Editorial, and full issue

by GRAIN | 13 Dec 2010
For some time the huge African continent has been the new frontier for the global food industry. Billions of dollars are being mobilised by investors to take over farmland to produce for global markets, and billions more are being raised to create the infrastructure to take crops and agrofuels to these markets. The stage is being set for a massive transfer of land to a wealthy elite and to foreign investors. This will be a severe blow to the poor, who currently use this land to produce food in a sustainable way for local people. So much is at stake, and yet most African governments are falling over themselves to woo investors and to sell off their people’s land.
In this edition, which has a strong African focus, we look at the role of international agencies and foreign donors in facilitating the corporate takeover of land. One agency – the US government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) – figures time and again. Created in January 2004, it imposes on African countries something like an IMF structural adjustment programme, offering grants in return for far-reaching neo-liberal reforms, particularly the privatisation of land. We take a close look at its land projects in Mali, Ghana, Mozambique and Benin. 
This global takeover of the land is happening even though Africans themselves are perfectly capable of producing food efficiently and sustainably, without any need for investment or technical assistance from abroad. Take the drylands, which make up 43 per cent of Africa’s inhabited surface and are home to 40 per cent of the continent’s population. By far the most important activity on these semi-arid lands is pastoralism. A recent study, extracts of which we publish in this issue, shows that, given half a chance, pastoralists are resourceful, financially canny, and adept at developing new strategies for adapting to climate change. Moreover, they repeatedly attain higher rates of productivity than those achieved on modern ranches built on the Western model. 
Very often, all that is needed to recover damaged ecosystems and to improve livelihoods is the judicious application of traditional techniques, at times enhanced by modern insights. One remarkable example of what can be achieved is found in Zimbabwe, where herders at the Africa Centre for Holistic Management are using cattle to restore severely degraded land. They carefully manage the cattle so that they graze without overgrazing, which is just what grass plants need in order to thrive, and they fertilise particularly damaged areas with dung and urine. Through this process, they are restoring the health of the land, and, once this happens, the rivers begin to flow once again. The process is so successful that the cattle could be called “watershed cattle”. 
Further north, in Ethiopia, the Anuak people are angry with their government for encouraging foreign investors to buy up three million hectares of the country’s most fertile land. An Anuak leader says that the land is fertile because for centuries his people have treated it well, rotating crops and shifting cultivation to drier areas during the rainy season. He says that foreign investors are destroying the soils, and that the impact is particularly severe because climate change is already causing temperatures to rise in some regions. The Anuak people are being marginalised, he says, and their whole way of life is being undermined. He believes that it amounts to systematic genocide against the indigenous population. 
For all the setbacks, some advances are being made. Further south, in Kenya, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) has ruled that the Kenyan government violated the rights of the Endorois as an indigenous people when it evicted them from their land in the 1970s. It has decreed that the Endorois should not only be given back their ancestral land but also be paid compensation. It is a ruling that could benefit indigenous peoples all over Africa.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, in Mexico, indigenous groups and other farmers are also attempting to use the courts to right a wrong. They held a meeting in early March to bring together evidence in order to start proceedings in international courts of justice against the Mexican government for deliberately permitting the illegal and underhand introduction into the country of genetically modified (GM) maize. They also expressed their anger at the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) for holding a meeting in Mexico to promote biotechnology as “a solution to world hunger”. They say that, at the very least, the holding of this meeting displayed a crass lack of sensitivity to the deep struggle being waged in Mexico over the issue.
The editor
Author: GRAIN