Land leasing by foreigners: Africa goes where Zimbabwe has come from

Jun 14, 2011

A issue of increasing debate is the trend of foreign governments or agribusiness concerns coming into Africa to lease or buy large pieces of prime land for farming. Supporters consider these deals worthwhile, much-needed investments; while opponents decry them as a new form of colonialism. It is astonishing that so little of the debate makes reference to Zimbabwe, whose recent history with regards to land has many rich lessons for African countries embarking on these new deals.

Zimbabwe had the kind of Western-style large-scale commercial agriculture which many countries in Africa believe would be the solution to many of their problems. Most of these countries' people engage in very simple kinds of agriculture which it is said have no prospects of meeting those countries' food and other needs.

The kind of large-scale commercial farms that made Zimbabwe and South Africa 'breadbaskets' take a long time to build up. Many African countries therefore welcome the eagerness of foreign investors to come in and hopefully push-start the process of this kind of farming by bringing in know-how and capital. The investors want to grow crops either to export back to their home countries, or to sell them anywhere.

The hope is that the host countries will benefit in new infrastructure, new farming methodologies, food security, new sources of export revenue, jobs and so on while the investors reap profits under the often very-favourable-to-them terms of these deals.

But there is an increasing outcry against them, even among those who initially took a 'wait and see' attitude. Among many reasons are terms that are considered too generous for the foreigners, with too little in return for the locals. One of the most controversial and emotive aspects is the issue of communities being pushed off their ancestral lands by their governments to make way for the foreign investors.

Zimbabwe has gone 'full circle,' from the original colonial 'land grab,' to decades of the beneficiaries of it building up the commercial farming sector for which the country was envied by many, to then forcibly taking land from white farmers.

The resultant sharp decline of large-scale commercial farming caused many problems which Zimbabwe is a long way from working its way out of. Yet apart from the means taken to reposess the land and the political elitism involved in its re-disbursement, the idea of deep and widespread land reform enjoyed broad support in Zimbabwe. It still does, even as many call for corrections to the messy way it was carried out.

There are many lessons in Zimbabwe's experience for African countries that are hoping that the new land lease deals will represent a great leap forward for their economies. Among those lessons are that economic gains (if they materialise in these cases) will not wipe out long-term social and cultural resentments from implementing the leases insensitively.

Communities dispossessed and relocated by force, only to 'benefit' in a few low-wage jobs will harbor ill-will against their governments and the foreigners for a long time, ready to strike back whenever an opportunity presents itself. Even where the deals are structured in ways that will bring benefits, starting off in ways that breed long-term resentment (such as forcible dislocation) can have negative consequences decades down the road.

No matter how glitteringly prosperous Zimbabwe at one time looked, it was always sitting on a time bomb because of the violence, exploitation and repression on which its 'sophisticated' agriculture was founded decades before. In 'good' times these factors may be muted, but in tough times in which political demagoguery also obtains, these are things that can blow up as they did in Zimbabwe.

It is astonishing that so many of the countries eagerly courting land foreign investors in ways seemingly guaranteed to cause local resentment are not paying more attention to what happened in Zimbabwe in order to benefit from the positives while trying to avoid the negatives.

Robert Mugabe's regime was bitterly criticised for its land reform methods, which seemed designed to be politically punitive as much as they were about 'correcting colonial imbalances.' But in its wake is a new system of land-holding slowly, tentatively taking shape. It would be ironic if in 10 or 20 years black Zimbabweans become the dominant commercial farmers in their country when people in other African countries are increasingly agitating for 'independence' from domination by the foreigners being given cheap land today.


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