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China in Africa: The Real Story

"Germany blames Chinese land buys for Africa drought": Really?

Deborah Brautigam

Photo credit: International Land Coalition
Today here at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, DC, I spoke by phone with a German reporter who wanted to interview someone about the statement this morning by the German government's Africa adviser Guenter Nooke who allegedly blamed Chinese land buys for the drought in the Horn of Africa.

He told the daily Frankfurter Rundschau:  “In the case of Ethiopia there is a suspicion that the large-scale land purchases by foreign companies, or states such as China which want to carry out industrial agriculture there, are very attractive for a small (African) elite.” He added that "the Chinese investments were focused on farming for export which he said can lead to 'major social conflicts in Africa when small farmers have their land und thus their livelihoods taken away'.”

I'm glad the reporter was from a radio station; he couldn't see my jaw drop. Yes, land grabs are bad news for small farmers in Ethiopia. But does China even have agricultural investments in Ethiopia? Not according to the newly released "land grab" studies by the progressive California-based Oakland Institute (whose head, Anuradha Mittal, used to be at Food First). The Oakland Institute actually conducted fieldwork on land grabs instead of looking only at media stories. Their June 2011 report on Ethiopia has this finding (which I do not think has been repeated anywhere by the media):
"While China is active in the mining and infrastructure development sectors, they were surprisingly absent from land investment deals. Recent evidence suggests that a Chinese company is poised* to sign a 25,000 ha concession to produce sugarcane in the Gambella region, and this company claimed to be the first agricultural company from China (emphasis added)."
That's consistent with what I found across Africa (note: not necessarily the case for SE Asia or Latin America). It's also consistent with the findings of a 2009 FAO/IIED study of "land grabs" which said:
"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." 
So who has actually invested in Ethiopia? Well, the real story seems to be that it is Western hedge funds, among others. Here's Mittal's YouTube interview.

* Oakland Institute has a copy of a contract between the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture and a Chinese company signed December 12, 2010. Nothing appears to have come of this yet, but this could change. If any of you are following this issue in Ethiopia, let us know what happens.