NEWS ANALYSIS: Survival Fear Stalks Millions in West Africa

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By Jerome Mwanda

NAIROBI - Massive leasing of lands, which the government of Mali justifies with the need to "modernize" the country's agriculture, is threatening the survival of populations dependent on the water flows of the Niger River in Mali and in the rest of West Africa, where over 100 million people depend on the waterway for their livelihoods, says a new report.

Africa has been a particular target of land- and water-hungry investors, comprising more than 70 percent of the investors’ demand. They are welcomed with appealing fiscal incentives and strong investor protections in Mali.

The report titled 'Comprendre les Investissements Fonciers en Afrique: Rapport Mali' – 'Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa: Mali' – points out that at least 544,567 hectares (ha) of fertile land are estimated to have been leased or were under negotiation for lease in Mali by the end of 2010 and that the pace of such large land deals is increasing dramatically.

"The largest investments are foreign controlled and have increased by two-thirds in just one year, between 2009 and 2010," says the report by The Oakland Institute and the National Farmers Organisation Coordination (CNOP) of Mali released at the International Conference on Land Grabs from November 17 to 20, attended by farmer groups and civil society organizations from around the world in Nyeleni, Mali.

This comprehensive report analyses the current trend of agricultural land investments in Mali and informs that despite the limited availability of arable land in Mali and dramatic hunger figures, more than 40 percent of deals will devote land to agrofuel crops, which are unlikely to benefit those suffering from hunger in Mali.

"Local communities affected by the initial operations, such as those of Kolongo or Samana Dugu, oppose the deals and already report serious disruptions and threats to their livelihoods but have little or no opportunities for consultation, compensation or ability to contest operations," the report notes.

"These land acquisitions involve violent and flagrant abuses of human rights," says the report which documents attacks on smallholder populations in the irrigated agricultural zones of the Office du Niger.

"In June 2010, men, women and youth from the Samana Dugu community protested the work of bulldozers and the cutting of hundreds of their trees. About 70 gendarmes were brought in to quell their protest. Protestors were beaten and about 40 of them were arrested, among them 14 women," the report says.

"Most of the large-scale land acquisitions are concentrated in state-owned lands within the large, riverine delta of the Office du Niger, where informal customary rights of the local people are not protected by law, and are not recognized by public officials," adds the report which updates a previous study.

The report is part of the Oakland Institute's seven-country case study project to document and examine land investment deals in Africa – Ethiopia, Mali, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Tanzania, and Zambia – in order to determine social, economic, and environmental implications of land acquisitions in the developing world.

Based on field research conducted in the "lease areas" between October and November 2010, this study provides new and important information on the way land agreements are being negotiated out of public scrutiny and the impact these deals have had on local populations and livelihoods.

"Most of the large agricultural projects are still in early stages, with minimal clearing occurring as of yet. They are still very recent, with contracts signed in the past two to three years, and have not yet become fully operational," finds the report.

It adds: "To date, none of the four case study investments adhere to the World Bank principles for responsible agroinvestment, nor do they conform to the set of core principles and measures laid out by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food."

Besides, there is a serious lack of public disclosure and transparency from government on all aspects of the four land deals. In 2009, the government created the position of Secretary of State in charge of development in the Office du Niger, which formerly fell within the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Agriculture.

Since then, land deals have been negotiated behind closed doors by the Secretary of State and the President Director General (PDG) of the Office. The eminent Malibya deal was reportedly directly negotiated between the Malian and Libyan heads of state.

"Malian authorities keep lease documents out of the public domain. No environmental and social impact studies have been released and it seems unlikely that any had been undertaken as of late 2010," says the report.

"In addition, a systematic lack of consultation with local communities prevails on all four cases. As a result, there is little critical or accurate media coverage of the land deals, meaning that Malians have little information about how much of their farmland has already been leased to large-scale investors. Public awareness lacking, there is no serious publc debate on the land deals," adds the report.

In November 2010, farmers’ associations and civil society groups held the “Kolongotomo Farmers’ Forum on Land Grab in Mali” and produced a list of issues confronting smallholders in Mali as a result of the government’s desire to lease large tracks of fertile lands, in the Office du Niger. The authorities have ignored their critiques as well as demands for transparency and fair treatment.

The report goes on to say:

- The government of Mali justifies the large-scale leasing of lands with the need to “modernize” Malian agriculture and increase "efficiency." However, promotion of “green revolution” technologies and less labor intensive approaches to agriculture, undermines proven organic efficiencies, fair competition, food/seed sovereignty, and risks aggravating social disparities and hunger issues.

- The structural adjustment programs starting in the 1980s in Mali emphasized policy reforms to encourage foreign investment. In the past decade, new local structures, staffed and supported by the World Bank, such as the Investment Promotion Agency (API) or the Presidential Investment Council (CPI) have intensified this process. This has placed Mali’s legal framework under the de facto governance of organizations that are not representative or accountable to the Malian population.

- There is concern that the ongoing land tenure reform, supported by the World Bank, is being driven by the desire to make farmland more accessible to large-scale investors. The country’s Investment Promotion Agency (API) suggests that almost half of the country’s arable land is "available" for agricultural investment. Civil society groups argue that land tenure reforms should instead be geared to ensure equitable access to land for women and youth.

- There is an alarming lack of environmental protection. The land investments profiled in this study operate in an area designated as 'Wetland of International Importance' under the Ramsar Convention or the Convention on Wetlands.

The Convention, known after the venue of origin in Iran 1971, is an intergovernmental treaty "that embodies the commitments of its member countries to maintain the ecological character of their Wetlands of International Importance and to plan for the 'wise use', or sustainable use, of all of the wetlands in their territories."

The report says, the land tenure reform seems to have been implemented without environmental and social impact assessments. "While the law does not seem to bind investors to such crucial practices, it is apparent that the large irrigation canals being constructed upstream of the Niger River for industrial agriculture may seriously threaten the livelihoods of the estimated 100 million people dependent on it in West Africa." [Global Perspectives]

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