Are Indian Companies “Land Grabbing” in Africa?

As foreign companies and governments buy or lease land in countries across Africa, the debate continues as to whether this will encourage development or is simply land grabbing, which displaces local populations and threatens food security.

The Hindu's Addis Ababa correspondent Aman Sethi (@Amannama) has recently written about Indian companies’ involvement in Ethiopia and Mali, and on 19 May he took part in a Q&A session on Facebook on the issue of so-called Indian land grabs in African countries.

Susanna Myrtle Lazarus asked:

What is the purpose of land grabs in Africa? Is it for the property value or just for resources like water etc?

Aman Sethi noted that the term “land grab” is disputed:

Well that's an interesting question: the jury is still out on the whole question of “land grab”. The UN, for instance, has come up with a set of guidelines on land investment. Host countries tend to lease out land, rather than sell it, so it isn't usually about property value because the lessor company cannot sell the land. Investments are invariably for the resources then – so it could be minerals, it could be timber, it could be soil and water to grow crops. The big question of course is – are host countries getting enough back in return for leasing out land and (often) displacing people?

Sai Ramakrishna Karuturi, Managing Director of Karuturi Global Ltd., Gambella, Ethiopia. Photo by Flickr user Planète à vendre (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Sai Ramakrishna Karuturi, Managing Director of Karuturi Global Ltd., Gambella, Ethiopia. Photo by Flickr user Planète à vendre (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Jayakarthik Sabarathnam's question was:

Don't you think Africa's land problems are a result of confusion over who owns the land, whether it is an individual or the government, since individuals have been staying on government land under the assumption that they are the owners whereas the government considers the land as its own?

Sethi answered:

I think this is a key and crucial point – that in at least two countries that I wrote about – Ethiopia and Mali – there is significant confusion over land titles. In Ethiopia for instance, all land is owned by the state and is leased out to private individuals and companies. In places like Gambella – as I mention in the second part of the story – communities often have pre-existing communal claims on the land, which are not acknowledged by the state. This creates a serious problem. The Ethiopian government believes that the Commune Development programme – or villagization – will actually streamline the process of land use by giving land titles to the people who are resettled under the scheme. However, this will of course involve a radical change in the way the community conceives of land.

Roybath Mylaks wanted to know if Indian investment actually helped to increase local skills:

Are Indian companies adding to capacity building of locals there? Do they hire locally or bring in workers from India?

Aman Sethi replied:

On labour – the Ethiopian government is very clear that they want companies to train local workers. Last year, I wrote about how liquor Baron Ponty Chadha had come up with a plan to bring farmers from Punjab to Ethiopia – but the plan was shot down by the government. Most governments allow companies to bring in highly skilled technicians and managers, but try to get companies to train people to become machine operators etc.

Samiksha Srivastava's question was along the same lines:

Don't you think Indian-owned companies are enhancing the development there?

Sethi didn't think there was a simple answer to that, and referred to the controversy surrounding Indian company Karuturi Global, which has been heavily criticised for its operations in Ethiopia:

Well, I think that a lot of developing countries are still figuring out what development really means to them – what path should they take, what resources should they allocate, what should be the role of the state and the market? Thus, I think that Indian companies have become a part of this debate by participating in these developing economies. Many in Ethiopia are unhappy with the fact that a foreign company has acquired such large amounts of land – while others believe that companies like Karuturi will help the country earn foreign exchange – so the debate is wide open right now.

Pranay Sinha asked:

Do you think the government needs to put in place some minimum standards for corporates operating abroad so that locals are not abused in the process of these investments, or should it be a self-restricting corporate code of conduct?

Referring again to Karuturi Global, Aman Sethi responded:

Well, I think most governments have legal frameworks to safeguard the rights of project-affected communities – however, many (much like in India) cannot effectively monitor these companies. In Karuturi's case for instance, no laws have been broken – but there seems to be a structural problem with the way the project was conceived – so I think we probably need to think beyond a legal regime and perhaps begin by trying to understand these processes as best we can. It's easy to say “neocolonial land grab” and end the discussion – but that doesn't help our understanding of the world – rather it restricts engagement because the discussion is effectively over.


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