The Great African Land Rush

The world's largest continent, despite or perhaps because of its poverty, is also its fourth largest food importer. Yet unlike, say, Japan, Africa's dependence on foreign food has nothing to do with a lack of terrain. It has more to do with the fact that a car mechanic like Cheik Gueye can't afford nice things. Born in Keur Moussa, Gueye quit his five-year stint fixing fenders in Dakar to return home and attempt his own land grab -- on a mechanic's budget. The cheap, used irrigation gear he could finagle leaks more than it irrigates, leaving mosquito pools that qualify this farm as malarious. Because his 500 acres sits on a lousy patch on the water table, every well he drill has to go deeper than the last one. Gueye worries that his workers spelunking his latest well to rev the pump-powering generator 15 meters down will asphyxiate on its diesel fumes, fall, and die trying to lift recalcitrant groundwater from a crummy well.

And Gueye is one of the few lucky villagers who even has electricity. The rest, like Ndiaga Ndiaye, use buckets to water garden-sized plots of vegetables. Ndiaye works the sandy floodplain on the edge of the religious leader's 1,500 acre lot. His bucket-fed sandtrap cabbage farm yields a pretty pathetic crop.

Africa holds half of the land that will be made arable before 2030

"We just work here to eat," he said. At 3 p.m., he changes clothes, and starts his shift as a taxi driver.

Ndiaye's plot is the only land being farmed in view. All around him, land is owned, but unused, as is most of the land investors have acquired in Africa in the past five years. "Only 12 percent of it is actually being farmed," Oxfam Senegal's Head of Economic Justice Lamine Ndiaye said. "The other 88 percent is just sitting there. It's just for speculation. You buy it, and three years later, you sell it at a higher price."

Ndiaye wants to farm the unused plots, he said.

"I have the experience -- years of experience -- and if I had the means, I could exploit this land," he said.

But the last time he tried, he got chased off.

• •

However bizarre a circus of villager frustration and arcane property deals Africa's land scene may be, it's hard to image a safer investment in the third millennium than soil. China is losing 1,400 miles of the stuff to desert every year, according to the Earth Policy Institute. Texas and California have each lost fifteen percent of their irrigated area since the 1990s, the group's president said.

But neither China nor the U.S. is driving the land scramble: Saudi Arabia and its neighbors are. The Persian Gulf's water reserves are diminishing, and in 30 years they may be kaput. In the gulf, and elsewhere, demand for arable land is growing, while supply is shrinking.

Africa holds half of the land that will be made arable before 2030, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. It's not bad land. Rice paddies in the Senegal valley, for example, yield 50 percent more than the global average -- and, unlike Asia, this chunk of the tropics has yet to see its green revolution. A Saudi Arabian company called Foras says it's here to bring about just that. The land acquisition fund is looking to acquire "large" amounts of land in Senegal, Benin, and Mauritania, according to spokesman Momar Gueye. "What we are trying to do here is raise the quality of rice that's being produced locally," he said. "We bring new technology, like new seeds to improve production."

Gueye said the company will sell much its Senegal-farmed rice in local markets, instead of exporting it all back to Saudi Arabia. A persistent complaint about companies like his is that ship the precious food they sow in a poor state like Senegal away to wealthier shores. But Foras is under no obligation to sell to anyone other than the highest bidder. Should the price of rice spike, it's hard to fathom why they wouldn't.

And while Gueye declines to comment on it, Reuters reported last year that the company is already negotiating for a 99-year lease on a 770 square kilometer stretch of Senegalese farmland. The lease is just half of the 1,500 square kilometers Reuters reports that the country's Agriculture Ministry is looking to rent to Saudi investors.

That's a stretch of turf four times the size of New York City. The question isn't just where in Senegal the Agriculture Ministry found that land, but where the people undoubtedly living on -- and off of it -- will go.

"There is no elsewhere," Ndiaye, the Oxfam researcher, said. "The myth that's brought so many investors is this thinking that there is so much empty land in Africa. The land is not empty. They're being occupied by the community, it's just that they're not recognized as owners of that land."

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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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