Berlin - Sub-Saharan African countries have of late become the target of a new form of investment that is strongly reminiscent of colonialism: investors from both industrialised and emerging economies buy or lease large tracts of farm land across the continent, either to guarantee their own food provisions or simply as yet another business.
In doing so, investors even deal with warlords who claim property rights, as in Sudan.
Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and activists in Europe are denouncing this land grab in Egypt, Sudan, Cameroon, Senegal, Mozambique and elsewhere in Africa as a new form of colonialism.
Uwe Hoering, a German researcher on development policy for several European NGOs, including the news letter Weltwirtschaft und Entwicklung (World Economy and Development), called these investments "a new form of agrarian colonialism".
In an interview with IPS, Hoering said that the land grab in Africa became evident in 2008 as a consequence of the recent run to so-called bio fuels and the price inflation and scarcity of food.
Although the investments are also targeting fertile land in other areas of the world, sub-Saharan Africa appears to be these investors' main destination. The reasons are multiple.
On the one hand, "Africa possesses enormous land reserves,"
Hoering stated. "According to the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organisation, only about 14 percent of the suited land in the continent is presently cultivated."
In addition, he said, many African governments are willing to allow this land grab to happen in their territories.
A list of the land grab investments of 2008 have been put together by the Barcelona-based NGO GRAIN, based on corporate reports.
It confirms that several industrialised countries, like Japan and Sweden, rapidly growing developing nations, like China and India, and oil-rich countries, especially from the Arab Gulf, and even Libya, are buying large estates in Africa.
GRAIN is an international NGO committed to promoting sustainable management and use of agricultural biodiversity based on people's control over genetic resources and local knowledge.
GRAIN also lists multinational private investors, like the Blackstone Group, Deutsche Bank, Goldman & Sachs and Dexion Capital, as participating in the creation of these new agrarian enclaves in the heartlands of Africa.
Even private industrial conglomerates, such as the South Korean Daewoo, are also investing in land in Africa.
"In July 2008, Daewoo leased 1.3 million hectare in Madagascar, about the half of the island's territory, to cultivate maize and palm oil," Hoering said. "Daewoo paid a symbolic price for the land. Allegedly, as compensation for the land lease, it is going to invest in public infrastructure."
Unsurprisingly, the investors include the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the commercial investment arm of the World Bank.
In Sept 2008, the IFC announced that it would greatly increase investments in "agribusiness development" in Africa, and South American states and in Russia because of new private sector interest in generating profits from the food crisis.
Part of its spending will be to bring "under-utilised" lands into production. In 2008, the IFC spent 1.4 billion dollars in the agribusiness supply chain, of which 900 million dollars went directly to agribusiness firms.
GRAIN also reports that the Blackstone Group, one of the world's largest private equity firms in which China has recently bought a stake, "has already invested several hundred million dollars in the agricultural sector, mainly in buying farmland in areas like south of the Sahara".
For Hoering, the land grab in Africa by countries such as Japan, South Korea, China, and Libya serve to guarantee their own national food security. "After the recent speculation on the cereal and other food markets and the spectacular price hikes, these countries have lost confidence in the world market," Hoering explained.
"They now want to be independent from speculators and be able tot control production and secure food imports."
The recent spike in global commodity food prices has also encouraged foreign investors to scramble for control of arable land in Africa.
Obviously, private investors see in the land grab a business with likely high returns. For instance, the Cru Investment Management, a British, Cardiff-based private investor, forecasts earnings of 30 percent for its agricultural fund investing in Malawi.
Duncan Parker, a Cru spokesperson, has said that Africa offers many incentives to investments, such as a strong workforce and the potential to be a top world food producer thanks to its fertile soil and abundant water and sunshine.
However, whether Africans will profit from these investments is another matter altogether. The wave of investments in foreign agricultural enclaves has led to new abuses.
"The most scandalous case yet is that of the U.S. investment banker Philippe Heilberg, who closed a deal with Paulino Matip, a warlord in South Sudan, to lease 4,000 square kilometres," Hoering argued.
Matip is a notorious warlord who fought on both sides in Sudan's lengthy civil war. He is one of the profiteers of a dubious 2005 peace agreement, after which he became deputy commander of the army in the autonomous southern region.
Heilberg, now CEO of the New York-based investment fund Jarch Capital, previously worked for the now battered insurance company American International Group (AIG).
Heilberg has been quoted as saying that, in his view, several African states are likely to break apart in the coming years, and that the political and legal risks he is taking will be amply rewarded.
"If you bet right on the shifting of sovereignty then you are on the ground floor. I am constantly looking at the map and looking if there is any value," he told U.S. media.
While denouncing the scramble for land, human rights groups have called attention to the vagueness and imprecision of laws on land ownership in south Sudan. They cast doubt on foreign investors such as Heilberg being able to claim legal rights over such estates.
The deal, which became public last January but was closed last July, has prompted human rights groups to denounce Heilberg's venture in South Sudan as a cynical, neocolonial enterprise.
"This is a case that recalls the worse colonial land grabs in Africa," Hoering added.