Recently, the world has witnessed a colonial-like rush and scramble for farmlands in the global south by big multinational corporations from wealthy countries, a phenomenon that has steadily increased in its scale and intensity lately and that is labeled “land grabbing” by international media due to irregularities and corruption in the acquisition process.1 Since 2000, more than 1.7% of the global agricultural area has been of the subject of some form of land deal.2 Overriding global factors, such as the so-called Triple F-Crisis—Food Crisis, Fuel Crisis, and Financial Crisis—of 2007–2008, are now identified as the main drivers of global large-scale land grabbing.3 The growth of carbon markets is also increasingly being recognized as a further driver for global land grabbing; through the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) program, investors are now acquiring land for earning credits by not cultivating it.3 The EU-RED (European Union Renewable Energy Directive), which specifies that 10% of transport fuels be supplied by renewables by 2020, and the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard, with a mandate for annual production of 56.8 billion liters of ethanol from corn by 2015 and an additional 60.6 billion liters of biofuels from cellulosic crops by 2022, are two of the most important renewable energy directives playing significant roles in the global land rush.4 As a result of these combinations of factors, large-sized farms, with operational units often exceeding 10,000 ha, belonging to multinational corporations are becoming increasingly common in land-abundant countries.5 A World Bank report released in 2010 estimated that “agricultural investment” (World Bank's approximate euphemism for land grabbing) reached 45 million hectares in the years between 2002 and 2009.3
Alarmed by the scale and the intensity of the global land grabbing, social activists have been voicing their concerns over various issues, including (1) displacement of indigenous communities from their ancestral land, causing disruption in traditional livelihoods; (2) whether the envisaged job creation, technology transfer, and increasing local food supply will materialize, as most deals do not have legal provisions or codes of conduct to guarantee that produce will be used for local market; and finally, (3) the effect of proposed large-scale industrial farms on the environment.6
Such concerns are authentic and expected because many of the land deals and contracts currently being forged are focused on near-term commercial agricultural yields, with little or no provision for controlling and alleviating social and environmental externalities.7 Case studies on current land grabbing indicate many policy challenges: in particular, limited recognition of land rights, weak frameworks for consultation, neglect of environmental and social issues, failure to monitor and enforce agreements, and insufficient attention to checking economic and environmental feasibility.8
Ecological threats of land grabbing in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), however, are usually only noted as a side concern, and the emphasis remains on issues that are deemed politically urgent, such as food security, sovereignty, and land tenure security. This is despite different studies indicating that large-scale land grabbing entails substantial environmental threats.9 There is also a lack of information on the ecological effect of large-scale land investments in the global south, where greatest potential socioeconomic benefits and environmental damages may co-occur.10 Moreover, while there are options for reconciling agricultural productivity with environmental integrity, such as eco-agriculture, organic farming, and conservation agriculture, current agricultural investment in SSA is missing the basic tenets of ecological conservation right from the beginning of the projects.11
Therefore, the objective of this article is to elucidate and substantiate the specter of the inevitable ecological consequences of the large-scale land grabs and to recommend possible measures to avoid future unintended negative environmental externalities. To do so, the study depended on critical analysis of existing land grab data, practices, participating institutions, stakeholders, and policies, with a backdrop of the overall social and environmental challenges in Sub-Saharan Africa. Data from sources including the World Bank, Land Portal Database, and FAOSTAT are used. Recognizing that the reliability of data from these sources have been sources of contention among many, in this article recommendations on identification of speculative sources are strictly adhered to for including only cases that been officially reported and executed, while deals that are delayed, canceled, and unconfirmed are excluded from the analysis.12
The Multifaceted Environmental Threats of Land Grabbing in Sub-Saharan Africa
Farming and the Environment: Commercial Industrial Versus Small-Scale Subsistence
There is conflicting evidence with regard to the economic and ecological sustainability of small-scale versus large-scale industrial farming in developing countries. Large-scale mechanized farming has had relative success in Brazil through increased productivity, while in Asia small-scale farming based on green revolution technologies was generally a success.13 However, large-scale commercial farming in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) was generally unsuccessful.14 Stories of failure and mismanagement in large-scale commercial farming in SSA are plentiful, and commonly cited examples include failed large-scale commercial farming schemes in Tanzania, Nigeria, Uganda, and the Sudan.15
Even if large-scale agriculture is profitable, for instance, in terms of its labor productivity, at the farm level, existing evidence indicates that if market imperfections are solved and proper technical support is provided, small-scale farming is generally more productive, environmentally sustainable, and “multifunctional,” thus supporting diverse livelihoods and biodiversity.16 Yield advantages of small-scale polycultures over large-scale monocultures range from 20 to 60%.17 Ecologically based methods for agricultural production, predominantly used on small-scale farms, are far less energy-consumptive and release lower amounts of greenhouse gases (GHG) than industrial large-scale agriculture.18 Moreover, small farms, owing to their suitability to diverse eco-climatic ranges, are more climate resilient and biodiverse compared to large-scale monocultures.19 A comparison by Rudel et al. of the farming systems contributing to deforestation reveals that currently, high-capital commercial farmers destroy more forests than do small holder farmers.20
Despite what is argued in the preceding, most of the current large-scale land acquisition in SSA is intended for large-scale commercial, industrial farming for exporting commodities to the global market. This has therefore created legitimate apprehensiveness about the future environmental consequences. Agricultural expansion usually destroys natural habitats, with more than 55% of new agricultural land between 1980 and 2000 coming directly at the expense of intact forests and 20% from disturbed forests.21 Moreover, large-scale commercial farming uses genetically modified seeds, inorganic fertilizers, chemical pesticides and herbicides, and heavy machinery.22 According to Tilman, the doubling of agricultural food production through industrialization of agriculture during the 35 years prior to the new millennium was associated with a 6.87-fold increase in nitrogen fertilization and a 3.48-fold increase in phosphorus fertilization.23 In fewer than 50 years, agriculture has more than doubled the amount of phosphorus (P) and nitrogen (N) cycling in terrestrial systems.24 As indicated in Table 1, for the last two decades, SSA countries added 27 Mha, which is the largest expansion in the area of cultivated land compared to other world regions. According to landportal, 63.3% of farmland expansion in SSA (i.e., 16.9 Mha) is the result of increased investment on farmland between 2002 and 2009.25 Based on past experience of the impact of expansion in commercial farming, the current shift to large-scale farming within a very short time will be associated with increased use of agrochemicals, which have usually been observed to cause environmental problems such as eutrophication and air pollution. Moreover, in the rush to create more benefits out of land deals, regulations and codes of conduct on the use of chemicals in agriculture have been seriously overlooked. For example, 18 of the 96 insecticides/nematicides and 19 of the 105 fungicides imported and used by Ethiopia's booming floriculture industry are illegal or banned chemicals.26
Table 1. Recent Changes in the Size of Arable Land in Different Regions of the World
|Regions||Arable Land (Mha)|
|East Asia and Pacific||244.03||236.49||−7.54|
|Europe and Central Asia||344.41||333.75||−10.66|
|Latin America and Caribbean||142.49||149.55||7.06|
|Middle East and North Africa||54.4||54.59||0.19|
Source: Author's own calculations based on landportal25 and World Bank29 databases.
The new commercial agricultural land grabbing is expected to affect agro-biodiversity, as the commercial producers will focus on few highly productive varieties and species while discarding local races. As early as 1998, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) noted that some 75% of plant genetic diversity has been lost since the 1990s, as farmers worldwide have left their multiple local varieties and landraces for genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties.27 According to calculations based on the Grain database, out of the 12.6 Mha of land grabbed in SSA for known production objectives, from 2006 to 2012, 27.6% was devoted to cereal crops production, 17.24% to oil palm, 15.93% to general biofuel production, 11.45% to rice, 7.8% to beef production, 5.27% to sugar cane, 1.96% to cassava, and 1.7% to mixed farming.25 This entails a very limited agro-biodiversity compared to that of African smallholder agriculture known for its rich agro-biodiversity.28
The Scale of Land Grabbing in Sub-Saharan Africa and Expected Environmental Challenges
The scale of land grabbing in SSA is very huge, with 464 land investment projects, targeting 18 countries, and 48% of projects covering some two-thirds of the total area (39.7 Mha).29 The area of land leased or sold to investors in SSA between 2002 and 2009 is about 16.9 Mha, which is 34.62% of the overall global land grabbed during this time and represents 9.12% of total arable land.25 Calculations of executed land deals based on landportal25 and World Bank29 data revealed that SSA has by far the greatest number of projects and area of land involved compared to other regions of the world (Figure 1).30 The area of land under current deals in SSA is said to be equivalent to the agricultural land expansion that took place in the last 20 years in Africa.8 Future projections also indicate a continuing trend in the expansion of large-scale commercial farms in SSA, with an additional 6 Mha to be brought into production each year until 2030.31
Figure 1. Scale of land grabs in different regions of the world.
In many SSA countries land under some form of deal is comparable to, and sometimes larger than, the overall area of arable land in these countries, for example, 165% of total cultivated land in Liberia (Table 2). This indicates that natural habitats, forests, and hitherto uncultivated or uncultivable communal rangelands are being included in these land deals. Worldwide, about 24% of the land deals, representing 31% of the total surface of land acquisitions, are located in forested areas.2 In Ethiopia, large-scale investors (usually foreign) clear natural vegetation with machinery and then burn the cleared wood and debris, while small-scale local investors generally clear forest, convert it to charcoal, and carry out the illegal but lucrative business of charcoal selling.32 Therefore, if not guided by appropriate practices, the existing scale of land grabbing will lead to severe environmental and social problems.
Table 2. The Scale of Land Grabbing in SSA
|Region/Country||Country Land Area (Mha)||Country Arable Land Area (Mha)||Size of Land Grabbed|
|Mha||Percent of Total Global Land Grabbed||Percent of Country Land Area||Percent of Country Arable Land Area|
|Congo (Dem. Rep.)||226.71||6.70||0.24||0.50||0.11||3.64|
|Tanzania (Uni. Rep.)||88.28||10.00||1.12||2.28||1.26||11.15|
Source: Author's own calculations based on landportal25 and World Bank29 databases.
Land Grabbing and Water Grabbing Social and Environmental Threats
One of the reasons that SSA countries have been targeted in the global rush for agricultural land is because of the apparent abundance not only of land, but also of water to irrigate the land. However, water, despite being a central issue of land deals, is an often ignored component. In most cases, areas with abundant water supply have been targeted by land grabbers, so that, in fact, the global land grab is also equated with a “water grab.”33 Countries such as Saudi Arabia, formerly regarded as self-sufficient for wheat production, are aggressively involved in land grabbing in Africa because progressive depletion of their nonrenewable fossil water has forced them to look for alternative farms in apparently water-rich countries.34 The right of investors to access the water required to cultivate acquired land is embedded within land leases, but is seldom paid for.34 On average, current land grabs would increase water consumption in target countries worldwide by 12.7%, corresponding to an overall additional water resource consumption of 161.9 km3.2 For instance, a team of researchers from the Oakland Institute discovered that in land leasing agreements in Ethiopia there was no evidence of expressed limits on water use.32 Many investors interviewed by this team were unconcerned with water quantity, a type of view that led Ewing to suggest that large-scale land grabbing in the global south is tantamount to the export of “virtual water” from the host countries.36
Despite this presumption of excess water availability for irrigation farming, SSA has one of the lowest (10327 m3) per capita renewable internal freshwater resources compared to all other regions in the world, except for the Middle East and North Africa (Table 3). Similarly, SSA had the lowest annual freshwater withdrawals in 2009 (124 billion m3), compared to all other regions (Table 3). Apparently, however, this lower withdrawal rate has been used as a justification for land grabbing to improve the “water productivity” of SSA.35
Table 3. Water Resources and Agricultural Utilization by Regions of the World
|Region||Renewable Internal Fresh Water Resources in 2009||Annual Freshwater Withdrawals in 2009||Annual freshwater Withdrawals for Agriculture in 2009|
|Trillions of Cubic Meters||Per Capita (1000 m3)||Trillion m3||Percent of Total Resources||Trillion m3||Percent of Total Resources|
|Middle East and North Africa||0.23||0.37||0.31||83.35||0.21||68.62|
|Europe and Central Asia||5.67||18.48||0.56||3.02||0.19||33.56|
|East Asia and Pacific||10.10||23.37||1.09||4.68||0.77||70.61|
|Latin America and Caribbean||13.44||33.00||0.27||0.82||0.16||58.13|
Source: Author's own calculations based on the World Bank database.29
However, even without the inevitable water-related challenges posed by commercial agricultural expansion in SSA, millions of people in these countries are already suffering from water shortage. A United Nations (UN) report, “Water in a Changing World,” forecasts that half the world's population, mainly people from SSA countries, will be living in areas of acute water shortage by 2030.37 Therefore, owing to the fact that SSA countries already withdraw 62.33% of their annual water for agriculture (Table 3), emerging large-scale commercial industrial agriculture will be accompanied by a looming threat of water shortage. As the global climate changes, availability of water is likely to be an increasing constraint in many dryland parts of Africa, and priority in water use may prove a source of conflict. The presence of large corporate water users is likely to spark conflict among local community and investors, as has already been occurring around Lake Chad.38 Large-scale agricultural projects may exacerbate the problem of water shortage by further reducing the availability of groundwater and surface water not only for people but also for wild and domesticated animals.39
Most of the land grabbing in SSA is taking place on the best watered ecosystems, which are also the most biodiverse niches for humans and wildlife communities.40 Areas most sought after by investors are understandably those with relatively fertile land, proximity to transport infrastructure, good rainfall, and prospects of irrigation.41
Given that much of the Africa is projected to experience greater water scarcity, the impacts of land deals on highly watered areas, now and into the future, are critical areas for investigation.42 Not only will leasing and enclosing of highly watered areas deprive local communities of their right to use such resources, but fertilizer and pesticide contaminations from the intensive farming practices may result in negative health and sanitary consequences. A recent case of upstream water pollution affecting 45,000 local consumers in Tanzania, described by Arduino et al., is an example of this type of problem.43
The Ecological Paradox of the Biofuel Boost
Africa is said to have a huge potential for biofuel production, with 57% of all land deals and 63% of all land acquired in SSA devoted to biofuiel production.44 Of the land considered suitable for biofuels production in SSA (5.5 Mha), approximately half has already been allocated to foreign investors, largely in Mali, Ghana, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Madagascar.45
Much of the area required to achieve biofuel production mandates of the United States and European Union (EU) is made available by replacement of other land uses and conversion of hitherto uncultivated or uncultivable ecosystems. This causes enormous environmental and social problems that cannot be offset by the environmental benefit obtained by the use of biofuels elsewhere. For instance, Hein and Leemans indicated that biofuels at present consume around 2% of arable land, thus compromising future food production.46 In fact, in the 2008–2009 food crisis, approximately two-thirds of the increase in food prices was due to increased food demand and production issues in some places, while about one-third has been attributed to increased production for ethanol.47
The high profitability of biofuels farming also has emboldened land dealers to extend their deals to many biodiversity-rich areas, threatening biodiversity.48 For instance, expansion of oil palm plantations into forested areas in Malaysia has threatened bird and butterfly diversity.49 Similarly, the clearing of 7,100 ha of Uganda's Mabira forest for sugarcane is predicted to threaten 312 plant species, 287 butterfly species, and 199 bird species.50 Plans to cut down thousands of hectares of rainforest on two islands in Lake Victoria (Kalangala and Bugala), for conversion into a palm oil plantation, will have similar devastating effect on the biodiversity of these unique ecosystems.45 In Tanzania, 640,000 ha of forested areas, on which villagers depend for food and livestock grazing, has been allocated for biofuels production, threatening biodiversity and local livelihoods.51
Ecological and Water Footprint of Biofuels
Envisaged environmental benefits of utilizing biofuels compared to fossil fuels, such as improved soil conservation, improved energy gain, and improved reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide, provided an important impetus for moving forward with land grabbing for biofuel production.52 Biofuels were said to be capable of reducing the ecological foot print of energy production, by factors of between 8 and 16 if produced, processed, and consumed effectively.53 However, empirical data indicate that the overall process of biofuel production from growing the biofuel feed stock to processing may be less efficient in its energy utilization than the conventional use of fossil fuels.52 For example, a study by Searchinger et al. indicated that corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% saving, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years.54 According to Tilman et al., the net ecosystem carbon dioxide release of biofuels is 4.4 megagrams per hectare per year, which exceeds the 0.32 megagrams per hectare per year of fossil fuels.55 Moreover, if land that was formerly used for food production is converted into biofuel farms, as is increasingly happening all over SSA, then wild land elsewhere must be plowed to take up the slack in the world's food supply, resulting in an increased release of carbon from these natural habitats as they are cultivated for the first time.56 Caused by competition for land by the biofuel mandate, conversion of rainforests, peat lands, savannahs, or grasslands to produce food-crop-based biofuels in Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the United States created a “biofuel carbon debt” by releasing 17 to 420 times more carbon dioxide than the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions that these biofuels would provide by displacing fossil fuels.31
As a strategy for enhancing yields, the biofuel industry has a preference for genetically modified crops.57 Dependence on genetically modified crops will create risks mainly associated with the increased use of herbicides, affecting, for instance, soil microorganisms and birds, and increasing the risk of genetic contamination of local landraces.58 Second-generation biofuels, which are expected to be produced from enzymatic breakdown of lignocellulose feedstock, are likely to be highly dependent on genetic engineering technology to produce the necessary enzymes, thus increasing the risk of genetic contamination.59 Invasion of native vegetation by biofuel crops is a major concern for some feedstocks, particularly castor oil, Jatropha, Acacia, Pinus, Sorghum hale-pense, Arundo dona, Phalaris arundinacea, and Penisetum virgatum, which may threaten indigenous vegetation.60 There is now a growing concern that selecting and breeding biofuel crops for high resistance and productivity may result in the invasion of agricultural and natural landscapes by invasive weeds61: Several of the short-cycle woody plants that hold promise for second-generation biofuels are also known to be invasive.57
Biofuels have very high water consumption for irrigation and processing, so that the mandated boost in biofuel production may be limited by no other reason than water shortage.62 The average amount of water required per liter of fuel produced is higher for biofuels than any other process and is almost a thousand times that of the conventional oil and gas.54 A 100 million gallons per year conventional dry-mill ethanol plant typically uses 300 to 600 million gallons of water per year, with average water consumption currently approximately 4 gallons of water consumed per gallon of ethanol produced.63 Impacts in increasing GHG, genetic contamination, invasiveness, and depleting water resources are indicated in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Ecological externalities of biofuel production.
The Rhetoric of Underutilized Land and Its Ecological Repercussions
Land grabbing in SSA is usually justified by labeling the land sought for investment as “underutilized,” “unutilized,” “no man's land,” “fallow,” “free land,” “unproductive,” and even “savannah.”64 Areas with such “labels” are preferred targets for land grabbing, not only because ownership is often ambiguous (public, communal, or undetermined land), but also because, by virtue of not being utilized for intensive agriculture, these are the most fertile areas. As a trajectory of the colonial philosophy, in the Western investor's mind, Africa is perceived as underpopulated, ambiguously owned, underutilized, and as a “civilization void,”6 waiting, therefore, for the investor to civilize it and make it productive.
Therefore, the agricultural corporate and local governments diligently work to put as much land as possible into the labeling and nomenclature just described. In Ethiopia, for example, all land allocations recorded at the National Investment Promotion Agency are classified as involving “wastelands,” with no preexisting users. But in a country with a population of approximately 90 million, the vast majority living in rural areas, this formal classification is open to question. Indeed, shifting cultivation and dry-season grazing are widespread in these regions, but often are deliberately unacknowledged by officials in charge of leasing out land.65
The World Bank's “yield gap principle” also has the same roots as this labeling, as it tends to imply that there is a huge difference in the potential and realized yield in developing countries that can be improved through the right combination of inputs and management, thus in effect endorsing such land grabs.66 Similarly, the FAO Global Agro-ecological Assessment, based on satellite imagery, produced estimates for Sub-Saharan Africa of 807 million ha total cultivable land, of which only 197–227 million ha (24–28%) was under cultivation as of 1995–1996, implying that the remaining 70% was waiting to be cultivated. Estimates for future expansion are also based on similar labeling.67 Table 4 gives the World Bank estimate of the potential for large-scale commercial agricultural expansion, based on the suitability for different forms of commercial agriculture (e.g., food, biofuel, livestock, etc.) and the density of human population as an indicator of “openness of an area.” As a result, the estimation of agricultural potential includes habitats that have never been cultivated throughout history, such as rangelands and forests. Such labeling resulted in 30–40% of remaining forest in Central Africa being under concession.68
Table 4. World Bank's Estimates of Land Suitable for Commercial Agriculture Investment
|Countries/Regions||Total (Mha)||Forest (Mha)||Cultivated (Mha)||Suitable Noncropped, Nonprotected (Mha)|
|<25/ km2||<25/ km2||<10/ km2||<5/ km2||Total||Percent of Total Area||Percent Cultivated|
|Central African Republic||62.02||23.50||1.88||4.36||7.94||6.90||5.57||20.40||32.90||1085.84|
|Congo. Dem. Rep.||23.28||147.86||14.74||75.76||22.50||14.76||8.41||45.67||196.16||309.84|
|Latin America and the Caribbean||2032.44||933.99||162.30||290.63||123.34||91.58||64.32||279.24||13.74||172.06|
|Eastern Europe and Central Asia||2469.52||885.53||251.81||140.03||52.39||29.97||18.21||100.56||4.07||39.94|
|East and South Asia||1932.94||493.76||445048||46.25||14.34||9.50||5.93||297.70||1.54||6.69|
|Middle East and North Africa||1166.12||18.34||74189||0.21||3.04||0.84||0.24||4.12||0.35||5.56|
|Rest of the world||3318.93||863.22||358876||13.47||50.97||45.69||41.10||137.76||4.15||38.39|
Source: Author's own calculations based on the World Bank database.29
One problem with such estimates is a lack of appreciation for the rotational resource utilization patterns of many nomadic and transhumant (seasonally migrating) people throughout Africa. These indigenous principles of natural resource utilization dictate that land be left aside to rest for some period of time from either grazing, cultivation, or collection in order to allow natural replenishment and regeneration.69 In many land deals, ignorance about and indifference to traditional and customary land tenure and utilization have resulted in displacement of local communities and disruption of livelihoods that are directly tied to the land.70 In Tanzania a large and overambitious project for producing wheat using intensive agriculture technology on more than 40,000 ha of most fertile prime grazing land has disrupted the rotational grazing system of the Barabaig pastoralists.71 In the Gambella and Benishangul regional states of Ethiopia, 45,000 and 90,000 households were relocated through resettlement and land investment displacements, resulting in a loss of traditional livelihood for more than 1 million people and enormous ecological pressure on newly resettled areas.32
Therefore, a sparsely populated expanse of land does not imply that it is worthless for the local communities. In fact, in most nomadic and transhumant communities, there is an established schedule and track of migration; thus any area will at one time or another be utilized by local consumers for a variety of purposes, including grazing, gathering, hunting, and rituals.72 Designating such areas as unused, and subsequently privatizing them, will not only result in natural resource depletion and degradation elsewhere, as local communities have to overutilize some other area to compensate for the lost resources, but will also aggravate local resource-based conflicts. For example, the historical animosity among three pastoral groups (Afar, Kereyu, Issa) and the overgrazing and degradation of rangeland in the lower Awash Valley in Ethiopia are the result of government appropriation of lower Awash grazing lands for the establishment of a sugar estate industry.73 A long-standing conflict between settled cultivators (the Pokomo) and pastoralists (Oromo and Wardei) in the Tana River Delta on Kenya's coast is also expected to be aggravated as large tracts of land over which both groups have struggled to gain control are now being leased out to investors.74
According to the World Bank “yield gap,” the land labeled suitable, “non-cropped,” and “non-protected” in SSA is 42% of the total such land in the world, indicating that SSA will be the most probable target for future land-grabbing. As indicated in Table 4, the largest noncropped, nonprotected areas with population densities of <25 people/km2 with in SSA are found in Sudan (10.1 Mha), Democratic Republic of Congo (4. 6 Mha), and Madagascar (3.4 Mha). Since the area of land under World Bank suitable labeling has been observed to be an important determinant of agricultural investment,8 these countries will be the most probable destinations for future land grabs. However, the ecological and social impact of further large-scale land acquisitions will be severe in countries with comparatively limited areas of land, such as Ethiopia and Ghana.44
With the exception of three countries (Ethiopia, Mali, and South Africa), the land considered suitable for further expansion of commercial agriculture is greater than the size of the land already being cultivated, and in some cases, such as Central African Republic, Congo Republic, and Madagascar, it is thousands of times larger than the land already cultivated. This suggests that if this yield gap estimation of the World Bank is to be used for future land investment planning, an additional of 7.2% of global and 16.5% of SSA natural habitat will be converted to cultivation. This is equivalent to 63.15% of the overall global cultivated land and 189.19% of the cultivated land in SSA. Therefore, if arguments of underutilized land based on density of population are used, then in the coming few decades, the world should be braced for what can be called the largest land conversion in history, which may have devastating ecological and socioeconomic repercussions on the already poor and economically struggling nations of SSA.
Discussions and Recommendations
Global land grabbing is now understood not as a direct mechanistic result of the global food and fuel crisis, but as part of a vicious circle where climate change, energy security, and food security interact cyclically to result in a global scramble for land.75 It is also the result and manifestation of a neo-colonialist ideology that perceives Africa as a land to be “civilized” and utilized. Therefore, land grabbing should be dealt with as a consequence of global environmental challenges and economic inequality.
From the recipient governments' side, large-scale commercial investment is usually justified in terms of the capital injection, technology transfer, job creation, and, ultimately, alleviating food insecurity and fostering economic development. However, empirical evidence indicates that land grabbing further exacerbates in-country food insecurity and the potential suffering that results from the “natural resource curse.”76 Moreover, the envisaged benefits of large-scale agricultural commercialization, if any, are achieved at the expense of ecological integrity. This in turn may jeopardize the long-term sustainability of development. Agricultural and other development in SSA is very sensitive to environmental challenges. Therefore, arguments in favor of “development first, environment later”77 should be taken with caution since any underestimation of environmental impacts can create new obstacles to sustainable development.78
Even if increasing agricultural productivity and food security are to be achieved through large-scale agricultural investment, boosting productivity can sometimes be only ephemeral, with no ecological and economic sustainability. If past experiences elsewhere can be used as a prognosis for the future of the similar practices in SSA, it should be noted that Brazil's seemingly successful expansion in agricultural production was at the expense of tropical forests, with negative social and environmental impacts.79
Against the backdrop of climate change, demand for alternative fuel, and global population growth, the demand for new agricultural land and thus land grabbing will probably grow in the future. Global food demand is likely to double in the first half of the 21st century.80 This rapidly growing demand can be satisfied by expanding the agricultural acreage or by increasing productivity per acreage. From the 1960s to the 1980s, about 80% of global food production growth was the result of productivity growth and the remaining 20% was accounted for by expanding the area under production.80 Therefore, an important challenge in the future will be to continue such increase in food production without expansion into natural habitats. Increasing productivity of agricultural food commodities can reduce the expected negative economic and environmental externalities. For instance, an increase in productivity of just 0.3% per annum for major crops could reduce the European Union's net land grabs investment by 5.3 million hectares.81 Therefore, finding the means to increase and sustain productivity on already-cultivated land would spare natural habitats in SSA.
Considering the commercial incentives and mandates in the developed world, biofuel will continue to be an important driver of future land grabbing. If planned and executed properly, to mitigate its negative environmental externalities, biofuel farming can be a potential opportunity to reduce GHG emissions and rehabilitate degraded areas in SSA, while at the same time contributing toward building the commercial agricultural economy. Some initial analyses on the global potential of degraded lands suggest that they could meet meaningful levels of current global demand for liquid transportation fuels.55,82
Currently, apart from the rhetoric and propaganda of job creation, technology transfer, and alleviating food insecurity, there are no proactive policy involvements to alleviate possible social and environmental externalities of large-scale land deals in SSA. After reviewing around 1500 peer reviewed research papers on the biofuel industry, Ridley et al.10 concluded that there is a lack of information on the environmental and ecological impact of the accelerated growth in the biofuel industry, especially in the SSA where the social and ecological impacts are expected to be pronounced. Therefore, the environmentally sensitive approach for SSA governments is to set in place mechanisms for undertaking site- and investment-specific impact assessment before allowing investors to embark on production. A move toward the use of other sources for biofuel can also be environmentally beneficial. Biofuels derived from low-input, high-diversity (LIHD) mixtures of native grassland perennials can provide 28.3% higher usable energy, greater greenhouse gas reductions, and less agrichemical pollution per hectare than can corn grain ethanol or soybean biodiesel.55
Therefore, SSA governments should consider leasing infertile and degraded wastelands and abandoned farmlands for investors that intend to produce biofuels. Governments and other actors involved in the land dealing should work to capitalize on the potential contribution of new land investments to food and energy security, the potential for second-generation biofuels to use agricultural residues. New mechanisms designed to assist smallholders in accessing inputs and integrating into global commodity chains, via international regulations such as the EU RED (European Union Renewable Energy Directives) and RFS2 (Renewable Fuel Standard program), should be encouraged. In doing so, the host governments not only obtain the much-sought-after cash and technology, but also will largely enhance the rehabilitation of abandoned or degraded areas.83
Strict adherence to recommendations of best practices can minimize the ecological and social externalities of large-scale land grabbing. Such recommendations and certifications include the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), Roundtable on Responsible Soy (RTRS), Bonsucro certification, and the Soy Moratorium initiative, to name the main ones.84
Specifically, state and civic actors in the SSA countries currently receiving the bulk of land deals should undertake measures on the following: (1) the need to strengthen and implement national and international legislative provisions, and project-specific codes of conduct that safeguard the environment85; (2) a requirement for commitments to infrastructure investment by the new landowners and compliance with sustainable land and water management76; (3) careful environmental impact assessments and monitoring in order to ensure sound and sustainable agricultural production practices that do not lead to the depletion of soils, the loss of critical biodiversity, increased greenhouse gas emissions, or the significant diversion of water from other human or environmental uses1,39,86; (4) implementation of the seventh principle of “The Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment” (RIA);87 and (5) giving environmental and social sustainability their proper weight. To prevent investments from generating negative externalities, areas not suitable for agricultural expansion need to be protected from encroachment, environmental policies should be clearly defined and adhered to, and social safeguards should be planned and executed,8 with (6) financial incentives/disincentives to promote desirable behavior by investors.48
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77. “'Indian Investment in Ethiopia May Double by 2015' Meles Says,” Business Weekly, 25 May 2011, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-05-25/india-investment-in-ethiopia-may-double-to-10-billion-by-2015-meles-says.html. Also, in a subtle admission of the inevitable disastrous consequences of his government's land leasing policy to the environment, while stressing that Ethiopia needs to feed its people at the expense of long-term environmental integrity, Ethiopia's late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, in an Interview with a journalist from Business Weekly, commented, “We don't want to appreciate the virgin beauty of our country while starving.”
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82. J. E. Campbell et al., “The Global Potential of Bioenergy on Abandoned Agriculture Lands,” Environmental Science & Technology 42, no. 15 (2008): 5791–94.
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84. G. Schouten et al., “Creating Legitimacy in Global Private Governance: The Case of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil,” Ecological Economics 70, no. 11 (2011): 1891–99. W. F. Laurance et al., “Improving the Performance of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil for Nature Conservation,” Conservation Biology 24, no. 2 (2010): 377–81. G. Schouten et al., “On the Deliberative Capacity of Private Multi-Stakeholder Governance: The Roundtables on Responsible Soy and Sustainable Palm Oil,” Ecological Economics 83 (2012): 42–50. P. T. Moura et al., “Collective Action and the Governance of Multistakeholder Initiatives: A Case Study of Bonsucro.” Journal on Chain and Network Science 12, no. 1 (2012): 13–24. “Soy Moratorium Reduces Plantings on New Deforestations to Less Than 1%” (São Paulo: Ministry of Environment, 2009).
85. “Creating Markets,” note 7. R. Meinzen-Dick et al., “Necessary Nua Nce: Toward a Code of Conduct in Foreign Land Deals,” in M. Kugelman and S. L. Levenstein, eds., Land Grab ? The Race for the World's Farmland (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2009), 69–84. N. E. Hultman et al., “Biofuels Investments in Tanzania: Policy Options for Sustainable Business Models,” Journal of Environment & Development 21, no. 3 (2012): 339–61. Also, one such regulation is the EU biofuel directive, which states that biofuels consumed in the EU have to comply with 35% GHG savings in 2009 and rising over time to 50% in 2017. This EU directive also puts restrictions on the types of land that may be converted to production of biofuels feedstock crops.
86. Meimzen-Dick et al., note 85. “'Land Grabbing' by Foreign Investors in Developing Countries: Risks and Opportunities, IFPRI Policy Brief” (Washington, D.C.: IFPRI, 2009). Also, For instance, Kartha (note 16) recommended a long list of questions be asked before embarking in any form of land deal: These questions include: Why is land currently not under intensive cultivation? What are the production constraints? How realistic is it that the injection of capital and knowledge that the investors have to offer will spark sustainable production increases? Will there be land degradation over time, as when most tropical forests are cut for cultivation? If irrigation is brought in, does that take water away from local communities? Is the irrigation likely to be sustainable, or will it lead to salinization over the long term? Will farming practices reduce biodiversity?
87. The Seventh Principle of the Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment (RAI), proposed by the World Bank, FAO, UNCTAD, and IFAD, indicates that environmental impacts due to a project are quantified and measures taken to encourage sustainable resource use while minimizing the risk/magnitude of negative impacts and mitigating them. Regulation at the level (i.e., either local, national, or global) where externalities arise will be desirable to ensure that such goods, which may include local access to forest products, water, or soil quality, are not jeopardized. This will need to include impacts on natural resources that may be located far from the project site, such as river basin impacts or social dislocation resulting from the project causing deforestation elsewhere. Capacity to monitor will be particularly important due to the fact that such effects will materialize only in the course of project implementation and investors may renege on previous agreements.
Mulubrhan Balehegn is an assistant professor at the Department of Animal, Rangeland and Wildlife Sciences at Mekelle University, Ethiopia. His research interests include social and environmental sustainability among small holder pastoral and agrarian communities in sub-Saharan Africa.