Monday, June 15, 2009

Africa becomes wary of farm deals-land activist

By Wendell Roelf - CAPE TOWN, June 9 (Reuters)

African nations are becoming more cautious in selling farmland to foreign investors, with governments paying closer attention to deals that could lead to social unrest, a leading land activist said on Tuesday.

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.

However, 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. [ID:nLS816189]

"I think there is almost a de facto moratorium (on land purchases)," Namanga Ngongi, president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), told Reuters on the sidelines of food security seminar in Cape Town.

Ngongi said foreign-funded AGRA, which aims to ease poverty by focussing on food security and access to markets, supported investment -- as long as it was mutually beneficial and not one-sided.

"There is a lot more reflection going on ... It is something that every country should weigh because governments are sitting on a box of dynamite if they take decisions likely to cause upheaval in their countries," Ngongi said.

He said 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 (6.2 million acres) of farmland in five sub-Saharan African countries. [ID:nLP708175]

"If in the future Africa can become a bread basket of the world, why not ? But it is not that we in Africa should be starving while we are putting food on ships to other parts of the world," he said.

Large-scale farmland purchases by China and oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar increased fears of food security in Africa, where nearly all countries are net food importers and soaring prices last year caused violent protests.

Andrew Daudi, Malawi's permanent secretary for agriculture and food security, said the poor southern African country was cautiously mulling a land deal involving China and Djibouti.

He told Reuters that investors can come so long as they benefit Malawi's foreign exchange reserves.

He said the Malawian government was considering a bid by both countries to each grow crops on 50,000 hectares.