Quand la "ruée sur les terres" en Afrique nuit aux populations locales et à l’environnement

Quand la “ruée sur les terres” en Afrique nuit aux populations locales et à l’environnement

The overwhelming majority of land investments in Africa do not sufficiently take into account local populations, according to a report by the Center for International Cooperation in Agricultural Research for Development published on Monday. A situation that also has negative consequences for the rest of the world.

The “land rush” in Africa is still too often to the detriment of local populations and the environment. An overwhelming majority of land investments made on the continent show little or no compliance with a series of rules – called “Voluntary Guidelines for Responsible Governance of Land Tenure” – meant to protect people against the greed of international investors, according to a report by the Center for International Cooperation in Agronomic Research for Development (CIRAD) published on Monday 16 May.

Of 740 large land acquisitions (more than 200 hectares) analyzed since the early 2000s, the authors of the report found that 78% of the investments paid little attention to the interests of local populations, while 20% of these contracts did not. did not follow any of the rules.

A “land rush” that dates back to 2007

This is probably only an incomplete picture of the situation on the continent since there are only 23 African countries concerned by this report. States such as Egypt, the Maghreb countries, Angola and even Niger are, in fact, excluded from CIRAD’s conclusions, for lack of satisfactory data. “There is overall opacity at all levels. Whether it’s a lack of transparency from governments, companies that buy this land or even the cadastre”, sums up Ward Anseeuw, development economist at CIRAD and co-author of the report.

Among the countries for which there is sufficient data, Mauritania and Sudan are the worst performers in the “land rush”. They have only applied less than 15% of the rules supposed to prevent despoliation or land grabbing. At the other end of the spectrum, there are only three countries – Gabon, South Africa and Zambia – in which investments meet more than 50% of the criteria used by the report to judge compliance with the famous “voluntary guidelines”.

To understand the issues, we have to go back to 2007-2008 when the last major food price spike. Rising prices had whetted the appetite of international investors to acquire land around the world to grow the crops most in demand.

At the time, this “land rush” was carried out with little or no regard for the local populations, with an increase in expropriations.

The “Voluntary Guidelines for Responsible Governance of Land Tenure”, adopted in 2012 by the Committee on Food Security within the framework of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), was supposed to be the response of the international community to this operation to control land, mainly in developing countries.

It was “ten years ago, this month exactly,” says Ward Anseeuw. And the CIRAD report – which is based on data compiled by the international Land Matrix initiative on all the large land acquisitions in the world – serves as a sort of assessment for Africa of this attempt to calm the ardor. investors.

And it’s not glorious. “There is an improvement in the legal framework, but there are still efforts to be made in the application of the rules”, summarizes Ward Anseeuw.

Promises without a future?

Local people toast again and again. Firstly because they are still too often excluded from negotiations around the future of the lands on which they live and which often feed them. Individuals who find themselves faced with investors who are still too frequently unaware of the protection granted by custom or law.

An area in which countries such as Mauritania, Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo have received a zero point by data from the Land Matrix. Local populations can be expropriated there without having a say.

“We often find ourselves in contexts of enclaves of private property which not only deprive populations of access to resources, but are also a form of violence for individuals who have always considered the land as a common good”, underlines Jérémy Bourgoin, geographer at CIRAD and co-author of the report.

These redeemed lands are also often allocated to monocultures – cereals, wheat or palm oil for example – whereas before there was more diversity. In other words, a small farm could indirectly support several families, whereas this is no longer the case with huge properties.

And yet, investors or governments often promised mountains, wonders, schools, infrastructure and jobs. But the aftermath has rarely been so enchanting. “There is often job blackmail, but in fact we realize that the new jobs created for agricultural workers are precarious, which does not compensate for the loss of land”, summarizes Jérémy Bourgoin. “With the exception of a few agreements in Gabon [dans le domaine forestier, NDLR], these large acquisitions failed to improve local development. In fact, none of the projects analyzed had at least one negative impact,” the report’s authors write.

Danger also for the climate

In the context of the rise of China’s economic power in Africa, Beijing is often presented as the main suspect in this multiplication of land investments. However, “we cannot say that it is the Chinese who buy everything. There are more American and European companies than Chinese which are at work”, underlines Ward Anseeuw. However, the nationality of a certain number of investors remains unknown since several tax havens – Cyprus, Singapore, the British Virgin Islands – appear in the top 10 places where buyers are registered.

This African “land rush” without sufficient safeguards is not only bad news for local populations. The transformation of acquired land is also a formidable accelerator “of deforestation and puts pressure on natural resources”, underlines Jérémy Bourgoin.

The same authors, in a previous report from 2021 dedicated to the “toll of the global land rush”, already highlighted the “risks associated with large-scale land acquisitions, including the emergence of zoonoses [en empiétant sur l’habitat naturel d’animaux, le risque de transmission d’une maladie animale à l’homme augmente, NDLR] and diminishing water resources”.

The African continent is, in this regard, an example of a certain hypocrisy of the developed countries. They say they are determined to fight global warming, but let their companies destroy environmentally important ecosystems – like forests – for the sake of profit.

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