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China in Africa: The Real Story

Do We Have Statistics on China's Africa "Land Grab"?

Deborah Brautigam

Commercial investment in agriculture in low income countries is a hot button issue, for many good reasons. Often linked to corruption, frequently involving unscrupulous grabbing of land from unprotected traditional holders, the transfer of land from subsistence or smallholder use to commercial or large-scale use is fraught with problems and nearly impossible to manage in a socially sustainable manner. But that's all the more reason to be scrupulous with our evidence and accusations.

A couple of days ago, I had an email from a student who wondered what I thought of "the statistics of IFPRI, GRAIN, FAO" on China's "land grabs". I answered that IFPRI, GRAIN, and FAO did not actually have any statistics on Chinese land investments. They only had collections of media reports. With regard to Africa, many of these media reports are quite off the mark.

Here's a bit more detail that might be helpful to new (and more senior) researchers who are tempted to use these "statistics".

(1) IFPRI: The International Food Policy Research Institute, part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, or CGIAR, compiled media reports of land-grabbing in an April 2009 policy brief. The original version of this policy brief contained a large table simply listing "Overseas Investments". I contacted IFPRI and suggested that although the text mentioned the sources as "media reports", titling the table "Investments" was misleading, suggesting that these reports were all actually real and the investments underway. They then revised the title of the table to state that these were "Media Reports" of investments.

In the course of this, I had an interesting exchange on the veracity of some of the China/Africa media reports with the IFPRI authors on their blog -- to see this exchange on the IFPRI website, click here. After this exchange, which was in the spring of 2009, I went to Mozambique and Zimbabwe myself, and was able to confirm my hunches on both of these cases, as I report in The Dragon's Gift. In the spring of 2010, IFPRI invited me to present my research on China's agricultural engagement. For a link to the presentation, click here, and for a three minute interview, click here.

(2) GRAIN:  GRAIN is an international advocacy organization supporting the rights and livelihoods of small farmers. GRAIN lists "China" along with the Gulf states as "the biggest players" in their 2008 study of the new land grabs. Chinese companies have made, or tried to make, several big investments in Asia and Latin America. These can be confirmed. But in Africa, for the most part, this hasn't been the case.

The GRAIN researchers were not very diligent about validating their sources for African "cases". For example, GRAIN reported that China had set up the China Africa Development Fund in 2008 with $5 billion to invest in African agriculture. Their source: a 2008 article in a local Liberian newspaper. It would not have taken much fact-checking for the GRAIN researchers to determine that the China Africa Development Fund was actually established by China Development Bank as an equity fund in 2007. It began with $1 billion to invest in any kind of profitable project in Africa: infrastructure, manufacturing, mining, agro-industry, etc. When the fund reaches its full size, it is expected to be $5 billion. It is a rather substantial error to say that it is focused on agriculture.

Like IFPRI, GRAIN also compiled a table of "land grabs" as reported by the media. They include most of the same stories. With regard to Africa, as I reported in The Dragon's Gift, I looked into the three major stories of "large land grabs" -- the DRC, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique -- and found little or no substance to two of them (the DRC case which I have discussed elsewhere on this blog, does have some substance. How much is still unclear).

To my mind, the worst case of misrepresentation at GRAIN's list is probably the Mozambique story, reproduced below from their website:
According to a study by Loro Horta, the son of Timor L’Este’s President Ramos Horta, the Chinese government has been investing in infrastructure development, policy reform, research, extension and training to develop rice production in Mozambique for export to China since 2006. Eximbank has already provided a loan of US$2bn and pledged an additional US$800m for these works, though more is expected. Some 10,000 Chinese settlers will be involved. G2G contracts and land leases are still under negotiation, though. Land cannot be owned by foreigners in Mozambique, so joint partnerships with "sleeping" Mozambican entities may need to be struck.
There are so many mistakes in this, I hardly know where to begin to address it. It will have to be the subject of a separate post.

(3) FAO: The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, has sponsored an excellent recent study focused on Africa:  FAO, IFAD & IIED. 2009. Land Grab or Development Opportunity? by Lorenzo Cotula, Sonja Vermeulen, Rebeca Leonard and James Keeley. This study actually had the funding to do fieldwork and interview companies, and the researchers were quite careful. They don't produce "statistics" but they do examine a number of cases.

With regard to Chinese "land grabs" in Africa (and elsewhere) the authors say: "A common external perception is that China is supporting Chinese enterprises to acquire land abroad as part of a national food security strategy. Yet the evidence for this is highly questionable..."

They also note "as yet there are no known examples of Chinese land acquisitions in Africa in excess of 50,000 hectares where deals have been concluded and project implemented."

Soon, we should be able to read the World Bank's study on "land grabs" which is due to be published in the latter half of 2010. With the kind of budget and access enjoyed by the World Bank, we might see more authoritative coverage of this issue. More on this in a future post.