There are a lot of misconceptions about Africa, including that the continent needs help from the rest of the world in order to overcome the economic challenges it faces. It doesn't need help, though, so much as to be on equal footing with the rest of the world. Yet it continues to be seen not only as the 'dark' continent, but also a resource-rich one whose wealth is there for the taking. Foreign countries and companies are racing to claim not only the continent's mineral resources, which often fuel conflict and environmental disasters, but also arable land to grow water-intensive crops for export. That's no small problem, considering the droughts that African countries already face and how vulnerable the region is to climate change.
These resource grabs often proceed in the name of development, but all they develop are gains for foreign countries. In the process, they make every problem that the continent already faces a lot worse.
Exxon Mobil, Shell, and other U.S. and European energy companies have been wading deeper and deeper into African waters looking for oil and gas deposits. The shoreline of Mozambique is one of the latest sites that Exxon Mobil, the British BG Group and Italy's Eni are exploring for natural gas earlier this month. Tanzania and Kenya are attracting billions of investment dollars from the same or similar companies, Shell is planning to start fracking in one of South Africa's most remote and beautiful places, the Karoo. And then there's the havoc that Shell's operations have wreaked on the environment and local economies in Nigeria.
Eni's chief executive, Paolo Scaroni, summed up the mindset that energy companies have when they look at Africa when he told investors last month, according to The New York Times: “Africa will be the backbone of our production and growth in the next 10 years.”
In a report published in February, the Rights and Resources Initiative estimated that 500 million people in sub-Saharan Africa depend on 3.46 billion acres of farmland that have been a target for foreign governments and investors looking to produce food for populations outside of Africa.
Examples abound throughout the continent of foreign interests coming in to plant crops like sugarcane, palm oil, and jatropha on huge tracts of land that were already inhabited or that could be (or were already being) used for growing food to feed local populations.
In Ethiopia, it's primarily China that has leased out at least 8.8 million acres of some of the country's most arable land for growing crops for export—and displaced, according to Human Rights Watch, at least 70,000 people in the process. And, according to Friends of the Earth International, land inside an elephant sanctuary was also cleared to make way for "agrofuels."
FOE gave another example: "In Congo-Brazzaville, President Sassou-Nguesso has ceded 10 million hectares of fertile land to South-African farmers to grow staple food crops for export without any percentage to remain in Congo, alongside 70,000 hectares granted to the Italian oil company ENI to plant oil palm monoculture plantations for agrofuel production, threatening Africa’s last precious tropical primary forest."
And, the FOE report says, biotech companies see biofuel crops as a way into the African market: "research is on-going into genetically modified (GM) varieties which might be suitable for agrofuels, and biotech companies are eager to claim that their products can help tackle climate change."
Along with these land grabs have come reaches for the continent's precious water resources—so much so the trend is now being referred to as “water grabbing” rather than land grabbing. The International Institute for Environment and Development found last year that an alarming number of African governments "are being rushed into signing away water rights during negotiations where they were initially only considering leasing land," the Guardian explained.
Inpaper Magazine spells it out even more clearly: water-stressed countries look for water-rich land in other countries to secure their food supplies. "It is argued that when a country gets one ton of wheat from the purchased land abroad it is saving about 1300 cubic meters of domestic water."
By now, everyone's heard of blood diamonds and other conflict minerals, and while the human rights atrocities are horrifying, the larger economic and development picture is also pretty grim: Foreign companies come into resource-rich countries to operate mines that tend to meet poor, if any, environmental and labor standards—and walk away with all the profit, leaving nothing but a community in worse shape than it was in before.
Much of the mining development in Africa—and how governments proceeded to encourage and permit in-country projects—was driven and shaped by the World Bank, which published its "Strategy for African Mining" in 1992, encouraging (in some cases pretty forcefully) governments to privatize their mining industries at the expense of development.
As a result of these poor policies, a report produced by several NGOs explains, "the citizens of mineral-rich countries continue to live in poverty, and are in some cases subject to violent conflict fuelled by the wealth generated from mineral resources as is the case today in the eastern DRC." The same report estimated that such tax breaks or low royalty rates cost South Africa, for example, $359 million a year, and Ghana $68 million a year.
Communities see little or no economic growth as a result of mining operations because companies almost always import the equipment and managerial services they need, and because the resources get exported for refining and beyond.
People look back on the slave trade with shame, but it has somehow become acceptable for foreign interests to set up shop in African communities, without their consent, to take their resources—even if the mine fuels local conflict or workers are enslaved in the process.
Visit Stop Africa Land Grab to learn more about how people in Africa feel about this global race for the continent's resources.