Weak Land Rights in Africa Make Way For A New Type of Colonialism

Earlier this month a Reuters article highlighted that lack of land rights on the Africa continent could lead to future conflicts. Prior to colonialism, land rights were dealt within tribes or ethnic groups throughout Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Land was often held communally and there was a verbal (not written) understanding that any outsider or even insider who infringed upon a particular individuals’ or group’s land rights would be dealt with accordingly. When colonialism arrived on the African and Latin American continents communal land holdings were divvied up among colonial underlings and subject to the various crowns in power. Today, the troubling history of land ownership has opened up the developing world to a colonialism of a different kind: multinational colonialism.

As most agreements about landownership prior to colonialism were verbal and not formalized in documents, any claims to land today — despite centuries of ancestral bonds to the land — have left many peasants in particular vulnerable to land sales without their consent. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, at least “half a billion people rely on 1.4 billion hectares of communally held rural land….” However, now the government in power is the owner and the people on the land are just squatters. This power relationship is even in spite of many “laws recognizing community or customary land rights” that exist in some African countries such as Liberia and South Sudan. Researchers from the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) found that approximately 9% of South Sudan’s land prior to their independence was already being passed into the hands of investors. Investors from agribusiness and natural resource extractors such as mining companies have swooped in to purchase or lease land for next to nothing. For instance, Susan Payne, CEO of Emergent Asset Management, which conducts land deals in southern Africa, has paid $350-$500  per hectare in Zambia, which is allegedly around a tenth of what one would expect to pay in the U.S. or even Argentina.

The primary reason for this new land grab has to do with feeding and fueling a growing population. About three years ago I covered this issue in a blog post for Earth Day Network, and then as even now, land needed to cultivate food was the primary concern. It is no secret that the world’s population is rapidly growing; we hit 7 billion this past October. It is also not a secret that droughts caused by a changing climate have left many countries in Africa, the Middle East — naturally arid — and Asia dealing with food security problems. But for sub-Saharan Africa, where approximately two-thirds of these new land deals are take place, food security may become the least of their problems.

The problem with bypassing local people in these transactions between government and company is that people get angry about having their homes and livelihoods taken away without their permission and this anger may lead to outburst of violence. According to RRI director of global programs Jeffrey Hatcher quoted in the Reuter’s article, “Controversial land acquisitions were a key factor triggering the civil wars in Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and there is every reason to be concerned that conditions are ripe in new conflicts to occur in many places.” Unfortunately, many multinational companies — many of them state sponsored — have been to go to countries where state institutions are weak and willing to obtain funds in any manner possible, even if financially they are being duped. This selection process, therefore, will further exacerbate instability in these states as the local people find they have had enough.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons