Land Grabs and the Continued Fight for African Economic Self-determination

For the majority of Africans, their economic livelihoods are tied directly to the land on which they live.  When Africans are forced to leave their land due to land grabs, they are also being forced to leave their livelihoods.  Therefore, land grabs not only infringe upon Africans’ property rights; they also infringe upon Africans’ economic rights.  The struggle for economic rights has been the cornerstone of the modern African state since decolonization.  Aside from ending the racial discrimination that Africans suffered under colonization, the push for decolonization was also motivated by the right of Africans to reap the economic benefits of their own labor and the natural resources of their continent.  Land grabs perpetuate the same economic disenfranchisement that Africans suffered under colonization making land grabs neo-colonial in nature.  Ironically, these neo-colonial land deals have been promoted as development focused investments.  However, one must argue that while increased investment in Africa is necessary to extend Africa’s growth and development, any land deal that forces Africans off their land and away from their work are not beneficial for Africans or Africa, never mind unjust. 

Economic self-determination is the idea that all nations of people have the right to decide how their country’s resources will be utilized.  This includes resources such as minerals, metals, timber, produce, human labor, water, and of course land.  As with property rights, there are also many interregional and international laws that protect economic rights.  Within the Banjul Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights; the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples there exist specific articles that protect the right to self-determination as it pertains to economy.  Furthermore, the United Nations’ Resolution 1803 on Permanent Sovereignty over Natural Resources Article 1 states “The right of peoples and nations to permanent sovereignty over their natural wealth and resources must be exercised in the interest of their national development and of the well-being of the people of the State concerned.”(1)  

The Push for International Investment

Nevertheless, with reference to land grabs, existing laws have largely been ignored in the interests of biofuel production, food and water security for foreign nations, and of course, money.  Aside from the income that such land grabs provide for corrupt African government officials and African elites, there has also been great pressure from the international financial community on African governments for economic policies that open African borders to foreign investment.  Their argument is that increased foreign investment in Africa will promote all-around societal development, which will include the rural communities most affected by the land grabs.  However, the efficacy of this argument is flawed as the majority of Africans, especially those who are being removed from their land, rarely see any type of economic benefit.  As most Africans rely on subsistence farming to feed themselves, their families, and for income, mere eviction from their land creates economic injustice.  Further economic injustice takes place when the majority of the African population sees no benefit from the raw materials and natural resources extracted from their national lands by foreign corporations.  At the very least, leased land could potentially bring in steady tax revenue, but in some cases the land is leased tax-free.  Recently, the Sudanese government struck a lease deal with a Saudi business for 2 million acres of tax-free farming (2).   Additionally, foreign governments and corporations are also buying land at bargain prices, often less than 1-dollar USD per hectare (3).   In Cameroon, the government has already sold or leased about 1,235,500 acres (or 500 thousand hectares) of land out of 4,942,107 acres (or 2 million hectares) requested (4) .
The land deals with foreign investors frequently promise employment, schools, and infrastructure projects, but Africans rarely see any of these promises come to fruition.  Thus, the economic injustice suffered by Africans, especially rural Africans, goes hand in hand with the loss of property. 

Taking Responsibility

Several parties must be held responsible for any economic disenfranchisement that land grabs create for everyday Africans.  The foreign countries and corporations buying land must remember the interests of the foreign citizens whose lives their deals are effecting.  In fact, Resolution 1803 also holds foreign parties responsible for not infringing on sovereignty over natural resources stating “Foreign investment agreements freely entered into by or between sovereign States shall be observed in good faith; States and international organizations shall strictly and conscientiously respect the sovereignty of peoples and nations over their natural wealth and resources.” (5)   African governments must also strive to protect the interests of their people and the resources their territories have been favored with.  This is not only their legal responsibility, but also the legacy of decolonization they must uphold.  Finally, it is also the responsibility of African citizens to prevent land grabs.  African citizens must mobilize as communities who will not tolerate government corruption. 


In the next article on the African Land Grab series, the focus will be on food and water rights that have been largely affected by the leasing and buying of African land.