This book raises some compelling questions that scholars working on the issue of land grab need to grapple with. For far too long, the land grab literature has used varied definitions of the term land grab and presented empirical estimates without specifying a consistent methodological framework for assessment of the extent of land grab. Do all land transactions – irrespective of whether domestic or transnational, irrespective of the class position of the sellers and buyers, irrespective of the role of state in facilitating the transactions, and irrespective of the land use before and after land transaction – constitute land grab? Brautigam has used data compiled through painstaking fieldwork to show that some of the widely used estimates of Chinese investments in land acquisition in Africa are misleading. Does this problem go beyond the estimates of Chinese land acquisitions and extend to global estimates of land grab?
Over the last few years, there has been considerable media attention and public debate on the phenomenon that has come to be known as ’land grab’. Many scholars and activists have talked about a great surge in foreign investments to acquire land in less-developed countries, in particular in Africa. Describing what they called the “scramble” for Africa’s land resources, Moyo, Yeros and Jha (2012) said that, “the global competition for Africa’s land and natural resources is in full swing”. In particular, it has been argued that concerns for food security in the wake of spurt in food prices in 2008 and 2010 and the rising demand for biofuels led investors from the so-called emerging economies like China and India to acquire large amounts of land in least developed countries (Akram-Lodhi, 2012; HLPE, 2011; Jha and Verma, 2016). While a large number of studies have suggested that there has been a surge in international investments in land, empirical estimates of the extent of land acquired through such investments vary widely. For example, Atkin, Kugelman, and Levenstein (2009) put the figure between 15-20 million hectares. A very influential report by the International Land Coalition in 2012 used the Land Matrix database to report that 71 million hectares of land had been subjected to acquisition through transnational land deals between 2010 and 2011 (Anseeuw et al., 2012). HLPE (2011) estimated the magnitude of land acquired in the middle- and low-income countries to be 50-80 million hectares. At the time of writing of this review, the Land Matrix database recorded over 48 million hectares of land to have been covered in land deals that had been concluded.
Owing to under-utilized fertile lands, abundant natural resources and cheap labour, Africa has emerged as one of the biggest destinations for foreign investments involving land transactions. Wily (2010) estimates that sub-Saharan Africa alone accounts for about two-third of the total land under negotiations worldwide. A study by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN, International Institute for Environment and Development and International Fund for Agricultural Development estimated that since 2004 about 2.5 million hectares world of “approved land allocations” are based in just five African countries, namely Ethiopia, Ghana, Madagascar, Mali and Sudan (Atkin, Kugelman, and Levenstein, 2009).
On the other hand, China is alleged to be one of the biggest sources of investment for acquiring land in Africa. As per the Land Matrix database, Chinese investments were involved in transnational transactions (finally concluded) of over 5 million hectares of land. Reports of such massive amounts of transnational land acquisitions by China have been a cause of considerable alarm even in popular imagination. In March 2008, The Economist featured a cover with the image of Chinese men riding camels across the desert under the banner title, “The New Colonialists”. Henning Mankell’s novel, The Man from Beijing, has a scene in which a newly elected President of Mozambique decides to import four million Chinese peasants in his country. Such accounts reflect the widespread notion that China is trying to acquire vast tracts of land in Africa and that this may be akin to colonizing areas in Africa.
In the book under review, “Will Africa feed China?” by Deborah Brautigam, the author presents results of painstaking research which call into question some of these widespread beliefs regarding Chinese land acquisitions in Africa. The work is primarily based on detailed field-based verification of claims of land acquisition through extensive travels across China and various countries of Africa. The author has compiled and presented in the book a valuable database of Chinese land acquisitions in Africa from 1987 to 2014. The book also uses a vast amount of secondary material, including media reports and statistics, to support its arguments.
Brautigam shows that Chinese investments in land transactions in Africa since the 1990s account for no more than 240,000 hectares of land. Though not insubstantial, this is evidently much less than what has been claimed hitherto. She also points out that Chinese investments in land acquisitions overseas started in the 1980s and have steadily increased since then and contests the argument that Chinese investments in land in Africa have been catalysed by the recent waves of global food price surges.
Brautigam shows that Chinese investment in agriculture in Africa can be categorised into three types: first, China’s investment in small and medium scale farms for mixed farming (vegetables, beef, poultry, wheat, maize, rice) to sell in local African market; secondly, a growing commercial interest in large scale industrial farming of traditional commodities such as rubber, sugar, sisal and oil palm primarily for exporting to Europe; thirdly, in contract farming for tobacco and cotton for exports to China as well as rest of the world.
Theoretically, the term land grab has often been used for large land transactions that involve use of extra-economic methods, including state power, for acquiring land (Hall, 2013). However, the empirical studies tend to include all kinds of land transactions, irrespective of how these transactions take place, to estimate the scale of land grab. Brautigam argues that agribusiness investments are a small part of overall transnational investments by Chinese companies. Further, she points out that agribusiness investments are mainly aimed at commercial production to take advantage of local (African) and international markets (including China), and investment for land purchases are only a small part of total agribusiness investments by Chinese firms. According to Brautigam, Chinese firms have been increasingly preferring to invest in contract farming rather than in land purchases. The study shows that although the Chinese government has been proactively supporting Chinese agribusiness firms in expanding their overseas businesses, this support has primarily been in the form of provision of funds through Chinese financial system and investment by state-owned companies (Nongken). Brautigam shows that Chinese government has not had a unified national policy on international land acquisitions and the role of Chinese state in facilitating land purchases through political negotiations has been limited and not very successful. In some important cases, the loan programs of Chinese banks specifically excluded land purchases from the list of projects to be provided credit.
Brautigam argues that, although the Chinese interest in Africa for large-scale export-oriented commercial farming is on the rise, this is not important, and is unlikely to become so in the near future, for food availability in China. Domestic prices of rice in China are much lower than the cost of producing rice in Africa and transporting it to China. Domestic self-sufficiency in production of food grain has been the mainstay of Chinese food security policies. It has world’s largest grain reserves and is perhaps the only country in the world to maintain a strategic meat reserve. Creating reliable sources of imports has never been the focus of the Chinese food security policy.
This book raises some compelling questions that scholars working on the issue of land grab need to grapple with. For far too long, the land grab literature has used varied definitions of the term land grab and presented empirical estimates without specifying a consistent methodological framework for assessment of the extent of land grab. Concepts like primitive accumulation and accumulation by dispossession have been used indiscriminately in the literature (Hall, 2013; Moyo, Yeros, and Jha, 2012). Do all land transactions – irrespective of whether domestic or transnational, irrespective of the class position of the sellers and buyers, irrespective of the role of state in facilitating the transactions, and irrespective of the land use before and after land transaction – constitute land grab? In absence of a clear conceptual framework, and in absence of consistent methodological specifications for collecting data on land grab, widely varying estimates have been made of the transnational land transactions. Brautigam has used data compiled through painstaking fieldwork to show that some of the widely used estimates of Chinese investments in land acquisition in Africa are misleading. Does this problem go beyond the estimates of Chinese land acquisitions and extend to global estimates of land grab?
Prachi Bansal is Research Scholar, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Honorary Research Associate, Society for Social and Economic Research, New Delhi. Email: prachi at sser.in.
Akram-Lodhi, A Haroon (2012), Contextualising Land Grabbing: Contemporary Land Deals, the Global Subsistence Crisis and the World Food System, Canadian Journal of Development Studies, 33(2), 119-142 (2012).
Anseeuw, Wily, Cotula & Taylor (2012), Land Rights and the Rush for Land: Findings of the Global Commercial Pressures on Land Research Project, International Land Coalition, Rome.
Hall, Derek (2013), “Primitive Accumulation, Accumulation by Dispossession and the Global Land Grab”, Third World Quarterly, 34(9), pp. 1582–1604.
High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) (2011), Land Tenure and International Investments in Agriculture: A Report by the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition, Committee on World Food Security, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome.
Moyo, Sam, Yeros, Paris and Jha, Praveen (2012), “Imperialism and Primitive Accumulation: Notes on the New Scramble for Africa”, Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy, 1(2), 181–203 (2012).
Wily, Liz Alden (2010), “Whose Land Are You Giving Away, Mr. President?”, presented at the Annual World Bank Land Policy and Administration Conference, Washington DC.