Carving up a continent: How the UK government is facilitating the corporate takeover of African food systems

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“Family farming is the basis for modern food provision in Africa, today and tomorrow. Its multi-functionality and sustainable productive potential is supported by extensive research evidence…Backed by appropriate research, supportive investments and adequate protection, [it] can out-perform industrial commodity production.”
Good for Corporations, Bad for Producers

Attracted by high economic growth rates and propelled by a lack of new opportunities elsewhere, huge global food and agriculture companies like Monsanto, Syngenta and Unilever are rapidly increasing their presence in sub-Saharan Africa, seeking access to resources and new markets to expand their operations. The companies involved and the governments of the UK and other rich countries are presenting this new ‘scramble for Africa’ as the solution to poverty, hunger and malnutrition on the continent.
The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) is channelling £600 million of aid money through the G8’s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition (New Alliance). The New Alliance is the latest in a series of initiatives set up by the same handful of multinational companies and rich country governments. All of these initiatives claim to support improvements to agriculture and food security in Africa, but are in fact geared towards helping multinational companies to access resources and bringing about policy changes to facilitate those companies’ expansion in Africa. The African countries being targeted by the New Alliance are not those with the highest levels of hunger or poverty, but those with the best access to export markets and the highest levels of economic growth.
This report provides evidence that while multinational corporations are set to benefit from increased access to and control of agriculture in Africa, this is coming at the expense of small-scale African food producers. Instead of providing a solution to hunger, the pro-corporate approach of initiatives like the New Alliance is likely to exacerbate hunger and poverty through increased land-grabbing, insecure and poorly paid jobs, the privatisation of seed and a focus on producing for export markets rather than to feed local populations.
Companies taking over land sometimes promise to create jobs for the people they have dispossessed, but jobs that materialise are often insecure and poorly paid. Jobs are also more likely to benefit men rather than women.
Companies are also seeking increased control of what people in Africa grow and how. Eight of the ten African countries in the New Alliance have had to commit to changing their seed laws to allow giant seed companies like Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta greater access. Small-scale farmers in Africa rely on saving and exchanging their own seed, but the companies are demanding laws to restrict these practices. This risks farmers becoming dependent on buying seeds produced by the companies, increasing their costs and reducing choice and biodiversity.
Multinational fertiliser and pesticide companies are also expanding into Africa. The world’s biggest fertiliser company, Yara, is involved in the New Alliance. These agrochemicals already cause serious levels of poisoning in sub-Saharan Africa; with the UN estimating that health problems linked to pesticides could cost the region US$90 billion between 2005 and 2020. Fertilisers also damage soil, leading farmers to rely on them even more in order to maintain production, which increases their risk of getting into debt. The tragic consequences of small-scale farmers’ reliance on fertilisers in India have been much reported. An estimated 250,000 farmers committed suicide between 1995 and 2010 after getting into debt through buying agrochemicals.
The development of infrastructure is also central to schemes like the New Alliance. But rather than building infrastructure to better connect producers and local populations, companies and their government supporters are focusing on infrastructure to facilitate exports.
The expansion of corporate control over African food and agriculture, under the guise of tackling hunger, is taking power and resources away from African producers and will further impoverish the continent’s people. The UK and other governments must end their support for the New Alliance and other initiatives, which assist this corporate takeover. Instead, they must support small-scale African producers in strengthening sustainable and productive food systems, which prioritise food for local populations.
The UK Government’s Role:
The New Alliance has received much political support from the UK government, including from David Cameron. Following the launch of the New Alliance in 2012, Cameron hosted a Hunger Summit at the London Olympics in support of this approach. The following year, this was supported with a Nutrition for Growth event, also hosted by the prime minister. The UK government also co-chaired the New Alliance leadership council as part of its 2013 G8 presidency.
To use Ethiopia as a case in point:
In the Lower Omo Valley in the Gambella region of southwest Ethiopia, 375,000 hectares of land are being cleared to make way for sugar cane, palm oil, cotton and grain plantations owned by Italian, Indian, Malaysian and Ethiopian firms and state-run farms. As part of this transformation, 260,000 people from 17 ethnic groups are being displaced with their water supplies used for irrigation on the new plantations. People are being evicted from their farmland and restricted from accessing natural resources, leaving them little option but to move to designated new villages and work on the plantations for low wages.
Those people that have resisted have faced beatings, rape (including gang rape and rape of a child), intimidation, arrests and imprisonment. In order to force people to move, the military have prevented people from cultivating their land and destroyed crops and grain stores to cause hunger, then lured them to the new settlements with food aid. People have been forced to move at harvest time, leaving their crops behind and exacerbating hunger.
The Ethiopian government claims that the land is uninhabited or underutilised, but in reality many people used it to practise traditional and sustainable forms of food production, such as shifting cultivation and pastoralism. They are being forced to give up this way of life in favour of settled agriculture. Although the government claims that the programme is unrelated to the leasing of large areas of land in the region for industrial agriculture, local people have been told by local government officials that this is the underlying reason for the resettlements. Former officials have confirmed this to Human Rights Watch.
Through its contributions to the World Bank’s Protection of Basic Services (PBS) programme, DIFD is supporting the displacement through budget support to the authorities that are carrying out the ‘villagisation’ programme. This includes funding for infrastructure for the new settlements and health and education services that can only be accessed if people move.
Since 2006, £345 million of UK aid money has been used support the PBS project, with a further £450 million budgeted to be spent by 2018. In 2013/14 alone, £92.5 million is being spent – 29 per cent of the total UK aid to Ethiopia, which receives more of the UK aid budget than any other country.
Representatives from DFID and USAID visited the area in 2012 but the UK government claims that “the Department for International Development was not able to substantiate the allegations of human rights violation it received” on the trip, despite hearing first-hand accounts of serious human rights violations while they were there.
The evictions in the Lower Omo Valley are part of a much bigger project of resettlement covering four regions of Ethiopia and displacing 1.5 million people. In total, 3.6 million hectares of Ethiopia’s land is being made available to investors, with 42 per cent of the total land area in Gambella has been awarded to investors or is being marketed.
Recommendations for the UK Government
1. 1. End Support for corporate controlled food systems – DIFD should stop using UK aid money to fund food and agricultural projects, which favour big business. It must also remove all conditionality, which requires African governments to implement policy changes that favour large corporations.
2. 2. UK policies and food and agriculture related aid spending should be used to support food sovereignty – this would enable small scale farmers and poor communities, particularly women, to maintain control over sustainable and productive food systems, which prioritise food for local populations over exports. 2. [1]
Written by Christine Haigh from WDM and Callum Hunter of NIAS
[1] For more information about ‘Food Sovereignty’, please see pg. 42 of How the UK government is facilitating the corporate takeover of African food systems, by Christine Haigh