How Climate Change Politics Are Ruining African Agriculture


It is wondrous how the threat of climate change, a clear sign of the excesses and limitations of advanced economies, could ever become a driver of grand visions of progress in the developing world. But that is precisely at the root of a phenomenon that is ushering in a transformation of African agriculture.

Consider how the discourse of energy crisis and resource limits in wealthy countries — underlined by fossil fuels’ contribution to climate change — has spawned a rush for African farmland for biofuel production, which in turn is being touted “green growth” in the global south. That growth, however, benefits not Africa’s small-scale farmers, but the agribusinesses based in those very countries intent on tapping apparently “empty” cropland to sustain their energy-intensive economies. This inherent paradox — of how a resource crisis in one part of the world could be translated into bold promise in another’s soil — must take center stage in our critical analysis of the global land grab.

The investments in biofuel plantations are coming mainly from European countries tasked with meeting a 10% renewable fuel mandate by 2015. They are leading to the displacement of vast numbers of farmers.

Development agencies, most prominently the World Bank, have aimed to justify the large-scale land acquisitions by characterizing African farmland as “underutilized” and citing the continent’s “yield gap” — the disparity between actual and potential crop yields.

There are two major problems with this framing. First, the conception of vacant land largely reflects a bias toward large-scale industrialized production, and neglects how that land may actually be utilized by small-scale farmers or pastoralists. Second, the link between yield gap and food security has little relevance when the crops are grown for export by foreign investors.

“Yield gap is an agronomic term that became a framing for development policy and got hijacked by the World Bank and others, who have used it in Africa to claim that Africa is one vast area of underutilized land,” said Charles Geisler, a professor of Development Sociology at Cornell University, and co-leader of Cornell’s Contested Global Landscapes initiative. He noted that, in contrast to the Bank’s view, a research team led by Jonathan Foley has argued that the yield gap could be closed by leaving smallholder farmers in place.

Support for the land deals among development agencies is at odds with their renewed investments in small-scale agriculture in Africa. In response to the 2008 food crisis, which witnessed sky-high prices for staple foods, donor efforts such as the U.S. Feed the Future initiative and the G-8 New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition have explicitly targeted smallholders. Hardly an international food security conference goes by these days without such an emphasis. Yet the land grabs encroach on the very land occupied by those farmers, which must lead us to question: what model of agriculture are the main development institutions really supporting?

“They have been able to balance this contradiction by claiming that people won’t be displaced, but they will gain employment and use small parcels in nearby villages,” Geisler said. “The other part of the narrative is that farmers will adapt by finding jobs in other sectors — this is not a new message, and it was common in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.”

Indeed, this problematic belief in the inevitable decline of smallholder farming becomes reinforced in global environmental politics. The European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive states that, in order for biofuels to count toward states’ compliance with renewable energy commitments, they cannot be produced on land with “high biodiversity value,” such as forests or protected nature areas Yet the RED contains no provision for the protection of land rights for smallholder farmers, writes Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. Hardly is there a more contradictory display of the biodiversity conservation agenda: the conversion of diverse, agro-ecology-based farming systems to monocrop production actually amounts to a loss of biodiversity.

Small-scale farmers have long been denied access to productive farmland by enclosures of protected nature areas. And now with such spaces deemed off-limits to the land rush, which will force the land deals to instead target those farmers’ land, we are seeing a re-assertion of farmers’ subordination to the conservation agenda.

The transformation of the so-called underutilized lands often involves complex techniques by scientists who are inevitably embedded in a political project, said Rachel Nalepa, a PhD. Candidate in Boston University’s Geography and Environment department who has researched this topic in Ethiopia. The country’s Agriculture Ministry conducted mapping of agro-ecological zones to determine which crops were suitable for which regions. This information proved valuable in consultations with foreign investors, who were interested in the most fertile lands.

“Hot topics such as biofuels are determined in a political context,” Nalepa said. “But when there becomes more interest in providing scientific information, then people say, ‘I have this tool set, I will use it for biofuels.’ But they’re not on the ground, not even interested in agriculture.”