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The Corporate Scramble for Africa

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Judging simply by its name, the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition sounds like a worthy initiative.

Just the kind of thing we should be spending international aid money on, you might think.

But look just a little closer, and it becomes clear that the scheme, launched by the G8 governments along with the biggest global food and agriculture companies, has little to do with feeding undernourished people.

In fact, a new report from the World Development Movement suggests that the New Alliance, which is receiving £600 million from the UK’s aid budget, will actually increase poverty and inequality in Africa.

The myth of ‘growing more food’

The rhetoric being used to promote the New Alliance is all about growing more food. But the myth that the solution to hunger is to grow more food has been busted many times over.

The world currently produces enough food to feed an estimated 12 billion people, yet of the current population of 7 billion, around one in seven people are chronically undernourished.

The experience in Africa itself is further testimony to the failure of rising production to solve the problem of hunger. Sub-Saharan Africa produced 10% more food per person in 2011 than in 1991. But the numbers of undernourished people rose by 40% in the same period.

Through the New Alliance, a handful of the world’s biggest food and agriculture companies have agreed to ‘invest’ in the ten African countries whose governments have so far signed up to the scheme: Ethiopia, Ghana, Tanzania, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Mozambique, Nigeria, Benin, Malawi and Senegal.

The great African land-grab unfolds

But in return, each of the African countries has had to agree to make major changes to their laws – all intended to make life easier for big business.

The reforms required of African countries will make it much easier for companies to get hold of large tracts of farmland. In Ethiopia for example, a scheme is being set up to fast-track investors’ access to land.

Like the European colonists of the 19th century, proponents of the expansion of agribusiness see Africa’s land as under-used and ripe for exploitation.

But much of the land being targeted is already home to people who grow crops or tend animals on it, or who depend on it for water, firewood, medicinal plants or hunting.

At least 56 million hectares of land have been sold or leased in Africa since 2001, and inevitably, the further transfer of land to multinational corporations will dispossess many people whose livelihoods rely on it.

Many big companies arrive with promises of jobs. But jobs that do materialise are often too few, and tend to transform family farmers into poorly paid wage labourers with little bargaining power, and few become available to women.

Restricting and privatising seeds

The New Alliance is also privatising seeds, in some countries demanding reforms that restrict small farmers’ ability both to save seeds from a crop to plant the following year and to exchange seeds among themselves.

Giant seed companies like Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont are big players in the New Alliance, and have pushed for new seed laws that will give farmers little choice but to buy seeds from them.

As well as making farmers pay for what they could previously grow and share with each other, reliance on corporate seed will reduce the genetic diversity that is crucial in helping small-scale farmers respond to a changing climate.

Fertilisers and pesticides

Seed companies are not the only ones with a product to sell to African farmers. The world’s biggest agrochemical company, Yara, wants to expand the market for its fertilisers.

As with seeds, reliance on agrochemicals puts farmers at risk of getting heavily into debt, especially since fertiliser degrades soil.

In India, reliance on chemical inputs has had tragic consequences, with a staggering quarter of a million farmers thought to have committed suicide in the 15 years to 2010 after getting into debt through buying agrochemicals.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the UN estimates that health problems from pesticide poisoning will have cost around US$90 billion between 2005 and 2020.

The colonial model resurfaces – exporting ‘cash crops’

While the opportunity for multinational companies to push patented seeds and agrochemicals to African farmers is part of the impetus for the New Alliance, the chance to export out of Africa is an even bigger draw.

Tellingly, the security of exports is prioritised over the needs of local people even in the official agreements signed by each country.

Tanzania, for example, has made a commitment as part of its New Alliance agreement to reduce controls on the export of food, even at times of food shortage among its own population.

Such a policy can hardly be conceived as being intended to enhance the food security of Tanzanian people.

Connecting prime farmland to ports

Just as the colonialists of the 19th century justified their scramble for Africa by talking up the ports and railways they built, much is made of the infrastructure being constructed through the New Alliance and related schemes.

But just as it was in the 1880s, the clear purpose of today’s developments is to ship raw materials out of the continent. Several transnational ‘agricultural growth corridors’ – the brainchild of Yara – are under development, connecting prime agricultural land with coastal ports.

The drive to shift to an export economy is nothing new: in the past few decades the World Bank and the IMF has forced many of the world’s poorer countries to produce for export and open their markets to imports – with disastrous consequences.

When agriculture is geared to cash crops for export, countries have tended to become reliant on importing food to feed their people. As a result, when global grain prices skyrocket as they did in 2008, millions of people are left unable to buy enough imported food.

Despite the human cost, the New Alliance aims to further orient Africa’s food system towards export and away from producing food for local populations.

A different way

While there are likely to be some winners among African businesses and the biggest farmers, small-scale food producers across the continent will be big losers

They can see that the corporate take-over of their land, their seeds their countries’ laws will take away their control over their lives. And they are determined to defend themselves. As a coalition of farmers’ groups from east, west and central Africa declares,

“Family farming is the basis for modern food provision in Africa, today and tomorrow … Backed by appropriate research, supportive investments and adequate protection, it can out-perform industrial commodity production.”

Small producers feed at least 70% of Africa’s people, and they are demanding to be supported and valued as the experts they are.

A grievous abuse of UK ‘aid’ funds

The UK aid budget is intended to tackle poverty – not to create business opportunities for the world’s wealthiest and most powerful companies.

The UK government must end its support for the New Alliance, and instead help the small producers who feed most of Africa to keep control of their land and resources and produce food for local populations.

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Miriam Ross is a campaigner at the World Development Movement.

This article originally appeared in The Ecologist.

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