Govt won't seize white farms, says minister

South Africa’s new Agriculture Minister, Tina Joemat-Pettersson, said on Tuesday the continent’s biggest maize producer would not seize white farms to redistribute to black South Africans as this would harm its economy.

“With our willing-buyer, willing-seller policy there are times when the land becomes too expensive for the state to purchase, and if we face a programme of expropriation, it would further destabilise the economic industry of agriculture,” she told an agribusiness conference in Cape Town.

After the fall of apartheid in 1994, the African National Congress set itself a target of handing 30% of all agricultural land to the black majority by 2014.

But progress towards the target has been slow, and only about 4% of land has been acquired from private owners amid funding problems that government officials say might hinder the government from meeting its goal.

Land reform is a sensitive issue in Africa’s biggest economy, where critics say the programme has hurt investment in the commercial farming sector and drastically reduced the land that is available for commercial agriculture.

Sharp criticism
Meanwhile, African countries may need to put in place a code of conduct to govern farmland purchases on the continent by foreigners, the agribusiness conference heard on Monday.

In a bid to overcome reliance on food imports, countries in Asia and the Gulf have been at the forefront of farmland purchases in the world’s poorest continent, where millions survive on subsistence farming.

But these so-called “land grabs” have drawn sharp criticism from land activists—who raised concerns of exploitation—as well as some international donor agencies, the African Union and the European Union.

Marilou Uy, sector director for the World Bank’s Africa Financial and Private Sector Development Department, said African states would need to set up rules to govern farmland purchases to protect themselves from possible exploitation.

“It is quite apparent that the upsurge in interest, especially among foreign investors and large-scale enterprises in land acquisition, might need a code of conduct,” she said.

“This code of conduct might need to bring a clear understanding on a wide range of matters from land policy, social development ... governance and transparency.”

Idit Miller, vice-president and managing director of the European Marketing Research Center, said a code of conduct would likely be the only way to ensure that the benefit from farmland deals was mutual for both governments and investors.

“It starts with the governments and once they say ‘these are the conditions tied to our land’ then foreign investors will have no choice but to pay attention,” she told Reuters.

Lobby groups have urged more caution from governments selling farm land to foreigners, warning that some of the deals could lead to social unrest.

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), led by former United Nations chief Kofi Annan, said last week governments needed to consult widely, especially with small farmers, before signing deals that may increase poverty.

International agencies report that since 2004, about $920-million has been spent to buy or lease nearly 2,5-million hectares of farmland in five sub-Saharan African countries.—Reuters

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