In the race to buy up African land, small farmers may be the biggest losers.
Last month, the BBC showed how rising food and biofuel prices are driving foreign governments and multinational corporations to snap up more and more farmland in some of Africa's most productive regions. From 2008 to 2009 alone, international land deals added up to approximately 60 million hectares—two-thirds of which were concentrated in Africa.
But for the small farmers who depend on this land to sustain their livelihoods, the deals often mean diminishing incomes, or worse.
Some development organizations, such as Oxfam and the World Bank, see foreign investment as a way to modernize agriculture by providing local people with jobs, higher yields, and some share in the profits and crops. But that assumes that foreign corporations are interested in working with small farmers. Without conditions that require companies to invest in the rural economy, the few jobs being created are temporary and poorly paid. Additionally, tax exemptions provided to investors mean governments see little boost in revenues.
Because the deals lack transparency, it is not clear who is ultimately benefiting from land sales. In many cases, the land used by local farmers, herders and gatherers belongs to the state, and governments ignore their claims. The result: mass evictions, such as in Uganda, where 20,000 people claim to have been kicked off their land.
Small farmers are the backbone of African agriculture. Rather than simply auctioning off land without conditions, governments should be encouraging foreign companies to invest in agricultural cooperatives, infrastructure and market access for smallholders.
Higher food prices and increasing global demand present an opportunity for Africa's small farmers. Connecting them with these opportunities means investing in farmers—not just farmland.