Ward Anseeuw

“The land grab has been exaggerated”

University of Pretoria-based Dr Ward Anseeuw, of the French CIRAD Centre for Agricultural Research for Development, has just returned from discussions with counterparts in Central Africa intended to convince governments to ‘become serious’ about land investment and food production. “Selling off the land was easy. We need locally driven agricultural development. It’s dangerous to just blame investors, local governments are also to blame.”

New data show that the number and size of land grab deals are much less than previously thought, so the situation is not so bad?

New information shows that previously announced estimates –often in the press- of ‘land grabbing’ by foreign investors, were too high. There were more announced deals than deals that actually happened. New data also allow us to differentiate between good investments that benefit local population and development and what can be called ‘land grabbing’.

How much ‘too high’ were the estimates?

It was thought that about 200 million hectares globally, with most of it in Africa, were sold off and that a large part of it was used for non-food production like biofuels. That turns out to be more in the region of 50 million. And lately, biofuels are not such a big part of it anymore.

Are big campaigns against land grab and biofuels production then misguided?

No. Even announcements of land deals can have negative impacts and lead to a loss of land rights. It is important to keep the bigger picture in mind. There was a push for biofuels some years ago and that was cause for concern. But these activities were not successful. Most failed land deals actually concern deals that were intended to produce biofuels.

And these never happened?

Many of them did happen, but failed. Which is a double problem: not only are local populations losing their land, they are not reaping the benefits from such failed deals either.

What is the main cause of the mess?

Only few countries have delivered on the African Union’s’ Maputo Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security Agreement’ of 2003 that prescribed that each country should dedicate ten percent of its national budget to agricultural development.

They didn’t develop their own land and instead just sold it off?

Selling off land was the easy way out. There is a dialogue now intended to change that and some steps have been taken.


For example, in Mozambique and Zambia models for partner-based land projects are being developed. They involve local people and have resulted in an increase in national food production.

The land buyers are doing this?

These are partnerships of public and private, local and foreign, with business plans that comply with environmental and social conditions.

Can this be done without foreign investment?

We must not be naïve. Investment is needed in African agriculture. Without it, countries would still continue to depend on food imports. This will probably also need to include foreign investments. Countries must look at working with ‘good’ investors. Not just in developing the land itself, but also in the broader food sector.

Is the food sector now in foreign hands too?

International agribusiness increasingly invests in the broader food sector in African countries. It is silent and a lot less visible than outright land buying, but the danger is the same. Here, too, countries are not in charge of their own food needs.

It is all about African governments taking charge of their own resources?

Yes. We have to move from an external investment model to organic internal growth, based for example on competitive family-run farms that employ local people and are environmentally sound. Governments on the continent really have to become serious about this.

This interview was conducted by Evelyn Groenink, ZAM Chronicle’s investigations editor.