Food and Water for Sale: The Impact of Land Grabs on the Right to Food in Africa

Africans are no strangers to the issue of food and water insecurity, and land grabs only serve to exacerbate these insecurities on the continent. Often inhospitable climatic conditions and lack of access to modern technology make farming difficult for African farmers.  However, added difficulties arise when those pockets of land that are farmable are taken from Africans who depend on that land for their food source.  Ironically, many of the land grabs taking place are for the purpose of other countries’ food security.  Thus, this article on land grabs will focus on the right to food and water and how land grabs infringe on those rights.

Large-Scale VS. Small-Scale Agriculture

If the state is selling away land that is used by its people to cultivate their own food then this creates a serious issue of food and water security and injustice.  When the majority of a continent’s population relies on individual plots of land for food production and water security, selling that land without consent of the people denies availability, accessibility, and adequacy in regards to food production.  Furthermore, the State usually does not supply any substitute land for the community in which land is taken from nor is the land generally used for the benefit of the local community.  Any agribusiness that takes place is large-scale, and most of the produce goes outside of the country and the continent. 

In some cases, large foreign agri-business employs farmers from the community to grow whichever raw material the business is producing.  However, these deals often do not work for the farmer, as he cannot yield the demand of the large corporation.  When he cannot yield the demand he loses his contract with the large corporation as well as his income and land.  Many agriculture and climate change experts are now reporting that small-scale farming may be more sustainable in the long-term.  Large-scale farming is hard on the soil and requires copious amounts of water.  Additionally, monoculture economies are not beneficial for African societies especially when “Africa continues to be a net importer of food despite an abundance of fertile land and water.”(1)     Instead, organizations like the U.S.-based Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) are teaching people about their property rights and providing grants to African states so that they may create registry systems or strengthen existing agencies.  MCC argues that “[f]or a poor, rural family, access to a small farm plot can be vital to day-to-day survival, providing family members with food, household income and the possibility of working their way out of poverty.”(2)

The Right to Food and Water

The right to food and water is characterized as the right of all human beings to feed themselves either by producing their own food or by purchasing food.  The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food defines this right as “The right to have regular, permanent and unrestricted access, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people which the consumer belongs, and which ensure a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear.”(3)   The right to food and water is about availability, accessibility, and adequacy.  This means that in the case of subsistence farming the State is tasked with enabling access to seeds, tools, and water; opening lines of credit to purchase these items; and protecting the property rights of small-scale farmers.  In the case of purchasing food it is the State’s responsibility to ensure both fair wages and adequate infrastructure so that people can travel reasonable distances to buy available foodstuffs.  The right to food and water is not about ensuring a minimum number of calories, proteins, and other nutrients each day or the right to be fed.  Instead this right is about ensuring the ability of one to feed one’s self and one’s family.(4) 

Much research has been done about the relationship between food and water scarcity and conflict.  Water expert Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security has studied around 225 conflicts dating back 5,000 years directly related to water.  Additionally, Letitia Obeng, chair of the Global Water Partnership believes that “ncreasing water insecurity in rural areas… is likely to bring worsening food security and more migration to cities, which in turn will have problems supplying enough water to their inhabitants. That is likely to lead to growing conflict and, in extreme cases, failure of fragile states.”  Therefore, enabling availability, access, and adequate supplies of food and water is not only important for one’s personal health, but also the health of society, especially politically fragile African countries.

Many international and national legal instruments exist to promote and protect the right to food and water.  Article 25 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights promotes the right to food and water as well as Article 11 Sections (2)(a) and (2)(b) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.  Specific international legal instruments such as Conventions on the Rights of the Child Article 24 (2)(c), Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women Article 12 (2), and Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Article 25 (f) and 28 (1) also support the right to food and water.  In the case of African states, there are also regional instruments like the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990) and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (2003) that also call for the right to food and water (5).   

As parties to the international and regional legal instruments promoting the right to food and water, African governments are compelled to integrate these laws into their own national laws and enforce them.  Accordingly, any land deals that negate the right to produce or purchase food for one’s self is unjust.  Clearly the land deals being struck between African governments and foreign parties are negating the right to food and water for many people.  Furthermore, it is largely disappointing that a continent with such ample supplies of fertile land and underground stores of water also houses some of the hungriest and impoverished people in the world.  Therefore, this signals an institutional problem rather than a problem of resources.  Indeed, currently food and water security are not about a global food shortage, but instead about a food system that does not allow access for all to the food that is available.  Land grabs in Africa only intensify this problem (6).

In the following article for the African Land Grab Series, environmental injustice caused by economic development will be explored as it relates to land grabs in Africa.