Communities destroyed by scramble for Africa

The chair of the hearing, Professor Olokushi Adebayo, said it was ironic that a decade ago the Economist had described Africa as a hopeless continent and was now describing it as the rising continent. 

As the head of the African Institute for Economic Development and Planning, he said the narrative was now of Africa as "ripe for plucking".

"There is a new scramble for the continent with big returns for investors," he said. 

But the problem was that this was coming at the cost of the people living on the continent – just as the colonial scramble for Africa had. "We are supposed to be the beneficiaries but something different is going on. We need to speak out much more loudly about so the policies that best serve our communities and people are adopted,” he said. 

There were clear trends in all the cases of land grabbing. "We see a common pattern of an erosion of livelihoods, manipulation of contracts, clear gender discrimination, an absence of transparency, and the extremely dubious role of district administration in acting as the middleman."


To explore this the panel invited people from around the continent to share their experiences with foreign groups grabbing land. Each one of these told a tale of woe and of agrarian livelihoods that had been destroyed by companies that had not delivered on any of their promises. 

Raulina Valoi, representing her community in the Massingir district of Mozambique, said a company asked for land to grow sugarcane. The community agreed to give them a set area – 37 000 hectares – on the basis that they would benefit from the employment created.

"They expanded into our farms, grabbing the land. Now where will we produce our food?" When they complained the company offered land far away. "I am an old woman so cannot walk that far." 

Land lease
Complaints to local government went unheard at first, but the company’s land lease was not renewed when it ran out after three years. Now they are a bit more wary about the next company offering to change their lives for the better in return for "a little bit of land".

Sharifa Issa Azizi, from the Kilwa district of Tanzania, said their contract had been tampered with so what was a 30 to 60 year lease would now be valid for 99 years. "We could not get our contract until the aid agencies came in, then they gave us the lease but it is not how anyone remembers it," she said.

In return for using their local land – in a deal where 60% of the upfront payment went to the local district – the surrounding villages were promised development with schools and long-term jobs. "We asked for more of the money to develop but were told that the district is like the father so must get more than the child." For their labour they got $2 a day. 

But after some work the land was abandoned after the company with the lease defaulted on their loan. A thick, wild forest has now grown on land where they used to grow subsistence crops. Animals roam in this, attacking farmers and also destroying the restricted fields the community now survives on.

"Be cautious of every investor that comes to your village," she said. 

Sale of land
In Senegal communities have been far more active in opposing the sale of their land. Salif Ka, from a community that was moved for bioethanol, said 32% of his country’s cultivated land had been grabbed.

"Our local government agreed to the farming, meaning 37 villages and 9 000 people had to be relocated," he said. The process was violent and those who said no were attacked by the police and lost their land anyway. Many of their sacred sites were also destroyed when the farming started, even though the community had specifically appealed for these to be saved, he said. 

Mariame Sow, from the same community, said, "Are we going to let this African food be harvested again by the colonisers? We must govern our own land." 

The resistance by communities to land grabs had been so strong that the government was now amending parts of the law so corporations had more say that villagers, she said. 

If the land was continually given away people would start to starve. "We need to support our smallholder farmers so we can feed everyone," she said.  

The South African case was from Mokopane in Limpopo. Brand Nthako, a community representative, said they were cursed to be sitting on a 21km platinum vein. "I don’t know why God decided to put platinum just under very arable land."

Mokopane is fertile – outside the main town the world’s largest citrus farm produces 400-million oranges a year – but encroaching mines have forced people to resettle. "People are given compensation and then forced to move to townships, where they cannot farm," he said.

In the past a family could produce 70 bags of maize, at 80km each, from a small 24-acre plot of land. They could also grow 20 bags of beans. In their small township yards they cannot grow food, he said. 

When the community does refuse to move, or protests what is happening, they are beaten by private security guards, he said. The mining has polluted their water but there is no other source of water for most people so they are forced to drink it and get sick, he said. 

"We have never seen ethical mining, so leave it in the ground," he said. 

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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