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’,

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

  3. 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:

  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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  1. #1 Tom Muddimer 09 May 13

    There is not one piece of research that looks at land-grab with socio-economic baseline data so a comparison can be done before and after the implementation of a land deal. I've done a systematic review of all existing research and there is not a single piece of primary research that uses baseline data. Very few pieces of research mention any positive socio-economic impacts.

    Most of the land deal databases are based on very tenuous research, media reports etc. For some countries, land-deals total more than a country's land-mass.

    Smallholders are a highly heterogenous socio-economic category. Many of the poorest smallholders and especially those landless rely on returns from wage-labour for a major part of their income, yet poverty reduction strategies rarely consider the those that provide the wage-labour on smallholder farms. There are fewer studies still that provide a systematic comparison of wage-rates and working conditions for agricultural workers in different forms of production, i.e. smallholder, plantation, Fair Trade. Research in the Department of Development Studies as SOAS is unique in this respect -

    'Land-grab' too is incredibly heterogenous and cannot be aggregated into a single movement or trend. It's easy to fall prey to dichotomies (small farms vs. large farms, family farming vs. capitalist farming, locals vs. outsiders, subsistence vs. market-oriented, etc.). There is an urgent need for methodologically clear and sound research on the socio-economic impact of land-grab, most to date is based on 'loose canon interviews' where politically hot actors are sought, for example an investor and a displaced farmer.

  2. #2 Hazel Healy 14 May 13

    Hi Tom, Thanks for your comment.
    I found a growing body of research out there that uses concrete, comparable data, though it is definitely in its early days.
    I can recommend a good baseline data comparison within this report 'Social and Environmental Impacts of Agricultural Large-Scale Land Acquisitions in Africa' from the Rights and Resources Institute:
    There's also a very good case study on the impact of a sugar plantation on single mothers in this report, 'Pressures on land in sub-saharan africa:social differentiation and societal resPonses'.
    In fact this research - as the title suggests - is particularly good at detailing the differentiated impact that you point to. My article also makes the point that young men benefit from wage labour while women have lost their land.
    It's worthwhile bearing in mind that beyond the nuanced research terms and categorizations, land grabs or 'large-scale land deals' are sold as blanket 'good news' for communities on the ground, particularly by the private sector actors who are implementing them, often with Western government support and the blessing of national governments. There's a job to be done to disprove this, when people with no safety net are, quite simply, losing everything they have.
    If there were examples of major land acquisitions that were largely beneficial to the people who used to farm the land that is taken, then believe me you would be reading them - there aren't any, atleast not in Mozambique.
    A huge amount of work needs to be done to show this and strengthen peasant farmers' ability to negotiate these deals if they are to have any chance of benefiting from what amounts to the appropropriation of land and resources by powerful sources of capital - be that foreign or domestic.

  3. #3 Tom Muddimer 20 May 13

    Thanks for your reply, sorry I didn't get back to you sooner.

    In the case of Mozambique, the articles listed below may be of interest, if you haven't already come across them that is. The gender focus in a couple of them may be of particular interest.

    I will take a look at the sources in 'Pressures on land in sub-Saharan Africa: social differentiation and societal responses'. To date I have been unable to find any research that has some quantitative measure of socio-economic impact. There's a lot written on potential impact. The other article I was aware of. Methodologically, both articles can be classified as literature reviews, which may have some content based on primary research. The problem with a lot of the literature on land-grab is that any primary research in the literature reviews often becomes recycled into 'fact'. Issues with research methodologies are rarely brought to light.

    The article by the Rights and Resources Initiative cites a couple of studies from the Oakland Institute. Having methodologically reviewed their research on land-grab (none of which has a baseline), there are some serious methodological problems. Most is qualitative research, done quickly, based on a few interviews (with no justification of the actors chosen). There is little research that is rigorous enough to confidently talk about socio-economic impact.

    I don't doubt that there may be many cases where a land-deal has a negative socio-economic impact on some social groups, but there is a serious problem when 'land-grab' and contemporary land-deals are aggregated into a single trend with a single outcome. The heterogeneity of land-deals will invariably create a heterogeneous socio-economic reality that needs to be systematically investigated.

    You say that 'a huge amount of work needs to be done to show this and strengthen peasant farmers' ability to negotiate these deals if they are to have any chance of benefiting', but what initiatives are in force to improve the wages, working conditions and regularity of employment for those that provide wage-labour on smallholder farms? The research below sheds a lot of light on this.

  4. #4 Hazel 22 May 13

    You're right to raise that point about the need for organizing around the wages, working conditions and regularity of employment. That clearly needs to happen as well. I'll look up the SOAS resource you mention.

    People I spoke to in Mozambique didn't think that large scale land deals, in this case in forestry, would be viable without starvation wages.

    Both Rights and Resources and Ruth Hall et al refer to primary socio economic data in case studies included in the articles I mentioned above. They take it a step beyond the Oakland Institute publications.

    The point about heterogeneous socio-economic realities is a valid one.

    But I hold with Liz Alden Wily's view that at the core of this, is people losing rights to their customary lands with little or no compensation and no way near the levels of industrialization required to mop up the landless.

    The socio economic data I have seen shows that the benefits from wage labour do not come any where near compensating the loss, particularly if you take into account the non food resources that supplement farming income. It's pocket money.

    Besides, as some people in Kitica told me. 'We have some big farms here now. We can work if we want to. Don't take the land that we are farming.' This is about companies taking the best land from poor people and it's important not to lose sight of that.

  5. #5 Tom Muddimer 24 May 13

    It depends which socio-economic actors you're looking at in the first place. If you look at oral life-histories of a footloose labourer with a history of working for wages for a smallholder farmer and a plantation, the chances are both the wage-rate and and employment regularity will be improved in the latter. This also depends on the characteristics of the land deal in question (crop, technology, ecology, capital intensity, labour intensity), but often wage-labourers as a socio-economic group will have seen significant gains in terms of poverty reduction. This is a key socio-economic group that so little research addresses nor understands. The focus is usually on smallholders, and this goes for institutions from the World Bank to organisations like the IIED.

    I don't know if smallholders receive less as wage-labourers than as farmers. There isn't the evidence to back up this claim. Again, I suspect the reality is a heterogeneous one, gains for some, losses for others - depending on many factors. However, if you look at the key groups in terms of need for targeted poverty reduction strategies, footloose labour and widowed or landless women, they are likely to have made some significant gains from the decent forms of employment (in comparison to existing forms of wage and self-employment) found on large-scale/plantations farms.

    It is important not to see the situation in a binary. Both small-scale and large-scale farms exist and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. There is however an urgent need for some diversity in the labour market - which could even be said to be the driving force reproducing smallholder agriculture. By this I mean the investment of wages earned elsewhere by a smallholder into their own productive activities.

    You're right, there is a lack of employment in industry, or petty industry to be more accurate to the present. It could be argued that plantations and large-scale farms actually provide industrial-style forms of employment. There is however again a huge diversity in terms of strength of agro-industrial linkages throughout Africa. These are stronger in say, Ethiopia than say neighbouring Sudan.

    It's a big political question that needs to be addressed. What will happen to the footloose labour that is emerging through population growth, conflict, pressures on land, ecological degradation and so forth. It's a romantacisation to think that smallholder agriculture can address all these issues.

  6. #6 Hazel Healy 24 May 13

    In some ways I think you'll find we do not disagree - my point is that wage labour for some should not come at the expense of the livelihoods of people who subsist almost entirely off the land and who are not adequately compensated.
    Liz Daley is again good on the economics of wage labour vs. value of lost land.
    Regardless of whether there are groups - in the places I visited - of young people who benefit, those who lose their land should be properly compensated or given shares in the enterprise. They risk their land for the business, after all. And it belongs to them, legally, in Mozambique, even if a lack of power means this is hard to enforce.
    As for whether you can have both - Joe Hanlon thinks not. But he makes a more important point: the question is 'which model will lead to the biggest reduction of poverty and the best use of Mozambique's land?' He also gives examples of farmers supported by Bill Gates Foundation who had gone from family to commercial farms but were then evicted by a major land concession to Portuguese company Quifel.
    Smallholders who become commercial farmers can also employ people, in fact they employ many more people than large-scale mechanized farms. Good examples of this in Zimbabwe.
    This isn't about romanticizing peasant agriculture. It's about a) trying to stop unbalanced land deals and b)finding an agricultural strategy that works. I've yet to see the research that proves - with baseline socio-ecomonic data- that large-scale land deals that displace the locals reduce poverty. Meanwhile, landlessness is not a problem in Mozambique -- yet.
    Shall we leave it there? Thanks for your input, I enjoyed the debate!

  7. #7 Stephen Thornhill 05 Sep 16


    Reading through your discussion ...
    You may be interested in the following article recently published online in the Food Security journal.

    Household food security and biofuel feedstock production in rural Mozambique and Tanzania
    Food Security

    all the best

    Steve Thornhill

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