It is often stated that the dark forces of colonialism and imperialism are a thing of the past. African nations have long achieved their independence and talk of remaining neocolonial and neoimperial designs on the continent is viewed as suspect, if not downright ‘outrageous.’ But upon closer examination of the various social, political, and economic developments that are happening not only in Africa but across the Global South, things do not appear as they seem. What people often forget is that history repeats itself again and again in new guises. Today we are faced with the forces of globalization and a global economic order dominated by neoliberalism. Terms such as free trade, free markets, and foreign direct investment have become normalized. These modern day terminologies might sound, look, and feel different than the awful ‘isms’ of the past, but in effect they breed the same systems of oppression and subjugation. These new manifestations of slavery, domination, and exploitation should not fool anyone.
One instance of this that has not caused nearly enough outrage is the acquisition of large swaths of African land by foreign countries and multinational corporations. Seventy percent of those land grabs have occurred in Sub-Saharan Africa. Ever since the global economic collapse in 2007-2008 and the subsequent skyrocketing of food prices, rich investors have been urgently seeking to make profits and/or to secure cheap sources of agricultural land to meet rising demand for food. Africa, which has 60% of the globe’s unused arable land, has conveniently supplied that demand. In some cases it is not only about the scarcity of land but that of water. Saudi Arabia and India, two major purchasers of African land, have plenty of land but dwindling supplies of water. In some African countries the rate of land sold is alarming. Liberia, “sold off more than three tenths of its entire land mass in the last five years.” Although western countries are still heavily involved in this form of exploitation an interesting dimension of the land grabs is that many buyers are from developing regions such as Asia. For example, a megaproject jointly run by Brazilian and Japanese governments is feared to displace millions of peasant farmers in Mozambique.
In an effort to highlight the nuances and complexities of this issue, it is important to note that these transactions are directly approved, and even enthusiastically so, by African governments desperate for investment and to compete in global markets. Many of these said governments are also corrupt and mainly concerned with the profits such underhanded deals could yield. As this Channel 4 piece illustrates well with the case of Ethiopia, the government lacks capital and technology to develop its lands and thus leases it to multinationals who will do a far better job. These foreign companies insist that they are helping African countries achieve self-sufficiency by creating jobs, increasing exports, and introducing high-tech agricultural tools. This method of development is said to ensure that Africa is weaned off foreign aid.
The pros and cons might appear to balance out but the scores of villagers who have been evicted from their farmlands to make way for these companies beg to differ. As this BBC report indicates it is usually the poor, displaced local farmers who gain the least. There is rarely ever any consultation and collaboration with those whose lives are impacted by these deals. These investments are impoverishing rural farmers who are the drivers of local food systems. It has created, rather than alleviated poverty and dependency. Additionally these large scale agricultural projects are taking a heavy toll on the environment. Countries that have exhausted their own lands and water in unsustainable ways are now rushing to do the same in Africa. Finally land grabs are also said to have fuelled conflicts in the Congo and South Sudan. Oxfam has released a report and launched a campaign against land grabs because it has been shown to threaten food security and violate human rights.
Unfortunately the exploitation of Africa continues unabated due to a confluence of external and internal factors: Poverty, corrupt governments, a hostile global economic order, profit-crazed corporations and unequal balance of power. The loss of human dignity, life and the environment disproportionally outweigh any gains that may come from foreign land investments. As Dr. Alex Awiti put it: “The ecological and social costs of foreign led commercial agriculture are socialized while the benefits are privatized by big industry.” The way out of this disaster is to elect honest governments that cultivate, not dispossess, their local farmers. Production and consumption of goods should be localized and not commodified. African governments and civil society must start recognizing exploitation in all its guises and resist it.