Land Acquisition – Nairobi Action Plan. Too little too late?

The issue of foreign acquisition of African land is a fraught one.  Driven by food, energy and climate challenges, investors from richer nations have been buying up huge swathes of African territory to grow bio-fuels, for the mining potential therein or, above all, to grow crops to feed their own people Now some of the worst affected African countries are trying, belatedly, to come up with a policy.

The Land Policy Initiative (LPI), a joint initiative of the African Development Bank (AfDB), African Union Commission (AUC) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) called a high level forum in early October.  It came up with the Nairobi Action plan.

Over the last 7 years, nearly 2.5m hectares worth of “approved land allocations” in five African countries, a joint study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) says.

Amongst other things the Nairobi plan aims to improve sharing of knowledge and develop a database of land-related information.  It also aims to establish “a monitoring and reporting mechanism for tracking large-scale land-based investments, and to ensure that these ventures are beneficial to national economic development and local communities.”

A US based think-tank, the Oakland Institute, warned back in late July that leasing of arable land in Ethiopia risked adding to the millions already needing food aid in the drought-struck Horn of Africa. Some 200,000 people are at risk of being displaced from land-grabbing, with at least 350,000 hectares of land leased since 2008 in south-west Ethiopia alone. Read the report here.

The Ethiopian government rejected the report and said the government was acting responsibly. Rights group Survival International however accused the authorities of intimidating local populations to leave their land.  A 2010 report said that by 2013, 3m hectares of idle land is expected to have been allotted – equivalent to more than one fifth of the current land under cultivation in the country.

Buyers of land in poorer nations come from countries like Britain, China, the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and South Korea, a World Bank report in 2010 said.

Ethiopia has little time for critics of its land-leasing policy, insisting the millions of dollars of foreign investment will create jobs, improve domestic agricultural expertise and reduce both poverty and the country’s chronic food insecurity, the UN’s humanitarian news agency, IRIN, reported.

A conference on foreign land acquisitions and their implications for trade, investment and development policies is to be held in Tanzania in late November.