The Great African Land Rush

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Speculators, among them Muammar Qaddafi, are snatching up much of Africa's arable soil -- enough acreage to cover Norway in a single year -- driving up food prices and leaving locals homeless

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Mujahid Safodien/Reuters

KEUR MOUSSA, Senegal -- Hours into the interior of this agrarian nation sits a cabbage, onion, sorghum, and lettuce field the size of Gibraltar that once belonged, it is said, to the villagers of Keur Moussa. They may never get it back.

In 1999, a well-to-do religious leader managed to acquire the title for the 1,500 acres of farmland that this village had long held in trust. Since he nabbed it, the plot has sprouted sheds, power lines, a water tower, tractors, and pick-up trucks that give it more the look of Iowa corn country than a Senegalese lot. Village women who used to grow, sell, and profit off its produce are now trucked in and out daily, tilling their grandparents' soil like migrant workers. It earns them two to four dollars a day.

"It's better than nothing," one of the women, Maty Ngom said.

Across the dirt road, the president of Senegal's Senate holds a 250-acre stretch, while a second religious leader claims another 2,200 acres. There is also the mystery businessman -- one "Baba Diop," a Senegalese name as generic as John Smith -- whose title to 285 acres, village gossip says, is a front for a foreign investor. A Lebanese, Ngom claims.

Whoever this land once belonged to, it's just a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of square miles of farmland that have been procured -- some bought, some leased, some stolen -- from the villagers of the tropics. The speed and scale at which ground in the developing world is being auctioned up is extraordinary: between 2008 and 2009 alone, the World Bank catalogued 174,000 square miles of land acquisitions in poor countries -- an acreage the size of Sweden. The lion's share of it, 124,000 square miles -- the size of Norway -- sits in Africa, in nations like Sudan, Ethiopia, Madagascar, and Mali. All are famous for their famines. None, not incidentally, are famous for good governance.

Neither China nor the U.S. is driving the land scramble: Saudi Arabia and its neighbors are. Demand for arable land is growing, while supply is shrinking.

Those 174,000 square miles, meanwhile, are only the plots the World Bank could confirm. The local religious leader in Keur Moussa -- whose minders chase away camera-wielding journalists -- may or may not be on the list. Colonel Muammar Qaddafi is. The Brother Leader boasts a 99-year lease on a 386-square-mile, Dallas-sized plot of Malian corn land, plus a chicken farm in Togo. That puts him in the company of such landholders as Saudi Arabia's Sheikh Mohammed al-Amoudi, who holds a century-long lease on Ethiopian rice valleys; Indionesia's Sime Darby, a conglomerate that charters 850 square miles of Liberia's palm oil marsh; the South Korean government (Sudan, wheat); and a host of hedge funds that scout out the cheapest rents left on the meager eight percent of the planet that is arable land.

This is the fire sale of a continent lurching from the farm to the factory. At the turn of the century, Africa is trying once more, as it did in independence days, to industrialize. It's an endeavor that will set it back a fortune. In the past decade, governments like that of Guinea or the Democratic Republic of Congo have swapped billions of dollars worth of mining rights in return for ports, dams, and railroads. Normally possessive governments are selling off their biggest assets -- like Nigeria's electric company -- and taking out historically large bonds to borrow whatever start-up cash the World Bank won't front them.

In Senegal's capital, a two-hour drive from Keur Moussa, the government is calculating ways to boost its $2.3 billion in state revenue by $500 million a year. And it needs $1.2 billion beyond that -- ten percent of its economy -- just to buy the petrol and grid improvements to power low-level industry, never mind its mammoth cement and car factories. To raise that colossal sum, the state is hiking visa fees, piling on new phone taxes, bullying customs agents into stricter suitcase searches, and has asked everyone from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to one of Rahm Emanuel's brothers for help.

Failing all that, Africa's industrial hopeful's like Senegal can sell land, the one resource -- more than mines or high-profile foreign assistance -- each has in abundance. And that, three years after China became a net food importer, and two years after catastrophic spikes in food prices, is a resource worth selling.

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Drew Hinshaw is a reporter based in Dakar. He writes about West Africa. His writing has appeared in Bloomberg News and the Christian Science Monitor.

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