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Land Grabbing: Africa’s Latest Minefield 

By Divine Ntaryike Jr — Inhabitants of Adjap, a largely deprived hamlet nestled in the bowels of the tropical rainforests of southern Cameroon currently live life on the margins.

Over the years, the roughly 2,000 denizens have impotently watched their ancestral forest lands continually annexed by the Government and ceded to alien agribusinesses and logging companies. “Our ancestors settled here in 1903. We considered the land ours until 1947 when the colonial government suddenly seized it as private state property, arresting anyone cutting down trees for firewood or to build,” explained Adjap tribal chief, Marcellin Biang.

Alongside thousands of neighbors in seventeen abutting villages, the Adjap natives have eventually been squeezed into a tiny 14,000-hectare strip of land; a bare piece of the close to 50,000-hectar expanse they controlled under pre-colonial customary jurisprudence.
They complain their steady tenure rights erosion is spawning disastrous impacts on livelihoods.

A stone throw away in Akom I, Chieftain Luther Abessolo says his subjects are increasingly lazy as a result of the prevailing tenure insecurity.  “We live in utter uncertainty because the government can decide to seize our land at short-notice anytime.  Our people lack motivation to cultivate the land,” he said. 

Among the worst affected are some 32 aboriginal Bagyieli pygmies who have been dislodged from their natural forest habitats and constrained to survive as misfits in unfamiliar atypical village settings. “Before, we led normal lives, hunting and gathering medicinal plants for a living. But logging companies and agro-industries have destroyed the forests,” regretted pygmy community head, Martin Mba.

Yet, despite their despair, these people are comparably lucky. Initially, the government appropriated all of their lands for relocation to foreign investors. But three years of pressure masterminded by local NGO Cameroon Ecology, CAMECO, since 2006 resulted in the government backpedaling and ceding the portion of land they currently have limited rights over.

Southwest Case

Several hundred kilometers away in Cameroon’s Southwest it’s yet a sadder tale. Existence for some 14,000 villagers as well as numerous endangered floral and faunal species is under high risks of jeopardy. US-owned agribusiness, Herakles Farms is adamantly razing some 73,000 hectares of dense natural forests for a US$ 600 million oil palm plantation despite locals’ unwavering objection.

Locals protesting their sidelining from the venture negotiations have ended up behind bars.  Herakles officials reiterate the multinational has legitimately leased the land for 99 years.  But global environment watchdog, Greenpeace, reported in February that the less than 50 cents per acre per year tax to the government, the absence of a presidential decree authenticating the concession, pending lawsuits, flawed environmental impact assessments, among others, soaks the investment in contention.

The Herakles controversy is not Cameroon’s first though. Across the country, hostilities have frequently erupted between nationals and Chinese agribusinesses growing rice, maize and cassava exclusively for their home markets.

Findings from a research issued in March by Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) indicate that over 10 million of Cameroon’s estimated 22 million hectares of forest lands have already been committed to assorted concessions. The Washington DC-based non-profit global coalition working to advance forest land tenure reforms adds that some US$18 billion have been pipelined for investment in the agribusiness, forestry, mining and infrastructure sectors in Cameroon. 

Large-scale land acquisitions by foreign governments and investors, a phenomenon termed “land grabbing” by activists have steadily swollen across the developing world over the last decade.  The Land Matrix Partnership states that 227 million hectares of land have been grabbed worldwide since 2001. 

According to the World Bank 70 percent of the current demand for forest and arable land targets Sub-Saharan Africa with vast parcels of “cheap” and unoccupied terrains. As an example, Oxfam cites Liberia, which has sold off three-tenths of its territory to land grabbers in five years.
“Once seen as marginal, this issue has emerged as one of the development priorities of our different governments,” admits Cameroon’s Forestry and Wildlife Minister, Philip Ngole Ngwese.

Land grabbing peaked following the 2008 global food price spikes. Steadily, governments and venture capitalists from the opulent Gulf States and Asian tiger economies, the EU and US have been rushing to acquire large terrains in developing countries to grow and secure food supplies for their soaring populations and biofuels for expanding markets.

Advocates of the large-scale land transactions argue they bear potentials to dramatically improve local infrastructure and services, boost state tax revenues, create jobs, guarantee food and energy security for less developed countries. According to them, activists have been exaggerating the negative outcomes. A study of 18 recent land grabs in 10 African countries dubbed; “Social and Environmental Impacts of Agricultural Large-scale Land Acquisitions in Africa,” actually suggests a reporting prejudice. 

“The objective was to look at the actual consequences as opposed to predicted consequences.The vast majority of reports on land grabs are about predicted effects,” said Michael Richards, Natural Resources Economist with the UK-based Forest Trends. “So there could be a reporting bias in that many of these reports are put together by advocacy groups who want to show the negative effects.”

However, flurries of recent media reporting on the unfurling scramble for land generally continue to underscore instances of grotesque human rights violations and neocolonialist drifts. In sub-Saharan Africa, pre-colonial laws recognizing the land ownership rights of local communities and indigenous peoples have been progressively dumped as governments become absolute landlords, transferring ownership rights to foreigners.

Across West and Central Africa, an escalating number of poverty-stricken countryside men, women and children are being chased off ancestral lands they have relied on for ages for farming, grazing and hunting. They are increasingly squatters and low-paid laborers for the incoming foreign investors and even local elites.

“So when the government takes this land and gives it out in a lease for 40, 50 or up to 99 years, the people often lose access to these commons resources,” Richards noted.  “In some cases, they do allow access for the extraction of certain products. But in other cases, they put great fences which stop communities having access.” And that’s not all. He adds that land grabbers also usually obtain unlimited rights to water use, implying curtailed availability for downstream users.

The growing land tenure insecurity is spurring flaring fury from indigenes against their governments and the foreign investors. Experts warn of looming threats of hunger, stalled investments and political instability should the land deals continue to be shrouded in secrecy and corruption, lack of accountability and transparency, or negotiated without the informed consent of local communities.

Rights and Resources Initiative has been leading a worldwide crusade to reverse the trends. It’s been pressing for government forest land policy reforms that recognize and restore the land ownershiprights of local communities. It warns the tenure crisis is worst in Africa, where only 0.4 percent of forest land is owned by local people, as opposed to about 24 percent in Asia and Latin America.

In 2009, it summoned stakeholders from across the globe to rethink and propose better tenure rights governance for West and Central Africa at a conclave in Cameroon’s capital Yaoundé.  Participating government representatives, related sub-regional institutions, NGOs and the civil society declared their commitment to lobby and double forest land areas under community ownership by 2015.

First published in The Post print edition no 01424

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