Agro-Imperialism: Colonialism in the 21st Century

In 2009, in a promotional presentation to prospective investors, Susan Payne, CEO of the largest land investment fund in Southern Africa, touted Africa as “the last frontier for finding alpha.” Her company, Emergent Asset Management, a private limited liability company based in London, has invested over 540 million dollars in land acquisitions and controls 100,000 hectares of land in a dozen sub- Saharan countries. Once the industrial agricultural projects are fully operational, Emergent Asset Management expects to make annual returns of twenty-five percent or more. Emergent Asset Management is one of many foreign investment companies participating in a massive rush to acquire huge tracts of land spanning the entire African continent. Triggered by the recent financial crisis and high global food prices, investment banks, hedge funds, international agribusinesses, commodity traders, and even governments have amassed an estimated 32.8 million hectares of land in Africa in their quest for high returns and potential profit from future food crises. These corporations claim that they will bring modernization and spur a long needed “rejuvenation of African agriculture”. Agricultural yields will increase tenfold and hunger and poverty will be eradicated.

However, critics assert that talk of eradicating hunger in Africa is simply a cover for the exploitation of natural resources by powerful international corporations. Abetted by the World Bank, outside investors are introducing an industrial model of agriculture, connected to large far-off markets, in complete disregard of local communities. Large scale commoditization of agriculture, with the introduction of genetically engineered seeds protected by Western patent law, are in effect disenfranchising local communities in a movement that can qualify as nothing less than a dispossession on a massive scale and a new twenty-first century form of colonialism.

In most of the developing world, small scale farming remains the most basic foundation of life, playing a crucial economic as well as social and cultural role in local communities. For centuries, the agriculture of developing countries was built upon the local resources of land and water, capitalizing on local seed varieties and indigenous knowledge of farming practices. Farmers save and share seeds, and for tens of thousands of years have been practicing seed selection to develop unique local varieties of food crops.  Professor Miguel Altieri from the University of Berkeley writes in “Agro-ecology, Small Farms, and Food Sovereignty” (2009) that traditional subsistence farming nurtures biologically and genetically diverse small farms with a “robustness” and “built in resilience” that forms the basis of indigenous cultures.

However, seeds are big business for Western corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta which seek to sell their patented genetically modified seeds throughout the developing world, including Africa.  Genetically modified seeds require agricultural chemicals, herbicides and pesticides, also manufactured by the same multinational companies, to be productive.  By imposing a chemical input and GMO seed based agriculture on African farmers, these companies are creating a new form of dependence among African farmers, and new sources of profits for foreign shareholders. Unfortunately, powerful international bodies, such as the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, as well as certain UN affiliated entities, encourage or even coerce African nations to allow Monsanto and Syngenta and other big Agribusiness suppliers into their markets. Under the banner of modernizing agriculture, and also through trade agreements, these companies are given access to the African market where they have few competitors and where farmers often feel that they have no choice but to join the chemical agriculture bandwagon.

While large corporations want to convert African farmers to an agricultural model dependant on chemical input, other Western and Chinese business interests simply want to acquire African land to farm. To this end pressure is put on African governments to “reform” their legal systems governing ownership rights. Traditional African tenure laws view land as a complex interlocking and overlapping system of rights, in which private property cannot be categorized as private property in the same way that it is in much of the Western world. Western conceptions of ownership, Parker Shipton contends in “Land and Culture in Tropical Africa: Soils, Symbols, and the Metaphysics of the Mundane” (1994), “impose alien assumptions or emotional charges on African tenures. Legal language implying human mastery over land misfits some peoples who speak of it more often the other way around”. While true equality is elusive in Africa as elsewhere, Shipton argues that nevertheless egalitarianism has been a “stock theme” in African anthropology. As such, he contends, “An ideal often perceived to underline indigenous tropical tenure systems across the continent might be called fairness and flexibility. According to this principle, access to land should go to those who need and can use it, and no one should starve for special want of it.”

In “Seized: The 2008 land grab for food and financial security,” Grain, an international non-profit research organization, chronicles how foreign corporations are getting new forms of control over farmland to produce food not for local communities but for an international export market. A number of African countries, such as Malawi, Senegal and Nigeria were identified as offering fertile land, relative water availability, and potential farm productivity growth. Within five years, a dizzying 3.28 Million hectares of land across Africa was amassed by a multitude of corporations and countries across the world, and this trend is expected to continue as up to thirty percent of all arable land has been identified as potentially up for grabs.

BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, is one of many that have identified African agriculture as a new source of profit. In 2008, it set up a $200 million agricultural hedge fund used to acquire farmland around the world. The life of such a fund is typically 10 years with expected annual rates of returns as high as 400%, with the clear understanding that they will build an industrialized infrastructure in order to mine as much output from the land as possible.  Corporations and countries usually strike deals to acquire land under the pretext that it is “fallow”, but Grain points out that this is rarely the case as local farmers typically utilize land on a rotational basis in order to enhance soil fertility. In other instances local communities are simply not accounted for at all. Jettie Word, policy analyst at the Oakland Institute, reports that a map produced by state technicians in Senegal, before leasing twenty thousand acres of land to Senhuile Senethanol, confirmed the existence of only six of the forty villages that were using the land which was subsequently leased to foreign companies.

The lease and purchase of farmland previously used by small subsistence village based farmers robs millions of Africans of their livelihoods. Furthermore, the elimination of small farmers undermines the moral and ethical underpinnings of rural culture and society. In Stolen Harvest, Vandana Shiva argues that hidden behind complex free trade treaties promoted by Western countries and the World Trade Organization, are shrewd ways to essentially disenfranchise local farmers. “As farmers are transformed from producers into consumers of patented agricultural products, as markets are destroyed locally and nationally but expanded globally, the myth of free trade and the global economy becomes a means for the rich to rob the poor of their right to food and even their rights to life.”

In 2013, leaders of the most powerful western countries convened at the G8 Summit in London to address malnutrition and hunger in the third world. The summit culminated with the signing of the Nutrition for Growth Compact. Hailed as a great humanitarian success by most of the media, the compact received financial commitments from western and Chinese governments that surpassed expectations. Essentially the compact offers African countries public and private money if they strike agreements with G8 countries and their private sectors to ”develop” agriculture. Many critics view this foreign aid as a Trojan horse designed to help Western corporations to exploit third world resources. Critics such as George Monbiot, a columnist for The Guardian, argue that G8 countries use their leverage and funds to force African countries to undertake structural reform, rewrite laws facilitating foreign access to lands, and undertake partnerships with global corporate partners such as Monsanto, Cargill, Dupont and Synegenta.

Under the official purpose of “lifting 50 million people out of poverty over the next 10 years”, this deal is essentially a self interested effort by the G8 countries to take land away from the very people who supposedly need to be lifted out of poverty, and reallocating them to these global corporations. The African countries that agreed to sign the Nutrition growth summit must comply with the demands of the G8 countries or they will not receive any aid. Ivory Coast must “facilitate access to land for smallholder farmers and private enterprises” which in practice means evicting smallholder farmers for the benefit of private enterprises. Already it has signed deals with French, Algerian, Swiss and Singaporean companies leasing 600,000 hectares of prime arable land which Grain reported in “ G8 and land grabs in Africa” will displace tens of thousands of peasant rice farmers. Similarly, Mozambique, Ghana and Tanzania must rewrite laws to promote these same types of “partnerships” and are obliged to draw up new laws granting intellectual property rights in seeds under the pretext that this will “promote private sector investment”. These new intellectual property rights essentially turn staple crops into patented property, owned by companies such as Monsanto and Cargill, which criminalizes sharing and saving seeds thus eliminating centuries of collective innovation by farmers and peasants.

In essence, foreign development undertaken under the pretext of “fighting hunger” or “eradicating poverty” is simply a channel through which to usher in foreign private capital with little regard for the local communities.  “What we are seeing,” writes Vandana Shiva is “the emergence of food totalitarianism, in which a handful of corporations control the entire food chain and destroy alternatives… Local markets are being deliberately destroyed to establish monopolies over seed and food systems.”

Under the auspices of the World Trade Organization and agreements such as the Nutrition for Growth Summit, western countries are forcing third world countries to recognize US style patent regimes. “Instead of the culture of the seed, which privileges reciprocity, mutuality, permanence, and exhaustless fertility, corporations are redefining the culture of the seed to be about piracy, predations, the termination of fertility, and the engineering of sterility”. This new system, Shiva argues, “is transforming farmers highest duties- to save seed and exchange seed with neighbors- into crimes.” Under the pretext of foreign aid and development, the G8 Summit ultimately aims to facilitate a market infiltration of foreign agri-businesses into Africa, turning local farmers into disenfranchised tenant farmers who can no longer claim title to the land they till or the crop they produce.

The new waves of agricultural development have drastic effects on pastoralists, traveling herdsman who follow a seasonal migration pattern to find land for their cattle. About 40% of land had up until recently been dedicated to pastoralism but recent development and foreign land grabs are compromising their access to land and the means of their subsistence. With the guidance of the World Bank, African governments enacted land privatization policies that have made it increasingly difficult for these traveling herdsmen to move across land. In 2006, the Tanzanian government authorized the eviction of Pastoralist communities from the Usangu basin in the Southern highlands of Tanzania without offering them any other land to use. As huge tracts of lands are taken away from them, competition for grazing space has exacerbated conflict and endangered Pastoralism as a viable lifestyle.

There is no doubt that African farming needs support—millions of families struggle to feed themselves, don’t have access to clean water, and die from poverty every year.  The Food Policy Research Institute says that Africa needs to increase its food production by 40%. However, there is no evidence that the arrival of Western agribusiness enriches local people.  A small wealthy urban African elite and foreign stockholders and owners reap most of the benefits.

Could it be that we are once again seeing exploitation and colonialism hidden behind false humanitarian rhetoric? Is this simply a new age of imperialism driven not by lofty political ideals but rather corporate profits?

It is time to acknowledge that combating household food insecurity will involve more than just increasing food production and must instead emphasize access. Helping poor households in rural Africa feed themselves requires introducing low-cost, sustainable enhancements to farming. Intercropping, agro-forestry, composting and soil conservation are all valuable measures to enhance soil fertility and control pests without massive cash outlays for expensive chemicals and fertilizers.