New Internationalist

The smallholders’ last stand

May 2013

A visit to Mozambique dispels any notion that big business is going to ‘feed Africa’. Hazel Healy reports on a land rush in full swing.

By 7am work parties are already fanning out along the road’s edge. The people of Chiure district in rural Mozambique are setting out before the heat kicks in. Gangs of children stride along with hoes over their shoulders; women make slower progress with babies tied to their backs, balancing large bundles on their head, trailing toddlers with the free hand.

It’s hard to see where this stream of people is headed at first. Then, looking closer you see the rise and fall of dull metal, the flash of a headdress as small plots of maize appear in among the brush and waist-high grasses.

Hazel Healy
‘They'll have to kill us first’. The land of villagers in Kitica, Cabo Delgado province, is under threat from a local landgrabber. They pose with machete, hoe and a coil of homegrown tobacco, the trappings of home – and self defence. Hazel Healy

The lands of small-scale farmers like these are characterized as ‘under-used’. Since the state – which legally owns all territory – declared it had seven million hectares going spare, investors have snapped up 2.5 million. Mozambique has stayed in the ‘top 10 most targeted’ countries for large-scale deals ever since.

The tussle over resources is nothing new. But the speed at which large swathes of the Global South are being transferred into private hands has not been seen since colonial times.

The cast has changed. Modern day landgrabbers are a varied bunch: the Saudis want to raise poultry and grow grains in Sudan; forests in the Philippines are disappearing under Asia’s insatiable appetite for palm oil; the finance hubs of London and New York have bought into El Tejar, which farms 800,000 hectares in South America.1,2,3 Companies from rapidly growing India and South Africa are at the fore, alongside Western firms.

‘They will send us to places with poor soil. Then how will we live?’

While agricultural deals are happening all over the world from South Asia to Latin America, the most powerful ‘empty land myth’ centres on Africa. In Mozambique, where the global grab collides with explosive economic growth, the land rush is accelerating.

Green grabbing

In Chuire district, in the northern province of Cabo Delgado, investors are seeking agricultural land for everything from bananas to biofuels.

Sandrina Muaco, one of the six per cent of Mozambicans who live past 50, is smoking with her maize-husk roll-up turned lit side in – something of a trend in Maurunga village. She is one of 171 households displaced by a bevy of companies – both foreign and domestic – who have moved in on the fertile fields near the Lurio River.

Sandrina Muaco

Muaco’s six hectares of cashew trees were cleared to make way for Eco-Energia de Moçambique’s Ouroverde (Greengold) sugar processing plant.

‘We used to spend a week picking nuts every harvest,’ she recalls. ‘I would sell the cashews and make alcohol from the fruits. The land produced a lot.’

Villagers here, like 80 per cent of Mozambicans, rely on agriculture to survive. But Muaco wasn’t a subsistence farmer. Her plot was four times the size of the average land holding.

Eco-Energia – described by a land expert as ‘one of the better companies’ – paid $664 in compensation for Muaco’s trees and house, which was cleared to make way for the sugar cane plantation. But two years on, the money is long spent – on a new home, a sarong and the rental of an exhausted plot of land nearby where Muaco scratches out a living growing cassava and maize. She concludes: ‘I lost everything.’

The chair of Eco-Energia’s parent company is entrepreneurial Swede Per Carstedt, former CEO of Europe’s leading bioethanol importer SEKAB.4 He hopes to clean-up the polluting transport systems of the industrialized world via African fields in both Tanzania and Mozambique.

The Eco-Energia Ouroverde sugar factory, as yet unused, occupies the spot where Sandrina Muaco's cashew trees once grew.

Ouroverde has absorbed at least $1.3 million to date (50 per cent from the Dutch government’s private investment arm) and has rights to 1,000 hectares for the next 25 years.5 In the long term, Eco-Energia hopes to scale up to 30,000 hectares across the province, export organic sugar to Europe and distil bioethanol. It’s a prime example of what the Journal of Peasant Studies has defined as ‘green-grabbing – or ‘the appropriation of land and resources for environmental ends’.

In the dark

‘We were taken by surprise,’ says one widow, whose land has to sustain nine grandchildren. ‘The first we heard of it, we were told to go to our fields to get the large trees painted [for compensation].’ She blames the chef de aldea (lowest ranking government official) for signing away her cashew, banana and mango trees. She now rents a plot half a day’s walk from her house. Aching muscles mean she can only farm on alternate days. Other villagers claim that the compensation process lacked transparency and was haphazard, missing out some families altogether.

Eco-Energia responded by email that the compensation process is unfinished, and they have received no complaints through their grievance procedures. It also maintains that the principles of free, prior and informed consent were followed during an extensive consultation.

But despite the company’s efforts, the villagers did not know what they were getting into. Traditional leader, Martiño Silva thought the lease was for four years.

‘After independence we occupied the land. We farmed there. Then Monika came,’ he recalls, in reference to Monika Branks, Executive Director of Eco-Energia. ‘She said, “I want some land.” We agreed. We thought it would be a small area by the river. Then they said they needed more…’

The plantation has created jobs, but villagers say these are only ‘good for young men’.

‘It’s too risky for someone with children,’ says the widow. ‘Three days here, 25 days there. And it doesn’t leave you time to sow your own fields.’

Forest lost

Elsewhere in Chiure, villagers have lost access to valuable common resources. A German mining firm Graphite Kropfmühl has cordoned off forests around scores of exploration sites. From one day to the next, farmers were cut off from lean season staples such as wild tubers and beans, game like hares, guinea fowl and small deer, as well as firewood, bamboo and medicinal plants.

Meanwhile, the intense investor interest has sparked a speculative land rush by local élites. In nearby Kitica, villagers are under threat from a cattle rancher, who has tried to evict them by force, without the niceties of compensation. ‘We depend on our own strength to feed our children,’ says Laurinda Mitilage. ‘They will send us to places with poor soil. Then how will we live?’

Luis Muchanga from national peasant union UNAC likens the competition for land to a race. ‘Companies have a strong appetite,’ he says. ‘There’s a lot of them, chasing resources. Internally this sparks speculation, which goes beond the capacity of local government.’

The stories from Chiure are repeated in large-scale deals the world over. The land acquired was not ‘empty’, despite Mozambique’s low population density. Investors compete for land with local farming communities, who are pushed into marginal areas – women in particular, are losing out. Consultations, when they happen, are fraught with power imbalance and unequal access to information. The work generated on plantations is not sufficient – either in salary or security – to replace lost livelihoods; nor is compensation. Land activist Diamantino Nhampossa puts it bluntly: ‘The people are being cheated.’ Whether investors are motivated by the ‘will to improve’, the environment, or profit – or a mix of all three – the outcome can be equally catastrophic for the people forced off their land.6

White elephants

The free-market logic dictates that the eviction of farming communities is an unfortunate necessity – we need more productive farms to meet the world’s food requirements. Yet even the World Bank – an avid backer of large land deals – acknowledges that no research has given the green-light to large-scale agriculture in Africa.

No research has given the green-light to large-scale agriculture in Africa

In fact, there’s a pretty low success rate across the board. A land expert tells me that bar sugar, he is unaware of a single successful large-scale farm over 1,000 hectares in Mozambique – they have all gone bust.

But the poor track record has not stopped ever-bigger players from entering the ‘development’ fray. Last May, the group of G8 nations launched the ‘new alliance for food security and nutrition’, which proposes using giant agribusiness corporations such as Monsanto, to end hunger in Mozambique and five other countries. Writer Joe Hanlon notes the G8’s first act of charity was to subsidize grain giant Cargill to take over 40,000 hectares of Mozambican soil (they got 10,000).

Agribusiness presents these investments as ‘win-win’. But it’s a struggle to locate a single community that has benefited. Some outgrower schemes – where companies provide a guaranteed market for smallholders, after providing seeds and inputs – come in for cautious praise. But these work best as an alternative to large-scale land acquisitions, not in addition.

There are reams of practical ideas for how to make deals fairer through partnerships such as equity shares. But improvements remain the exception. As the UNDP pointed out in its 2012 Human Development Report: ‘Private investors naturally prioritize their own objectives, not the wellbeing of the poor and the vulnerable.’

Elsewhere in East Africa, there’s evidence that big farms even fail against their own yardstick of profitability. A recent study of the Awash valley in north-eastern Ethiopia found that economic returns earned by pastoralists were higher than those of the irrigated state farms for sugar and cotton, which displaced them.7

Ambivalent state

The Socialist origins of Mozambique’s ruling party FRELIMO incline it towards mechanized farms. But the government sends out mixed messages over large-scale investment. On the one hand, it’s enjoying being a development success after years of civil war and persistent poverty. Hailed as one of the African lions, it’s hell-bent on modernization and has an economy growing at seven per cent.

Yet it has also passed (in 1997) the most progressive community land rights law in Africa. It has been trying to row back from this high tide mark ever since and, in practice, rights are not enough to stop widespread dispossession. Politicians are also prone to staking claims to large tracts of lands themselves; companies enjoy a host of tax breaks and the land is almost free at just 40 cents rental per hectare.

On a district level, government officials are increasingly unhappy about investor-fuelled rural conflicts in places like Chiure. But Jacinto Tualufo, the head of the land surveying office in Maputo that processes land requests, confirms that applications are increasing in size and volume. ‘We must capitalize on this investment,’ he says. ‘If we are afraid of development, we will lose these opportunities’.

By selling rights to these resources, it’s hoped that wealth will trickle down even though there is little evidence of that to date. Mozambique’s GDP may be climbing upwards, but the poverty reduction rate has flatlined in recent years; rural poverty is increasing in some areas. Corruption is also on the rise. The acid test for the government at present is how it will manage resources – and mass community displacement – in the wake of the recent discovery of vast reserves of coal and gas. The contours of Cabo Delgado, for example, are now almost completely obscured by overlapping concessions. The second major threat is the ProSavana scheme.

ProSavana - Africa’s biggest land grab?

ProSavana is an ambitious project, inspired by the transformation of Brazil’s biodiverse cerrado grassland into what writer Fred Pearce has described as ‘the most unremitting commercialized monoculture on earth’. The Mozambican government initially offered a whopping 14 million hectares of tropical savannah, cutting through the middle of the Northern regions. It’s framed as win-win-win. Brazilian agribusiness will grow commodity crops for export to Japan. Mozambique gets some low-wage jobs and foreign currency.

But the land being targeted is also home to hundreds of thousands of farming families. Civil society has raised the alarm. The National Peasants Union (UNAC) predicts landlessness, social upheaval and environmental destruction; it is doing some tripartite mobilizing of its own, with social movements in both Brazil and Japan.

In response to strong criticism, ProSavana is stressing partnership with Mozambican smallholders. But it’s not clear how this will dovetail with the programme’s $2 billion investment fund for large-scale projects.

Will Mozambique emerge as industrial agriculture’s next frontier? ProSavana knows it will have problems pulling large plots of land together. But in the meantime, family farmers who live within the target zone are already being told to move.

Invest, but not like this

It’s not hard to see why Mozambique may be tempted to outsource its agriculture. Small-scale farming is not a runaway success. Some 35 per cent of people live in perpetual hunger. Farmers toil with hoes, and yields are the lowest in southern Africa. Despite its much-vaunted 36 million hectares of arable land, Mozambique is a net food importer.

But traditional farming needs to be given a chance. Smallholders have been ignored for 20 years – structural adjustment programmes imposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund saw to that. It would be easy to boost production with support for rural infrastructure and inputs. And there’s plenty of evidence that employment-intensive, small-scale commercial farming can be more productive as well as pro-poor.

Land grabs that uproot millions of smallholders – who grow 70 per cent of the world’s food – are a high-risk experiment that is inflicting great losses on the world’s poor.

Promised agribusiness jobs are failing to materialize, and industrialization to mop up the landless is an unlikely prospect.

Surrendering control over resources will not lead to development that benefits the poor. Instead, communities need investment and protection. At least we know that campaigns are beginning to bear fruit and have halted many a controversial deal.

Companies are pushing harder than ever before to access land and resources in the Majority World. It’s time to stop flirting with big business; it won’t deliver. We need to reverse the trend: secure land rights, invest in the family farms.

If not, the land crisis will deepen and conflicts proliferate; we will be in for a rough ride.

  1. ‘Joint investment firm to boost Saudi-Sudan links’, farmlandgrab.org

  2. ‘Philippines: Oil palm expansion is tearing apart indigenous peoples lives’, farmlandgrab.org

  3. GRAIN.org database

  4. SEKAB sold its African biofuel interests for $40 to former CEO Carstedt days before a scandal over a falsified environmental impact assessment in Tanzania scuppered a credit underwrite from the Swedish government, losing it $21 million. Per Carstedt owns Eco-Energia’s parent company EcoDevelopment, which is registered in tax haven Mauritius.

  5. Ouroverde Project details according to the Netherlands’ government: http://www.nin.tl/ZAKCNM

  6. Anthropologist Tania Murray Li coined the phrase ‘will to improve’, described by Derek Hall in Land as ‘the powerful obligation to intervene in people’s lives to make them better, and the belief one knows how to do it effectively’.
  7. ‘Counting the costs – replacing pastoralism with irrigated agriculture in the Awash Valley, north-eastern Ethiopia’, International Institute for Environment and Development (iied), 2013.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 462 This special report appeared in the land grabs issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.

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