry and dairy. Early this year Gujarati farmers were offered 90,000 hectares by a group of African countries including Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana and Mali.

These are ostensibly untenanted lands but the truth is often different. In a country such as DRC many people live off the land, taking the fruit from the existing trees, growing subsistence crops, benefiting from the groundwater reserves, and so on. Given the vast parcels of land that are being transacted there is little hope that the little man’s concerns will be given a hearing. Most of the deals are notable for their opacity, with no scope for local people to raise their voices. It is also never clear if there are any provisions to husband the land, ensure sustainable practices and keep the ecosystem in balance. It is equally possible that some of this land is a natural biosphere reserve, and factory farming, which is the likely model, will not only marginalise endemic flora and fauna but also permanently damage local biodiversity.    

India’s tribals have learnt this to their abiding sorrow, where the stewards of the land turned into its plunderers, uprooting people who had lived in the mineral-rich forests and hills for generations. Vast numbers of them have been reduced to penury as a result. So far the evidence is mostly anecdotal but these African encounters have a familiar ring, with local farmers bullied and bulldozed by impersonal corporations into producing what they want, when they want. Either they fall in line, or else. There is a real fear that if factory farming degrades the soil or contaminates the waters with runoff the corporation can always move elsewhere. But the local has no choice, he has to stay on in a place where not only his livelihood but his health is at risk. The disasters of monoculture are well known but the only people wringing their hands are the environmentalists.