Monday, 15 July 2013

REVIEW: The Great African Land Grab? Agricultural Investments And The Global Food System (launch tonight)

by Robin Palmer


Official launch TONIGHT at SOAS Brunei Suite

In an African Arguments brief in January 2011, I wondered ‘why, given that the long term impact of global land grabbing on many African rural communities could well be catastrophic, does there appear to exist an almost total conspiracy of silence on the subject?’. But I added, ‘I sense that this may at last be beginning to change a little.’ Thankfully my sense has proved well-founded. There is now almost an avalanche of material, most recently the hugely impressive Journal of Peasant Studies collection (40, 3, 2013) on global land grabbing methodology,  while I recently reviewed a MS entitled ‘The global land grab: beyond the hype’ and was asked to review another called ‘Everyday forms of land-grabbing in the Great Lakes Region of Africa’.
In this context we now have Lorenzo Cotula’s outstanding new book which will, without any doubt, make a major contribution to this growing literature on the subject. In an arena that is often polarised, it is supremely fair and balanced. It unpicks and unpacks things, based on the author’s extensive research and practical experience. In what is now both a very fast moving and highly complex field with many actors, Cotula guides us scrupulously and well, calmly and dispassionately.
The author has visited and re-visited the places he writes about, and this shows. He makes particularly effective use of introductory scene settings – ‘in Massingir’ etc, and also of some of the meetings he has attended – with investors, with African farmers, the FAO etc. Choosing Africa as a broad focus makes good sense, and it also makes excellent sense to narrow down and draw examples from the 4 countries which he and his IIED colleagues have researched in the past – Ghana, Mali, Mozambique and Tanzania.
Cotula begins:
This book is a journey through the growing body of evidence. The ambition is to offer an academically rigorous yet accessible reader on an issue that has attracted growing attention not only among professionals, but also in public opinion at large. (5)
He concludes:
There is a role for research to challenge these accepted ‘truths’, to provide a deeper and more fine-grained understanding of the unfolding social transformations, and to document what models of agricultural investment work for inclusive sustainable development. (192)
I strongly believe that he has succeeded in both of these admirable aims. He makes the important, but frequently overlooked, point that:
local nationals, not foreign governments or transnational corporations, are at the forefront of the land rush…Where foreign investment is involved, Western companies and firms from within the African continent account for the lion’s share of the deals. (10)
and also that:
the land rush is not about feeding the planet. It is mainly about meeting demand for energy and consumption goods in richer countries and about speculation linked to rising land values. Fuel, wood, fibre and finance, more than food, are the engines of the renewed interest in agricultural investments in the global South. (11)
In chapter 2 he rightly stresses the need for an historical approach, which is all too often forgotten, and which is something I also bang on about, for the colonial past does indeed ‘cast a dark shadow on the present.’ (20)
Cotula is also not afraid of complexity –‘there are multiple rural worlds in Africa’s countryside’ (30), while ‘the deals will tend to produce differentiated outcomes – with some groups being better placed to capture the benefits or at least partake in the crumbs, and others losing out’ (33). This is critically important. [Click here to read full article]

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