Saturday, January 01, 2011

African Land Grab

A new colonialism is gripping and grabbing the land of Africa. Foreign companies and governments are buying up huge tracts of land. Much of this land has been possessed and farmed by local residents for many generations. But now governments have claimed title and sold the land to foreigners. The traditional farmers then get kicked out, landless, homeless, destitute.
In many cases, large-scale commercial farming is replacing and dispossessing small traditional farms. The large farms produce more food, but much of it is exported rather than providing food for the local residents. Whole villages are wiped out, and the displaced people then move to the overgrown city slums.
During the 1800s, Africa was colonized by European powers, as even small Belgium got a large chunk in the Congo. All the colonies obtained political independence, but the neocolonialism is taking back the land from the Africans. The strong-man chiefs of state are selling off the land that properly belongs to the people of Africa. This time it is not so much Europe, but governments in North Africa, such as Lybia and Egypt, as well as companies and governments in Asia, that are taking lands in sub-Sahara Africa. Many of these transfers are leaseholds for decades at rentals much below the market rate.
Georgism, the economics and policies derived from the thought of Henry George, is sometimes thought of inaccurately as proposing that land belong to the government. But the policy prescription, also referred to as geoism, is that the benefits of land belong to the people in equal shares, hence government should at most be a collection agent for the people, and possibly also the spending agent for some public goods. The rights of possession would be retained by individuals in a market setting.
If foreigners can make some lands more productive, they should pay the economic rent of that land to the local and national communities. The people would then benefit from economic development and be compensated for not holding that land. A periodic rent payment is much better than a one-time compensation. Any payments to the dispossessed should take the form of annuities for life. The plantations and miners should also pay for any environmental damages.
The current land grab in Africa is just setting up new landlords who collect the rent that should go to the people. If the nominally independent governments of Africa were to act as the true agents of the people, they would recognize and protect the traditional rights of possession. Historically, Africans suffered from kidnaping into slavery, and the takeover of their land by foreigners, and now after expelling the colonial masters, they are once again falling into bondage.

The global demand for food and bio-fuel has been escalating as the economies of Asia and Latin America are rapidly expanding and getting wealthier. With much of their lands contaminated, deforested, and depleted, the ascending countries are once again plundering Africa, taking advantage of corrupt regimes to obtain land for agriculture, mining, and fishing
Some of these deals are replacing forests with plantations, and the deforestation not only destroys the wonderful wildlife of Africa, but then deprives the world of carbon-soaking plants. When a natural forest is cleared to plant sugar cane for biofuel such as ethanol, there is a net gain in emissions, so laws that mandate more use of biofuels are adding to rather than reducing global-warming gasses.

The colonial powers failed to prepare their African colonies for democratic governance. It is ironic that European powers that became democracies kept their colonies in tyranny. They transplanted mass democracy into these lands, but that is like planting banana trees in the Arctic. Mass democracy in Africa has been overthrown by dictators, has resulted in elections in which the rulers have refused to yield power, and has been subject to fraud. A stable democracy has to grow from the ground up, starting in democratic structures in the villages and city neighborhoods.

The United Nations is made of up representatives of countries with dictatorships and the chiefs of mass democracies, so don’t expect the UN to be of help rescuing Africa from the global land grab.



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