“Land grabs” and Responsible Agricultural Investment in Africa

Timothy A. Wise

Can land grabs by foreign investors in developing countries feed the hungry? So says the press release for a recent, and unfortunate, economic study. It comes just as civil society and government delegates gather in Rome this week to negotiate guidelines for “responsible agricultural investment” (RAI), and as President Obama welcomes African leaders to Washington for a summit on economic development in the region.

At stake in both capitals is whether the recent surge in large-scale acquisition of land in Africa and other developing regions needs to be better regulated to ensure that agricultural investment contributes to food security rather than eroding it by displacing small-scale farmers.

The recent study paper will not advance those discussions. It is the kind of study that gives economists a bad name. Economists like the one in the oft-told joke who, shipwrecked on a deserted island, offers his expertise to his stranded shipmates: “Assume we have a boat.”

In this case, these seemingly well-intentioned Italian economists came up with the dramatic but useless estimate that global land grabs could feed 190-550 million people in developing countries. The heroic assumptions they needed to get there should have stranded them on a deserted island, because they make no sense in the real world.

• Assume land grabs produce staple food. (Mostly, they don’t.)
• Assume such assumed food is consumed domestically. (Overwhelmingly it’s exported.)
• Assume the calories they might produce go to hungry people. (They don’t, they go to people who can afford them.)
• Assume calories are all that’s needed to nourish someone. (They aren’t.)
• Assume productivity-enhancing investments on such land would be made for an assumed market of hungry consumers. (They wouldn’t, the hungry are no real market at all because they have no effective buying power.)
• Assume the grabbed land didn’t displace anyone from producing food. (According to the same data relied on by these economists, most projects have displaced farmers.)

Perhaps the most absurd assumption, though, is that the governance mechanisms exist, at the national, international, or corporate levels, to manage the surge of investment we’ve seen since the food price spikes of 2007-8. Trust me, they don’t, which is why the UN’s Committee on World Food Security is meeting in Rome this week to negotiate the RAI guidelines.

Those negotiations have proven contentious, with developing countries and civil society groups demanding that land rights be included in the guidelines. Some rich country governments, such as that of the United States, resist such measures saying they interfere with the development of markets, which they see as the ultimate solution to … well … everything.

In Tanzania, those land markets are going fast and furious, fueled by government programs to make large tracts of land available to foreign investors. Many have gone for biofuel crops like sugar and jatropha, the oilseed tree that has proven to be a spectacular failure all over Africa. The governance failures include not just the taking of 20,000-acre tracts of good land, based on false promises to local villagers, but then the failure to return the land to those villagers when the project collapses.

In Kisarawe, Tanzania, that land instead was simply subleased by the bankrupt Sun Biofuels to Mtanga Farms, a Tanzanian company that has disavowed any responsibility to fulfill the promises made by Sun Biofuels when it secured the land in the first place. (See my previous article.)

This is the kind of irresponsible investment that has negotiators in Rome trying desperately to plug the yawning land-governance gap in order to protect the rights of small-scale farmers, most of whom lack formal titles to their land.

In Zambia, the government has taken the same proactive approach to attracting foreign land investors, securing good land and promising infrastructure development as part of the new wave of “public-private partnerships” that are supposed to stimulate agricultural development.

Mostly, investors don’t wait for the national government. They go straight to local leaders, who have traditional authority over “customary lands” farmed by small-scale producers. They cut deals that displace local farmers for the large-scale production of sugar cane or some other cash crop, often for export.

At best, you get a managed process to attract investors to one of the Zambian government’s “farm blocks” – 250,000-acre tracts intended to bring in a foreign investor to establish a “nucleus farm” of 25,000 acres around which other large, medium, and small farmers can get land to grow crops for the investor’s processing facility.

Such schemes have had some economic success in rice farming in some countries, but the issue of displacement of small-scale food producers, generally for export agriculture, remains. So does the limited involvement of small-scale farmers and the overwhelming export orientation of most projects.

Zambia has one such farm block project going in Nansanga, but this land is neither idle nor unoccupied, as proponents of such schemes often suggest. Some 2,500 farmers live on the Nansanga land and they do not want to be moved or swallowed up by the larger project.

It is certainly difficult to see how such projects address the desperate needs of the 80% of rural Zambians who are poor and food-insecure. They are food-insecure in part because they are land-poor; they do not have enough decent land to support their households. While the government auctions off the country’s best land, these villagers are dividing their small landholdings among their children, resulting in smaller plots and greater poverty.

Which begs the question: If the goal is to address the urgent issue of food security, why not give some of those good agricultural lands to land-poor smallholders?

In Zambia, I saw one very small project that did just that. The Chanyanya Smallholders Cooperative Society of 126 households in Kafue, south of Lusaka, got secure title to about 1,250 acres of land, irrigated it with European donor support, set up small garden plots for themselves on some of it, and sublet the majority to a commercial soybean and wheat farming business in which they retain significant equity shares.

They get more food, with year-round production of cash and subsistence crops from their garden plots, thanks to the irrigation. The land gets developed through capital-intensive investment, with cooperative members sharing in those profits and retaining title to the land. They seemed enormously better off, though they might do even better if they each had 10 irrigated acres and they were shown how to become mid-size commercial farmers.

Instead of touting the imagined food-security benefits of land grabs, why not look at the real-life food security benefits of giving good land to the hungry? And irrigating it?

Interpreting the data from that flawed land grab study a little differently, the researchers show, in effect, that in Tanzania 3.1 million people additional people could be fed by just giving the land to small-scale farmers. Or, more realistically, one could increase by 25% the caloric intake of 12.4 million people who don’t get enough to eat now. Invest in the land and, according to these researchers, one could do the same for 20.4 million people.

That would go a long way toward wiping out rural poverty in Tanzania. It doesn’t look anything like a “land grab.” But it sure looks like “responsible agricultural investment” to me.

Timothy A. Wise is Policy Research Director at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University, where he is currently researching African food and agriculture policies as part of a project on a Rights-Based Approach to the Global Food Crisis.

Triple Crisis welcomes your comments. Please share your thoughts below.

11 Responses to ““Land grabs” and Responsible Agricultural Investment in Africa”

  1. […] TripleCrisis This entry was posted in Survive Food Crisis and tagged Africa, Agricultural, grabs”, Investment, responsible, “Land. Bookmark the permalink. ← U.S. Financial Reform Law Still Not Fully Implemented […]

  2. Wise is right on the mark, as usual. One comment: We are looking at ways that Africa’s vast new infrastructure initiatives could result in the seizure of land. If you look at the maps of the cross-border mega-projects at the end of this paper, you will see the scale of ambition:
    It is unnerving that some of the projects are being selected by ag & extractive industry TNCs who sit on the Business Working Group of the Program for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA) and the World Economic Forum (WEF). We wonder whether the RAI initiatives protect small holders from infrastructure land-grabbing too.

  3. Eric Ini says:

    This is an outright nonsensical and ridiculous excerpt from the above article:”Those negotiations have proven contentious, with developing countries and civil society groups demanding that land rights be included in the guidelines. Some rich country governments, such as that of the United States, resist such measures saying they interfere with the development of markets.
    This is ridiculous because there are well established land rights in the United States, why are these rights not interfering with the markets in the U.S. but will only interfere with markets when it comes to developing countries- BULLSHIT!

  4. Jan Cherlet says:

    Timothy White has distorted the message of the research by Rulli et al (2014). What the research team did was try to quantify how much food could *ideally* be cultivated on the total area of large-scale land acquisitions around the world and how much people could *ideally* be fed by the food produced on this area: “up to 300–550 million people could be fed by crops grown in the acquired land, should these investments in agriculture improve crop production and close the yield gap. In contrast, about 190–370 million people could be supported by this land without closing of the yield gap.”

    Their research was a simple calculation – not an ethical evaluation. Rulli et al. did not express themselves in favour of large-scale land acquisitions. To the contrary – they say that “these numbers raise some concern because the food produced in the acquired land is typically exported to other regions, while the target countries exhibit high levels of malnourishment. Conversely, if used for domestic consumption, the crops harvested in the acquired land could ensure food security to the local populations.”

  5. Timothy A Wise says:

    Unfortunately, the distortion is in the paper itself, and much more notably in the press release used to launch it. I have been in contact with one of the authors, and I agree their intent was in no way to justify land grabbing. He pointed to another paper that makes some of this clearer. I invited him to post a response with links to that work.

    That said, it remains a fact of life in the real world in which we live that these land grabs will never feed the hungry. In a sense the research question is poorly framed, even if the calculations are relatively sound. Instead of asking,
    “How many people could be fed if the land grabs produced food and did so with higher yields because of foreign investment?” the question should have been,
    “How many people could be fed if this land were NOT grabbed for the production of non-food crops and of food crops not destined for the hungry in the host countries, but instead was put to use by farmers, with investment, to grow food for the domestic market?”

    I used the authors’ data to estimate one answer to that question, in a way that clarifies that land grabs will not achieve those stated food security goals.

  6. […] “Land grabs” and Responsible Agricultural Investment in AfricaTimothy A. Wise, Triple Crisis Can land grabs by foreign investors in developing countries feed the hungry? So says the press release for a recent, and unfortunate, economic study. It comes just as civil society and government delegates gather in Rome this week to negotiate guidelines for “responsible agricultural investment” (RAI), and as President Obama welcomes African leaders to Washington for a summit on economic development in the region. […]

  7. […] “Land grabs” and responsible agricultural investment in Africa, TripleCrisis […]

  8. Chris C. says:

    I think part of the issue is how this paper is being reported upon. At best, it is a theoretical exercise best left within the confines of an AgEcon journal. That said, I would add the following to Mr. Wise’s criticisms:

    1) I’ve met some of the folks who work on the Land Matrix Project. I think it’s a fantastic initiative as the post-2008 rush to acquire farmland has been nothing short of overwhelming. However, they have had to essentially build this thing from scratch, relying on the reporting of private companies (which often have no legal obligation to report their business to the public) and the governments of developing countries (not exactly paragons of transparency) means that the way the project compiles data yields very inaccurate data.

    2) The hectarage numbers for a large portion of these land grabs are self-reported (i.e. via a press release from either the company acquiring land rights, or the host country granting them). These numbers typically are the total amount of land available to the company to farm. So just because a company is granted rights for 150,000 ha of land, it is still going to start off on something like 1/100th of that.

    3) As the Land Matrix is really the only game in town when it comes to a centralized database, it also misses a large amount of deals that are reported, go bust, or simply never come to fruition.

    4) There are some deals on there that one would have to really stretch to call a “grab”. For example, the Matrix reports that Wilmar acquired ~4500 ha of land for the Benso Oil Palm Plantation (BOPP). BOPP has been in near continuous operation since before Ghanaian independence in 1957. In the 1980s or 1990s (memory fails me), the Government of Ghana divested its ownership, and it wasn’t until that company (whose name escapes me) started struggling that Wilmar came in and bought it as a distressed asset.

    I don’t think that the authors of the paper wrote it with the intention of justifying land grabs, and it’s unfortunate that it is being reported upon as if they did.

  9. Paolo D'Odorico says:

    Dr. Timothy Wise either misunderstood or did not read our paper titled FOOD APPROPRIATION TROUGH LARGE SCALE LAND ACQUISITION. His blog entries are based more on the title of a PRESS RELEASE than on the article itself.

    We strongly encourage blog readers and everyone is interested in this topic to read our paper, which is available free of charge at
    The article calculates the number of people who could be fed by the crops cultivated in lands acquired by large scale investors. It answers to the question “how many people can be fed by the acquired land?” We found that a substantial number of people could be fed by those lands and stressed how most of the target countries are affected by malnourishment. In the final discussion we refer to the ethical implications of this phenomenon. Nowhere in the manuscript we stated that land grabs could feed 190-550 million people. It can’t be said that we are sympathetic of these large scale investments in agriculture. The title itself “ Food APPROPRIATION through large scale land acquisitions” alludes to the fact that food is taken away. We could not use the word “grabbing” because we did not have conclusive evidence of the lack of informed consent and involvement of the local populations in the decision process for all of the many land deals included in our study. The readers should bear in mind that an article published in the peer reviewed literature needs to be supported by data rather than rushed claims. Common sense statements such as “(Mostly, they don’t.)”, “(Overwhelmingly it’s exported.)”, “(They don’t, they go to people who can afford them.)”, … – though likely true for many case studies – cannot be used in this global assessment unless they are verified case-by-case. Otherwise the study loses credibility. Unfortunately, to date such a global assessment is still missing. Therefore we had to make some assumptions that are clearly presented in the paper. As any reader can see, our assumptions do not correspond to what it is written in this blog! For example, the author of this blog states “the most absurd assumption, though, is that the governance mechanisms exist, at the national, international, or corporate levels, to manage the surge of investment we’ve seen since the food price spikes of 2007-8 “. But where in the paper do we make this assumption? What is absurd here is that the author of this blog has not even read the paper or is misquoting us. He defines our study “useless” and quickly dismisses it. We wonder whether the same adjective (”useless”) should rather be used for his blog commentary. What are we trying to do here? Are we having a constructive debate on a major issue we care about, or indulging to the destructive and divisive attitude of spitting on each other’s face just to claim expertise in this catchy debate? If we have data, information, photos, reports that can help us further in this study, let’s find a way to share them through one of the many portals that already exist.

    The discussion and conclusion sections of our paper stress the implications of large scale land acquisition on food security and readers can easily recognize the message of our study. It is always a good idea to read a scientific article before writing about it. It is not appropriate to comment on an article relying only on the title of a press release. The misinformed message presented in the blog doesn’t provide any valuable or credible contribution to the debate on such an important issue as land grabbing . On the other hand the results of our paper provide the first quantitative assessment of FOOD APPROPRIATION TROUGH LARGE SCALE LAND ACQUISITIONS, and contributes to the debate on food security in grabbed countries. We encourage again the readers to check out our (open access) article at: