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China no landgrab leader in Africa, researcher says

A child playing in Kimambila, Tanzania. (Rick Westhead/Toronto Star)

The government has identified this village in Tanzania as one ready for development, and foreign companies have visited the district on a trade mission, raising local worries that they will be forced off their land.

Watchdog groups have warned for several years that Chinese companies are among the most voracious when it comes to swooping into Africa and snapping up the world’s last unspoiled bits of virgin arable land.

The U.S.-based NGO Grain, for instance, suggests China is among the worst offenders, alongside Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

“While seeds, water, financing, and energy are all necessary to agriculture, there is one obvious requirement that comes before all of them: you cannot grow food without land. But land grabbing by foreign governments (Kuwait, China, Saudi Arabia, and others) or by wealthy individuals, be they foreigners or nationals, deprives small farmers of that indispensable factor in the food equation. In fact, it turns them into farmworkers on their own land.”

The U.S. consultancy McKinsey & Co. estimates that Africa is home to 60 per cent, or 600 million hectares, of the world's remaining arable, uncultivated land, leading some critics to suggest this century may become known as the Great Selloff of Africa.

It's an important story, one that the Star sent me to Tanzania and Ethiopia to cover in 2011.

Turns out that China, an easy and frequent object of criticism in the west, may have received a raw deal with its inclusion as an alleged leading land-grabber.

In a story published in The South China Post, Johns Hopkins University Professor Deborah Brautigam, a specialist in Sino-African relations, says in an interview that as of March 2012, there is not a single documented case of a Chinese company investing in an agriculture project in Africa that covers more than 10,000 hectares. There are only a few, in fact, that are larger than 5,000.

The South China Post notes that Brautigam’s claim is support by another report, this one by Standard Chartered Bank, which estimates Chinese firms have leased about 100,000 hectares of land in Africa, far less than Indian and Middle Eastern companies.

Interestingly, a recent European Union report suggests E.U. imports of $60 billion worth of agricultural products from the world’s developing countries, more than the other top five together (the U.S., Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.)

Ministry of Commerce data shows China imported about $2.8 billion of agricultural products from Africa in 2012, accounting for about 2.5 per cent of its total agricultural imports.

Data from Statistics Canada shows Canada imported about $35 billion worth of "agri-food and seafood" in 2012, the vast majority of which came from the U.S. The biggest African exporters of food to Canada were Ivory Coast ($175 million); South Africa ($158 million); and Morocco ($81 million).

Canadian companies have also come under the glare of non-profits. In October, the Canadian charity Oxfam said more than a dozen Canadina firms and pension funds were contributing to what it called one of the "greatest scandals of the 21st century" in the developing world, gobbling up arable farmland for commercial purposes that was being used already by locals.

There’s no doubt Africa is at the forefront of China’s collective conscience. During President Xi Jinping’s first foreign trip as president, he visited three African countries.

Brautigam said through 2009, Chinese aid financed the building of at least 142 farms and agricultural demonstration centres in more than 40 African countries.

Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at the Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead


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Good article. China sends doctors, aids, not troops or settlers, to Africa. They are genuine friends of Africans.

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