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The statement that large scale investment in land can achieve developmental outcomes is one to be contested. This essay will argue against this point and illustrate how land acquisitions rarely contribute to benefits in the host communities focusing on Africa and notably Tanzania and Sierra Leone and zoning in on the issues of land tenure and livelihood opportunities to illustrate arguments made. The first section present an over view of the terminology of ‘land grabbing’ and what it means in the countries that experience it. The second section will present the argument of customary land rights and the effect investment and acquisition have on these customs. The third section will highlight another argument made by many researchers, which is that the benefits promised by these investments rarely materialise and contribute to development. Finally the last section presents the opposing argument, and how it also holds a lack of merit in its standpoint.

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Background of Land acquisitions

In the Krueger National Park located in South Africa as described by Cotula (2013), 1,200 families were having to be resettled as the government constructed a wildlife park in 2001 on the land they inhabited. In 2008, the families had not moved from the park as they were promised alternative land that had now been leased to a company to develop a sugar cane plantation, however plans fell through. The original inhabitants never got the land they were promised. In many parts of Africa, land that had once been of no interest to the globe, is now being acquired at an increasingly alarming rate during the past years for agricultural production. Named ‘land grabbing’ by the media, this rush of acquiring land has become a topic of debate, with some arguing that the production of agriculture is imperative to secure food for the increasing population. Others argue that small landholders and peasant farmers have no place in the globalised acquisitions that do not benefit them. Africa is the most prominent continent engaged in the ‘global land grab’ since 2007. As stated by Hall et al (2015) it has been estimated that over 70 percent of land transactions with international dealers has been in Africa since the land rush began. The World Bank states that in the last decade large-scale investment in land has multiplied by a factor of ten and over 70 million hectares of land has been approximated to have been leased for these investments since 2009. As explained by Evers et al (2014) based on the reports from the World Bank and GRAIN, in 2009 there were 389 land deals pertaining to over 47 million hectares of African soil. However due to lack of statistics, reports filed and the lack of transparency in many land transfers and acquisitions, it is difficult to accurately estimate the real number of land acquired and people affected by the investments.

It is important to note why these land deals happen. The deals usually occur on the founded on the corporate commitment to upgrade and modernise industrial agricultural farming for food and fuel to export. Hall et al. (2015) further this point by stating that within the context of the long term crisis of African agriculture such as the unsuccessful transformation in agriculture and widespread unemployment, many countries in Africa have open their arms to investors, in hopes that technology transfer will improve the livelihoods of small farmers. However this has not always been the case and many governments have leased large areas of land to foreign government, leaving the local inhabitants with nowhere to go and losing access to the resources that their livelihoods depended on. There is a stark paradox illustrated when conceptualising the challenges of the global land rush, which is that countries that suffer from food insecurity should and have been exporting the food produced to rich countries. This is a common argument in the debate of land acquisition and will be discussed in connection with the case studies in Tanzania and Sierra Leone.

Customary land rights

The first argument is that the majority of the land that governments lease is not there’s to give, mainly due to customary land rights and resulting in disrupted livelihoods. As stated by Cotula (2015), From the 1950’s onwards, the beginning of the majority of African states gaining independence changed the political environment permanently. However even with the new wave of leaders taking control, decolonialisation often does not equate with stronger land tenure rights for the local population. Legislator’s post- colonisation advocated for the same legislation that was upheld under the colonial era, so the majority of African state’s legal systems were constructed with the idea that resources should be made available for foreign investors rather than prioritising the land rights of the local people. Throughout the decades following, some countries adopted socialism while others adopted a capitalist view of development in which large scale investment was needed to boost economic development. In Mali for example, a Land code that was introduced in 1986 help to further the chances of securing private land through registration put the process required meant that vast amount of land was still owned by the governments. This is the case in many states, whereby governments are still permitted to acquire land, provided it is used for public purposes.

The customary sector can be seen as a system of managing land, resources, property ownership, function and access within a community. Hall et al. (2015), argue that there has been incessant objection to the strength of customary rights, combined with efforts by governments to substitute the system with more westernised systems of tenure control where the only eligible form of land ownership is legally registered. Yet the customary system is still the most common and prevalent form of landholding in Sub Saharan Africa, approximately 90 percent of the rural population which equates to nearly 500 million people use this system. The land under customary law comprises of up to 1.8 million hectares, covered by forests, swamplands and pasture for animals which the communities have owned and use for decades by the tradition of customary rights. As they are not legally registered, the state can presume ownership. Many of the large scale acquisitions that occur on African soil, are taken by from these alleged state-owned lands. A term which dismisses the entire customary domain. Inhabitants are usually seen as residents or users of these lands, consent and permission from locals is rarely given. Leasing the land to investors may also strip generations of family from utilising regardless of ownership. If the land ever reverts back to the owners, it will likely be unusable and degraded due to heavy mechanised production. It is often the poorest families and communities that are most heavily reliant on their local resources. Land grabs of even uncultivated regions will be anticipated to impoverish communities even further.

The large scale acquisition in Tanzania provides an illustration of this argument. Sulle and Nelson (2013) describe the land acquisition, as with the majority of Sub-Saharan Africa, Tanzania became of one many countries that experienced large scale land acquisition over the past decade, prompted by the surge of production in biofuels such a jatropha or sugarcane. The most prominent investment was by a company called Bioshape, which acquired almost 34,000 hectares of land in a district called Kilwa. The company went bankrupt in 2009 and left Kilwa, however the community was permanently changed because of it. Issues surrounding land tenure in rural areas have been commonplace since the colonial era. Land reforms that took place in the 1990’s gave rise to a 1999 land and village act which was geared towards increasing the protection of a community’s land in rural regions and customary law. When the process of acquiring land by Bioshape began, it was clear that they did secure permission by authorities at village level and district level however it was understood that many local village inhabitants and local council members did not fully comprehend the procedure of land acquisition, therefore eliminating their customary rights, and any future requisition they may engage in. Research showed that the four villages involved in the land deal did not receive any copy of a formal agreement nor were they informed that their agreement involved the transfer of their village land to general land. Which means the land they owned under customary law was permanently taken, thus halting any form of developmental outcomes due to displacement but also due to what was not given to them after they had agreed to give up their land.

Livelihood opportunities

The second argument against developmental outcomes being achieved by large scale investment is one that when large acquisitions are leased and then established, research shows that the benefits promised such as jobs, infrastructure and education, from these lands deals were not received by the vast majority of communities affected. Cotula et al. (2014) draws attention to this, noting that the benefits are not given due to the restricted amount of jobs that are provided and even smaller number of temporary employment and the abject types of employment that arise with it. This is combined with a lack effort to boost synergies between small landowners and large scale companies. This issue is seen to contribute to problems such as a loss of valuable resources, consequences for subsistence farmers, employment rates and the allocation of benefits promised. Studies have shown that investments have had inconsistent results. Investments in farming agriculture have provided limited permanent jobs in Ghana, Mozambique and Tanzania, although direct work has not provided enough employment, the largest percentage of work is seasonal and often casual. The wage provided is noted to be low in comparison with other jobs alike in the local region. In a number of areas, they have introduced lower pay in order to attract migrants or the most impoverished in a community.

Large scale investments can often create damage that is irreversible to the area used for production, damage caused can be loss of water plantations, marshlands and the commons, which are vital to people who do not own land or disadvantages groups such as migrants, young people or women. Evers et al  (2014) reflects this statement, suggesting that younger men and women are commonly excluded from opportunities to obtain a plot of land that has been transformed by capitalist monocrop production. Kats (2004) states that in Sudan, the increase in secondary education assist in the de-skilling of many young people in the agriculture sector and many migrate to cities as a future in agriculture is not foreseeable. The promise of the transfer of technology also has limited success. In most cases the system used to produce biofuels is inappropriately used in connection with smallholder practices namely due to the expense and variation among the nature of the systems. Also cash crops that are produced by large corporate businesses are usually very different from the crops that are produced by smallholder farmers.

The Addax Bioenenergy large scale investment in Sierra Leone can be used to further illustrate the argument presented. According to Marfurt et al. (2016) Addax leased 20,000 hectares of land to produce sugarcane to export to Europe. In 2010 prior to the beginning of building the plant, all stakeholders were recognised and dialogue formed regarding the benefits of the scheme. In Sierra Leone the majority of provinces practice customary law, women are not permitted to own their own land, even if born into a family that owns land. When local villagers were interviewed the company, they claimed they were promised better infrastructure regarding their houses, roads and water wells. Others were told that Addex would build hospitals and health centres and provide employment. However these promises of development are still waiting to materialise, the communities are still impoverished whilst also maintaining a high illiteracy rate. Smallholders claimed that the compensation given to them for the land acquired and crops that were destroyed was not sufficient given what they had lost. Overall the local population anticipated the construction of healthcare centres, education facilities and most importantly, secure and well-paid employment. Many felt they were deceived, as they participated in the negotiations but were not fully informed of contractual limitations. Through this deception by many companies, often with benevolent intent but through a lack of knowledge of their country’s culture and land tenure systems, they are unable to provide their stated benefits. Development progress therefore becomes halted and communities can become worse off than prior to the acquisition. However this is not always the case, some argue that large scale acquisition can achieve developmental outcomes.

Investment as a method of achieving development

According to Songwe and Deininger (2009) the World Bank large scale investment can provide many benefits by using land that was uncultivated and uninhabited to transform and promote commercial agriculture. They argue that large scale investment can stimulate employment generation and higher wages in a direct manner but also through market interdependence. It can strengthen export markets, encourage technology transfer, and input markets through contracts of sale and bulk purchasing. The diversification of business ventures in regions can promote diversity throughout rural communities. Using the case study of Tanzania, while the investment carried major flaws it also made a significant impact on the economic landscape. According to Sulle and Nelson (2013) there was high demand for employees, both educated and unskilled. While data was difficult to obtain, it is estimated that Bioshape provided over 1,000 jobs throughout its time in Kilwa and invested approximately 10.88 billion dollars in total into the region. The benefits argued by The World Bank are challenged by many, Hall et al (2015) conclude that the presumption that large scale investments will lead to developmental benefits such as a new, working class farming system, binded into corporate value chains and taking advantage of the new infrastructure, technology transfers and specialist knowledge, needs to be questioned. As little proof exists of this being the case. Instead, land acquisitions for agriculture tend to be short-lived business ventures with limited employment or developmental opportunities for the local area and often needing significant state benefits to stay afloat.


To conclude, the global land rush has ignited much international debate, with commentators taking their stance on the impacts that such investments have on local and national level. The issue of customary land rights is central to many land deals in Africa, as dispossessory cases are pervasive due to governments wanting to accelerate commercialisation. When local communities agree to the government leasing their land, they do so under the premise that opportunities will be provided by the company, however this is often not the case. The future of farming and with it the livelihoods of rural communities come with vital decisions and consequences for the next generation. The small-scale, eco-friendly subsistence farming that provides for the needs of families at a household level and local level may not be the most viable option for providing food security or boosting the economy. However is the alternate option of working a low-wage in a capitalist monocrop plantation on land that contributed to dispossession of rural families a better scenario? Although each case is context-specific and not all investments feed into globalised capitalism, large-scale efforts are needed to strengthen the law in which land rights and policies are supported in acquisitions but also the wider problem of power disparities and inequality that allow for such issues to arise out of large scale investments.





Cotula, L. (2013). The Great African Land Grab?: Agricultural Investments and the Global Food System. Zed Books Ltd.

Evers, S., Seagle, C. and Krijtenburg, F. (2013). Africa for sale? Positioning the state, land and society in foreign large-scale land acquisitions in Africa. Boston: Leiden.

Hall, R., Scoones, I. and Tsikata, D. (2015). Africa’s Land Rush: Rural Livelihoods and Agrarian Change. Boydell & Brewer.

Marfurt, F., Käser, F. and Lustenberger, S. (2016). Local Perceptions and Vertical Perspectives of a Large Scale Land Acquisition Project in Northern Sierra Leone. Homo Oeconomicus, 33(3), pp.261-279.

Songwe, V. and Deininger, K. (2009). Foreign Investment in Agricultural Production: Opportunities and Challenges. online Available at: Accessed 2 Jan. 2018.

Sulle, E. and Nelson, F. (2013). Biofuels Investment and Community Land Tenure in Tanzania. online Maliasli Initiatives, pp.6-27. Available at: Accessed 2 Jan. 2018.

Wily, L. (2011). Nothing New Under the Sun or a New Battle Joined? The Political Economy of African Dispossession in the Current Global Land Rush. online Sussex: University of Sussex. Available at: Accessed 2 Jan. 2018.




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