Outsourcing food production or neocolonialism?

The BBC reports that South Korea has signed a large land deal with Tanzania to develop land for ‘processed goods’. Half the 1000 km2 will be developed for local farmers according to the report. This comes after a number of deals involving state-owned and private companies from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the US, UK and India. A good graphic accompanies an Economist article on the subject.

Whilst I don’t have  a problem with companies exploiting land for commercial farming in principal I have reservations about state actors buying up huge parcels of land. State agencies may well be inclined to exploit power-relationships and political-economic hegemony to reduce regulation, ignore local concerns and escape oversight. Workers rights, environmental protection and local food security could all be at risk, not to mention property rights, access to historical commons, and cultural practices. Monocultures are rarely smart and the introduction of foreign agricultural methods need to be carefully thought through.

A case in point in Sekab’s plan to purchase 400000 hectares of land in Tanzania for ethanol production. By my reckoning that is an area larger than 63*63 km. This is actually relatively small compared to some of the other land deals in the pipeline but in this case it is a Swedish company that is involved, and one that is mostly state owned. Colleagues of mine have listed their concerns (in Swedish) regarding the deal. These include a lack of transparency, particularly in the environment impact assessment, forced appropriation of local farmers’ land, and dubious carbon emission/green house gas benefits.

The common thread in all these reports is the lack of consultation at the regional and local level, poor communication and a near total absence of transparency and the prospect of weak regulation. These deals will have medium to long term consequences for the regions in which they inhabit. It would be a tragedy if the deals were allowed to go ahead for short term political gain only to further degrade the quality of life of populations that are already under privileged. In the case of the Sekab deal I invoke the law of unintended consequences. When George Bush boosted US domestic ethanol production using maize global food prices rocketed creating local shortages. Those promoting these vast deals should beware of the potential consequences for the countries they are dealing with but also their own, less efficient, small farmers.   

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