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Stop land grabbing!

The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, launched at the G8 summit, is yet another business-driven initiative that will fail to tackle hunger or support food producers in Africa.

As a group of African civil society organisations and small farmers' groups said, it is neither new nor is it an alliance:

Donors have been taking steps to enable private sector investment in agriculture for decades, yet there are still a billion hungry people in the world. If the private sector is to play a productive role, there needs to be strong evidence that these kinds of partnerships can actually deliver for small-scale producers.

They point out that the last international initiative, the L’Aquila Food Security Initiative, ends in December but so far the G8 countries have met only between a fifth and a half of their commitments to new funding.

This new proposal focuses on developing financial instruments and large-scale infrastructure and research projects. It is all about making agriculture a major GDP contributor, rather than a sustainable and reliable means of food production.

A $3 billion corporate investment initiative, far from improving food security, will actually undermine the small to medium sized farmers who are the key to making local food markets function effectively. It will speed up the transfer of food out of the global south into already well stocked markets, and from rural areas and smaller village or town markets, into Africa's burgeoning cities.

Where it speaks of a "fast track for investment in infrastructure projects", that means initiatives such as a $2bn industrial fertiliser manufacturing plant, to be built by Yara International, plus regional fertiliser distribution hubs. It will be the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa. Pushing reliance on expensive artificial fertilisers will serve to undermine sustainable farming methods and this is particularly disastrous in areas where soil is already quite marginal. The new plant will probably be in Ethiopia; Yara already has plants in Egypt and Libya.

Also part of this new/old deal are "additional private investment" funds that are said to be the key to "increasing the range of financing options and innovative risk mitigation tools" available to small and medium-sized "agribusinesses". In other words, loans with strings attached that will pull more farmers into the treadmill of growing what the world, or at least regional rather than local, market needs in order to cover repayments. Expensive 'risk mitigation' insurance sounds like another round of mis-selling but this time on a global scale - the cost of insuring against drought, crop failure and civil disruption is always going to be beyond the pocket of small producers and the cover they can afford will be useless.

As part of the deal, 60 global companies have signed a "Private Sector Declaration of Support for African Agricultural Development". When you see the names on the list, it doesn't fill you with confidence. They include Cargill, Monsanto, Unilever, Kraft, Hershey, Mars, Pepsi, Du Pont and Diageo.

The programme is designed to align with the programme agreed by African leaders to 'drive effective country-led plans and policies for food security and nutrition', but it is this alignment that poses one of the biggest threats to small farmers. The commitment of African governments is to development through profit-driven growth (the only model on offer at present) and broadly speaking they see the application of external investment as the way forward. The role of the African Union is given great prominence in publicity about the New Alliance, but in reality the AU's pronouncements are a sustainable smokescreen behind which individual governments are going down the land-grabbing route.

That is why new voluntary guidelines adopted at the United Nations in the same week as the G8 will do nothing to prevent the expanding global takeover of African land, and the brutal eviction of subsistence and small farmers. As a report published by Via Campesina says the current land grab resembles the old colonialism, but is different because it is being carried out not by imperial powers but by global corporations and countries operating as global corporations through their sovereign wealth funds. Governments are facilitating the takeover of land by foreign powers and corporations, signing leases and effectively clearing their own people off commons and traditional ownership tenures.

The grandly titled Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests are not going to be of any interest to global traders who are shifting their money out of shares and into land and food production, as wheat prices soar again this year. As the Via Campesina report says:

Land ownership currently yields more than the three large investment groups of gold, the stock market and property business. It appears that in the case of land investments, the largest part of the wealth is distributed directly to capital. Therefore it is more a matter of theft than investment.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
24 May 2012

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