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Africa’s subordinated position in global capitalism has made its agriculture vulnerable to imperialist land-grabbing, in which the West, not China, takes the lead, argues Dan Poulton

Lorenzo Cotula, The Great African Land Grab? Agricultural Investments and the Global Food System (Zed Books 2013), x, 238pp.

Today’s land grab is rooted in the colonial past. Cotula views the land grabs in terms of large-scale farming versus small-scale farming (Cotula, p.4). This is located in the context of a global land grab (p.6), and has to be understood in terms of ‘structural factors’ rather than simply naked greed on the part of investors (p.7). The author strives to take an ‘open minded’ approach to his subject, whereas Stefano Liberti, in Land Grabbing: Journeys in the New Colonialism, takes a harder approach. Nevertheless, Cotula still draws the conclusions that the negatives far outweigh the positives, based on his assessment of the empirical data available to him (Cotula, p.7).

Historical inequalities from the colonial era, when Africa wascommodity-supplier to the rest of the world, demarcate the balance of power in the current scramble for Africa’s land. Millions of hectares of land were acquired by European colonialists from the 1900s until independence (p.8). They saw Africa as a rich source of raw materials to fuel their industrial revolution. The resulting inequalities are still present in the developed world’s relationship to the continent today.

Despite much talk of China’s presence in Africa it is by far and away Western firms and companies that are leading the land rush (p.10). The growing involvement of Asian investors in Africa simply reflects ongoing shifts in the ‘balance of power’ of the global economy (p.11). One study found that ‘Europe and North America accounted respectively for 40 and 13 percent of all land acquired in Africa between 2005 and 2011.’ Over half of total land acquired in this period was acquired by western companies (p.67).

Liberti picks up on this too in Journeys In the New Colonialism, explaining that, despite much media hype to the contrary, China has a‘surprisingly low degree of involvement’ in the great land rush that began in 2008. Although China is very active in Africa, especially regarding the exploitation of raw materials and infrastructure, the Chinese have ‘kept a relatively low profile’ (Liberti, p.45). Despite a corporate presence in Sierra Leone, Zambia and Liberia, there appears to be no strategy of ‘controlled externalisation’ such as pursued by Saudi Arabia. It is not inconceivable that the so-called ‘Chinese invasion’ is a stereotype promoted by the west to detract from its own ambitions in its former colonial stomping ground.

It could be that China lacks the ‘sense of urgency’ of other land grabbers, with vast areas of cultivable land available to it within its own borders, and situated as it is much further away than a country like Saudi Arabia (p.47). China also takes advantage of painting itself as being unlike the other colonial powers, as when one West African official tells Liberti: ‘The Chinese listen to us, they make proposals but they let us decide. The Europeans, on the other hand, just want to dictate’ (p.48). One can speculate that this is partly a strategy of ingratiation by the Chinese state but perhaps more crucially, it is a function of China’s relative economic strength (its purchasing power so to speak) versus its military weakness.

Legal theft and collusion

In The Great Africa Land Grab,Cotula spies a disconnect between government policy and the aspirations of local people, explaining that ‘lopsided’ laws enable ‘secure transnational investment flows’, rather than allowing ordinary people to benefit from land deals (Cotula, p.12). Sadly we get disappointing solutions proposed here: the law, we are told, needs strengthening and local groups need to be empowered. This is all hard to disagree with but nonetheless, these are solutions destined no doubt to fall on deaf ears. Calls for ‘placing people at the centre of investment processes’ ring ineffective in the context of such stacked odds (p.14).

By and large the local peoples of Africa are the losers, whereas their tribal leaders and local ruling classes have frequently colluded with imperialism at the expense of ordinary people. Small farmers and peasants are afforded very little legal protection, and where they are, the economic forces of land deals override most formal protections (p.13). The land rush confirms Africa’s integration into the global capitalist system (p.19).

In the independence era, centralised African states facilitated outside investment (p.22) in an era which saw pseudo-Marxist one-party states dominate, facilitating the post-colonial phase of land grabbing. Notions of collectivisation and capitalist notions of ‘the big push’ emphasised state intervention in economic development as the facilitation of rapidly globalising capital (p.23). This convergence of ‘Marxist’ and conventional capitalist ideology is in marked contrast to today’s neoliberal moment. State-driven capitalism began to phase into the more familiar free-market fundamentalism of today in the late 1980s, as the state-focused approach began to be replaced by a focus on the integration of market forces, and the mandatory ‘transitions’ to multi-party democracy (p.24). For all the justification of land grabs as attempts to feed the world, Cotula reveals that in fact bio-fuels account for 66% of land acquisitions in Africa between 2000 and 2011 (p.67).


Finance is another reason that Westerners are the top investors in land grabbing (p.69). In early 2012, sixty-six funds were investing in farmland with an estimated $14 billion; a figure expected to double or even treble by 2015 (p.69). One investor puts the business case for investing in Africa’s land in epic terms, citing parallels with the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. The US is in decline, China is on the rise and investment in Africa is the future (p.70).

From the early eighties to the early 2000s food prices were in decline, while the development of productive techniques, the increasing concentration in the retail sector creating economies of scale, new ‘frontiers’ of agriculture opening up, and increased trade all worked together to reinforce low prices. Low prices put off investors who wanted easy returns, but then the food price hike of 2008 saw prices double from their 2003 levels. Prices dropped again during the recession but are forecast to rise in the medium and long term. This would mean an increase in investment in farming again (p.71)

The land rush marks a significant shift towards large-scale farming argues Cotula. Profits can be made from land deals even if nothing productive is done with the land; such is its exchange value in itself. Indeed, according to a World Bank study, companies were acquiring larger areas of land than they could actually cultivate in order to ‘lock in very favourable terms of land access and eliminate future competition.’ In many places the real value of land may in fact lie in what lies beneath it. Water rights acquired with land rights open the way to lucrative water privatisation contracts (p.75).

The benefits of large-scale farming for the profiteers can easily be demonstrated. A singlepalm oil procession plant can absorb produce from up to 70,000 hectares of land, and infrastructure costs such as roads and access, can only be profitably supplied by large projects (p.77). The net effect of the land rush is the growing concentration of power for big business. Farmers are constantly being squeezed by ‘downward pressures on their profit margins’, limiting their control over the farming process as they are forced to compete with large-scale competitors, or are even displaced outright ‘through the emergence of large-scale plantations’ (p.78).

Price spikes and riots

Price spikes following the 2008 crash caused riots in many African cities, with further price increases being met with demonstrations. Governments are aware of the deeper socio-economic roots of such unrest. Large-scale farming offers them greater food volumes at lower prices. Nonetheless, Cotula argues, large-scale farming has a poor track record on the continent. Any poverty reduction effects touted are undermined by the fact that large-scale farming is highly mechanised and so creates fewer jobs than less productive methods (p.83).

Again, the legal frameworks applied are one-sided. Mali’s mining code of 1999, to take one example, requires the consent of landholders for mining operations, but clarifies that, if consent cannot be secured, land can effectively be expropriated (p.92). A World Bank study revealed wide-spread compulsory acquisition of land, all justified by the spurious notion of the ‘national interest’. Compensation payments, when offered, often fail to restore livelihoods. Consultations are perfunctory at best, involve high levels of bureaucracy, and often exclude women (p.92).

Of an estimated 14,000 villages in Tanzania, only 850 have obtained certificates for their land under the Tanzania’s Land Act and Village Act 1999 (p.93).


Resistance from villagers in Africa has taken many forms: through courts and whatever democratic mechanisms may exist, and sometimes in the form of committees and associations organising collective actions.‘Farmer mobilization has proved particularly effective where rural producers are close together and well organised – for example, in large irrigation schemes. In Mali, where most deals are concentrated in the irrigable Office du Niger area, producer organisations convened a high-profile farmer forum in the village of Kolongo, at the epicentre of large-scale land acquisitions. The forum called for a halt to land deals in disputed areas’ (p.46).

Cotula ends with calls for us to question our ‘consumption patterns’ with apparent faith that reason could prevail with the right policy prescriptions. He does not provide the systemic solution that his structural observations seem to call for. Despite a wealth of empirical data painting a damning picture of land grabbing, Cotula is determined to keep an ‘open mind’. The trouble is he has all the facts but lacks a comprehensive theory to explain them. Far more partisan (and thus, I’d argue, more analytically clear) is Stefano Liberti’s book, part travelogue, part systemic critique.

Journeys in the New Colonialism

Stefano Liberti, Land Grabbing: Journeys in the New Colonialism (Verso 2013), xiv, 226pp.


In the 1990s Ethiopian strongman Meles Zenawi replaced the Derg regime of former ‘red dictator’ Mengistu Haile Mariam. However, the system of land control was left untouched, reinforcing the ‘disaster zone’ of starvation and poverty made famous by the Live Aid phenomena (Liberti, p.10-12). Anti-colonial feeling was high amongst the majority rural population (p.13).

Zenawi performed a ‘Jekyll and Hyde double role’; fighting against poverty and climate change on one hand and repressing all opponents and silencing dissent on the other (p.22). He became untouchable under western tutelage as ‘our man in the horn of Africa’ with a ‘rock solid’ power base cemented by opening up to Chinese investment, leading to the construction of streets, dams and other infrastructure projects. Thus:

‘The war for influence (and market control) between China and the western powers that is being fought throughout the continent, especially in those countries that produce raw materials, unquestionably strengthens the hand of many African governments.’

This created a win-win situation for Zenawi, who could boldly state, “We won’t accept criticism from anybody. If the western donors ever decide to leave, we will thank them for what they have done up to that point. But we will not be told what to do by alleged friends” (p.23).

Saudi Arabia

The west struck back following the OPEC-induced oil crisis of the early 1970s by threatening to use the ‘food weapon’ and cut off imports. The Saudi government, heavily reliant on imports, decided to boost its food security by engineering an expensive irrigation system, creating massive green sites in the desert by drilling deep underground, all funded by petrodollars (p.42).

The project attained some success but nonetheless, by 2008 the county was reliant on importing 880,000 tons of wheat. Its problem is this: Saudi Arabia has a population of six million, projected to rise to 39 million by 2035. How can this ‘kingdom of the desert’ provide food security for its expanding population ‘and for the millions of immigrants living within its borders?’ Liberti asks (p.43).

As the Saudi’s have much at stake in the new land grab, we’ll let them describe for us the essential dynamic at work in this global process: ‘on the one hand there is an abundance of land, water and labour; on the other a surplus of capital.’ Thus spoke their vice minister for agriculture, adding that, ‘this is an old phenomenon. The Gulf States are only doing now what the Europeans have done for years’ (p.53).

The land grab is ostensibly a buyer’s market, as illustrated by an incredible sequence in the book when a series of speakers get up at a conference to offer their land for sale …to the lowest bidder! The first offers land at one dollar per hectare, the second offers their land for 75 – dropping to 50 – cents per hectare. But even this bargain offer is scuppered by the third speaker who solemnly pronounces that, ‘for a period to be defined, we will give them [the so-called bidder] the land completely free of charge’ (pp.55-7).

Economics is, of course, a great leveller. One Saudi agro-fuel merchant confides to Liberti that: ‘If the opportunity was a good one, I would even go to cultivate land in Israel. Business is business, my friend.’ He is, he confesses, ignorant about agro-fuels: “I just want to make money” (p.64). Such business acumen notwithstanding, Saudi is, the author predicts, ‘going to end up sucking in millions of hectares of farmable land in Africa’ (p.76).


The Congo is being converted into a monoculture of jatropha and palm oil behind the backs of its citizens. There is a widespread assumption that monocultures signify that ‘modernity and development have arrived’, but monocultures rob farmers of their land, reduce biodiversity and drastically transform the land (p.78).

Liberti’s close analysis of the effects of the land grabs on a diverse range of countries does not lose sight of the global nature of the phenomenon which is:

‘spread out on a planetary scale, with differing ramifications and links, and involves groups and institutions which up until recently were light years away from the simple idea of dedicating themselves to agriculture and the exploitation of land. The protagonists are not only cash-rich governments concerned about increases in the prices of basic foodstuffs, such as the Saudis. Other entities have also become key players in the race for land: speculative funds, large multinationals, pension funds’ (p.79).

Since 2007 foreign groups have acquired at least 45 million hectares of land, an area only slightly smaller than Spain, according to the NGO Grain. Even this is likely to be an underestimate (p.80).

This process has required global institutional backing. The World Bank has often served ‘as a battering ram used by the wealthy countries to enact their policies in poorer ones’ (p.85). Land deals undermine food sovereignty of countries ‘that have given away their land’: ‘Caught up in these contradictions, the global organisations adopt a strategy of conditional approval, which often gives the impression that they are insisting that black is white.’ Liberti here is referring to a World Bank document which sustained contradictory interpretations written about it in the media. Journalists were not getting it wrong: the text could be read in two starkly different ways, meaning that ‘the World Bank approves agricultural agreements’ whilst it at the same time ‘condemns them given that they put at risk small farmers’ access to land’ (p.86).

The World Bank’s RAI (Responsible Agricultural Investment) principles ‘define and give an air of continuity to their position: yes to investment, but in a responsible way. Develop, but for the common good. Produce on a large scale without interfering with access to land or water or with biodiversity. Principles which are all very appealing and laudable, but which in reality are not generally applied.’ As one World Bank official tells the author off record: “They are nice words. But the truth is that we provide the bread but nothing else to eat with it” (p.87).

Behind the land grab

“Dear friendsand colleagues, the harvest this year is going to be poor,” announces HighQuestPartners MD Hunt Stookey to ‘a hearty round of applause’ (p.99). The bad harvest will create shortages that will increase the price of corn, and thereby all products which use corn in their production, increasing profits. ‘These investors,’ writes Liberti, ‘who insist they want to feed the world, are delighted at the lack of food, because a lack of food is going to make them more money’ (p.99). ‘Feed the world’ arguments are also undermined by the reality that 60% of land acquired in the rush is used to grow agro-fuels, to which a World Bank study attributes three quarters of the food crisis (p.133).

“Explain to us then how we can make money with water!” cries one investor in one of the many conferences Liberti visits in his book. In most of the world water is a public good, comes the answer, “but the tendency is towards privatisation. Whoever succeeds in controlling the water reserves, by intercepting the tendencies of states to delegate services and distribution to private companies, is going to make a mountain of cash” (p.100).

Making shock waves

When the market crashed shares deflated, investors cut their losses and pulled out, turning to gold, silver and primary food goods. Grain futures went through the roof, causing price rises across the whole production line. Between 2006 and 2008, the price of grain and rice increased 136%/217% respectively on the world market, at one point rising by 150% in a couple of weeks. Basic food stuffs consumed by the poor, rice and bread for example, rose in many parts of world. Hunger riots broke out from Egypt to the Ivory Coast, from Haiti to the Philippines. It was from the Chicago Board of Trade that these shock waves emanated. But Liberti asks if speculation is solely to blame (p.121).

Land investments are essentially based on conservative risk assessments as one investor reveals: “Personally, I believe that the investment of the future isn’t in primary goods, but land …especially in countries where exploitation and production costs hardly anything.” Land investment is “safer and more lucrative” (p.142).


The processes described by Liberti are effectively the global ‘proletarianisation’ of farm labourers. Having heard the distressing stories of one family of Brazilian peasants, confined to a tiny patch of their land, Liberti notes, fatalistically but not implausibly:

‘I study the old man, the extended family around him, their lifeless expressions, their miserable cultivations, and can’t help thinking that theirs is a lost cause. The prevailing model is all around them: the vast plantations. They have no part to play in this model, apart from providing labour as day workers, an agricultural proletariat who no longer control their means of production. Defeat is certain and there is no appeal: this old man and his group are residuals of a world that is bound to disappear. Extensive plantation is modernity, and it will brush them away’ (p.146).

We can not, however, allow Liberti his fatalism. We must point out that, though extensive, the trend towards land is not a totalising process. Firstly, the land grab is driven by an, albeit distorted, process of growth in the capitalist system, as financial profits get re-invested into land. This process is uneven and subject to the twists and turns of our new crisis-laden era. A shift back towards commodities is not out of the question, indeed as the basis of capitalist production, land cannot be the answer to further growth in the long term.

Secondly, the land grab is just one element of capitalist adaption to systemic turmoil. It is also a largely western process. China, as we have seen earlier, has seemingly little interest in land grabbing and is soon to assume the mantle of world’s biggest economy. Liberti also assumes that the forces of global capitalism will win such an epic confrontation. Proletarianisation of farming allows the possibility of alliances being formed between proletarian peasants and small farmers. The fact that indigenous workers are being thrown together by global forces allows the possibility of collective resistance to such changes. Such are the fundamental contradictions of capitalist development.

The process of proletarianisation runs alongside the concentration of food production in the hands of powerful corporations. Soya, wheat, and corn, the bulk of the world’s basic food products, are owned by the ‘five sisters of soya’: the American firms Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland and Bunge, the French company Louis Dreyfuss, and the Brazilian company Avipal (p.146-7).

Whilst one Brazilian capitalist praises the very exploitative nature of the system as based on those that lounge in front of TVs in air conditioned rooms and those who “got to do the dirty work”, Europe ‘hides its exploitative practices behind hypocritical expressions such as “shared responsibility” and “development participation”. The world is a lot clearer here [in Brazil]. It’s black and white’ (p.153).

Resisting the land rush

The Movement of Landless Workers (MST) fought big battles for agrarian reform and occupied land. Its leader Stedile claims MST has liberated 14 million hectares of land and helped 370,000 families ‘to enforce their right to their land’ (p.162). He argues Brazil has entered a ‘diabolical alliance’ uniting three big sectors of international capital: oil companies, transnational companies and car manufacturers. A March 2007 agreement ‘was a green light for the safe entry of international capital into Brazil’, bringing over 14 billion dollars and building ethanol production plants owned by international corporations (p.164).

Big business and land rights militants represent two irreconcilably opposed models of agriculture which ‘offer no possibility of synthesis’ (p.166). Whilst living in separate ideological ‘universes’, these two opposed groups ‘live in the same world and are competing for a common resource – the land – which is increasingly scarce and becoming ever more valuable.’  These conflicts take place on a global scale and will ‘determine the kind of planet we will be living on over the course of the twenty-first century’ (p.167).

Liberti and Cotula have both (each in their own way) written important, comprehensive studies pertaining to a recent trend towards land acquisitions. Both highlight the financial crisis as a major shift away from commodities to land. Both reveal class inequalities at the heart of this process. Both provide historical context which lends depth to their contemporary analyses. Cotula’s measured, informed writing is in contrast to Liberti’s more acerbic, anecdotal style. Neither Liberti not Cotula call for any fundamental change. The processes Cotula describes, in his view, can be ameliorated by compromise, more inclusive policies, more attention to local details. Liberti sets the scene for an epic, geopolitical confrontation, but never quite throws his hat into the ring.

We can be grateful for two thoughtful and enlightening exposés of land grabbing. Clearly much work remains to be done to integrate an understanding of post-colonial capitalist relations to land into our picture of the finance-driven crisis we are confronted with. So too to as to how the ‘third’ world relates to the ‘first’. These two books perhaps begin to point us in that general direction.

Dan Poulton

Dan is a writer, broadcaster and campaigner.  His most recent documentary was The New Scramble For Africa and his documentaries have appeared regularly on the Islam Channel. He is an organiser for Counterfire and a regular contributor to Counterfire site.

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