Scramble for Africa’s land could trigger devastating impact

21 February, 2012, Wanzala Bahati Justus

Africa risks suffering from devastating effects of land grab following a frenzied sell-off of forests and other prime lands to buyers hungry for the continent’s natural resources.

New studies released in  London on 1 February 2012  by  global programs for the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) indicate that widespread civil unrest  could occur  in sub-Saharan Africa unless national leaders and investors recognize the customary rights of millions of poor people who have lived on and worked these lands for centuries.

The studies show that two-thirds of all the lands and resources investors are acquiring in the latest global land rush are in sub-Saharan Africa an aspect that has a direct effect on food security  [frax09alpha]for  farming and pastoralists communities as well unavailability of  space for settlement.  In fact critics of land grab in Africa have often mentioned  effects  linked to environmental hazards wrought by wanton deforestation, decline in species, water and air  pollution  as a result of use of fertilizers and chemicals sprayed on crops in addition to  decline in species due to habitat loss as key negative impacts of  the ongoing  scramble of the lush, prime and pristine African lands.

Decline in available land for farming and pasture for livestock is equally a cause of internecine wars more so in the Horn of Africa, experts have often averred.

“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 for new conflicts to occur in many other places,” said Jeffrey Hatcher, director of global programs for  RRI.

RRI brought together experts to release new findings on land tenure and investor risk worldwide, and to explore the land conflicts that have fractured Liberia and South Sudan. Aggravating the unrest in both countries were unilateral government decisions to sell off resources held on community lands.

While presenting the results of an analysis of tenure rights in 35 African countries, by international land rights specialist Liz Alden Wily, Hatcher noted that despite the clear potential for bloodshed, local land rights are being ignored  in the ongoing buying spree spree across Africa. According to the report, Alden Wily’s review found that the majority of 1.4 billion hectares of rural land, including forests, rangelands or marshlands, are claimed by states, but held in common by communities, affecting a minimum” of 428 million of the rural poor in sub-Saharan Africa.

Land rights experts note that indigenous and traditional communities are not generally opposed to economic development and  but their  outrage stems from their total exclusion from a process that threatens to deprive them of land and resources essential to their survival.

Liberian and South Sudanese experts said local communities in both countries are beginning to react to the impact land deals are having on traditional access to forests, rangelands and marshes. In Liberia, where 30 percent of the country is reported to be under timber, mining and agricultural concessions, local villagers have blocked the plans of a Malaysian company to plant oil palms on lands leased from the government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Liberian NGOs reported that their government is quietly issuing new “private use permits” to logging companies, violating national laws and the rights of local communities, and possibly undermining a recent pact signed in May 2011 with the European Union (EU) to ensure that timber exported to the EU is derived from legal sources and benefits the people of Liberia.

The world is at a turning point in the global land grab, with the addition of dozens of new players- the  recently industrialized  countries such as South Africa and the nations of the Middle East, who are combing the planet for the natural resources required to sustain their rapid development noted the study.

Of the 35 African nations covered in Alden Wily’s analysis, only nine got high marks for being for their treatment of local, customary rights. The others were graded either “mixed” or “negative.” The nations ranked “most positive” were Uganda, Tanzania, Burkina Faso and Southern Sudan. But even in those countries, Alden Wily said, the laws are not respected in practice, and local communities are rarely included in negotiating the terms of a purchase or lease, even in countries where laws recognize such lands as private property.

“With the speed and scale of this surge into Africa in the last five years, the chief concern should be that investors are cutting deals with governments for land that really belongs to individual rural communities,” said Alden Wily.

According to the study investors  could lose much  if they fail to consider the customary rights of local communities an aspect that could trigger civil unrest. HENCE respecting and strengthening tenure rights is a win-win for investors, and for the people who currently view the vast forests and pastures of the developing world as their own.”

Experts stated that it’s too early to predict whether the spate of land deals recently negotiated in sub-Saharan Africa will produce widespread and destabilizing conflicts. But relatively few large-scale enterprises are fully established, White noted, so the people who will be affected by the deals have yet to realize their forests, marshes and rangelands have been sold or leased  adding that communities often do not find out what is going on until the bulldozers arrive.

Increasingly, however, local communities and the NGOs that support them are learning more about their rights and how to enforce them.A  coalition of Liberian organizations, including the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI, Liberia) and Green Advocates Liberia, today charged their government with issuing alternative “private use permits” on an estimated 700,000 hectares of forestland.

South Sudan is one of the countries cited by the  study for doing a good job with protecting customary rights under the law. How it was reveled that the government signed deals for control of nine percent of the new nation’s lands even before announcing its independence.


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