Rice land grabs undermine food sovereignty in Africa
In the wake of the 2008 global food crisis, African capitals have been buzzing with renewed talk of the need for food self-sufficiency, and rice is often at the top of government agendas. Although everyone agrees on the need to increase production, the solutions coming out of the corridors of power boil down to the tired old formula of getting more fertilisers and “high-yielding” seeds to farmers. In the eyes of the decision-makers, this inevitably means either Chinese hybrid rice seeds or the Nerica rice seeds developed by the African Rice Centre, and backed by the most powerful donors and research institutes operating on the continent. The traditional knowledge and seeds of African farmers, which feed and provide livelihoods for the majority of people on the continent, are completely ignored.
Just as troubling, and not disconnected from this top-down seeds push, is a rush for control over Africa’s farm lands. While African governments proclaim their commitments to food self-sufficiency, behind the backs of their people they are signing an alarming number of deals with foreign investors that give these investors control over their countries’ most important agricultural lands, including rice lands.
Take Mali for example. Mali, like several other countries in West Africa, recently went from being a net rice exporter to being a major importer. Now the government has embarked on a multimillion-dollar national rice initiative that is supposed to restore self-sufficiency by helping the country’s farmers to produce more. Why then has the government handed over an enormous tract of prime rice land to a Libyan investment fund and Chinese companies?
A couple of years ago, on the sidelines of a summit of the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD) in Bamako, Mali’s President, Amadou Toumani Touré, offered up 100,000 ha of land within the Office du Niger, Mali’s main rice producing area. Libya, a country flush with petrodollars but lacking in its own food production, effectively runs CEN-SAD and it jumped at the chance. Through an arm of its sovereign wealth fund, the Libya Africa Investment Portfolio (LAP), Libya signed a deal with Mali giving Libya control over the 100,000 ha as part of a larger infrastructure investment project for the area that includes the enlargement of a canal and the improvement of a road. The project will begin with rice production and will eventually add tomato production and livestock.
Details of the how the project will operate are finally starting to emerge. LAP’s subsidiary in Bamako, Malibya, is responsible for managing the project. The infrastructure construction has been contracted to CGC, a Chinese company owned by China’s big oil corporation SINOPEC. Another, unnamed, Chinese firm has been contracted to supply Chinese hybrid rice seeds for the project and to train local experts, some of whom are already in China, on how to cultivate them. This unnamed company is likely to be China’s largest hybrid rice seed producer, Yuan Longping High-tech Agriculture, which already has extensive programmes in Africa and a similar CGC project for hybrid rice production in Nigeria.