Sat, Feb 22, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Agricultural alliance echoes colonialism in Africa

To critics, an anti-poverty initiative favors big business and hurts small farmers

By Claire Provost, Liz Ford and Mark Tran  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Lance Liu

A landmark G8 initiative intended to boost agriculture and relieve poverty has been condemned as a new form of colonialism after several African governments agreed to change seed, land and tax laws to favor private investors over small farmers.

So far, 10 countries have made more than 200 policy commitments, including changes to laws and regulations after giant agribusinesses were granted unprecedented access to decisionmakers over the past two years.

The pledges will make it easier for companies to do business in Africa through the easing of export controls and tax laws and through governments apportioning huge chunks of land for investment.

The Ethiopian government has said it will “refine” its land law to encourage long-term land leases and strengthen the enforcement of commercial farm contracts. In Malawi, the government has promised to set aside 200,000 hectares of prime land for commercial investors by 2015 and in Ghana, 10,000 hectares will be made available for investment by the end of next year. In Nigeria, promises include the privatization of power companies.

A Guardian analysis of companies’ plans under the initiative suggests dozens of investments are for non-food crops, including cotton, biofuels and rubber, or for projects explicitly targeting export markets.

Companies were invited to the table through the G8 New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition initiative that pledges to accelerate agricultural production and lift 50 million people out of poverty by 2022.

However, small farmers, who are supposed to be the main beneficiaries of the program, have been shut out of the negotiations.

Olivier de Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, said governments had been making promises to investors “completely behind the screen,” with “no long-term view about the future of smallholder farmers” and without their participation.

He described Africa as the last frontier for large-scale commercial farming.

“There’s a struggle for land, for investment, for seed systems — and first and foremost there’s a struggle for political influence,” he said.

Zitto Kabwe, the chairman of the Tanzanian parliament’s public accounts committee, said he was “completely against” the commitments Tanzania has made to bolster private investment in seeds.

“By introducing this market, farmers will have to depend on imported seeds. This will definitely affect small farmers. It will also kill innovation at the local level. We have seen this with manufacturing,” he said.

“It will be like colonialism. Farmers will not be able to farm until they import, linking farmers to [the] vulnerability of international prices. Big companies will benefit. We should not allow that,” he added.

Tanzania’s tax commitments would also benefit companies rather than small farmers, he said, adding that the changes proposed would have to go through parliament.

“The executive cannot just commit to these changes. These are sensitive issues. There has to be enough debate,” he said.

Million Belay, the head of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), said the initiative could spell disaster for small farmers in Africa.

“It clearly puts seed production and distribution in the hands of companies,” he said.

“The trend is for companies to say they cannot invest in Africa without new laws. Yes, agriculture needs investment, but that shouldn’t be used as an excuse to bring greater control over farmers’ lives... More than any other time in history, the African food production system is being challenged. More than any other time in history, outside forces are deciding the future of our farming systems,” he said.

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