The ICC indictment of Sudan's President Omar el Bashir, Zimbabwe's troubled transitional unity government and Madagascar's recent coup may well take most of the headlines at next month's African Union (AU) summit in Sirte, Libya. However, the official theme of the meeting will be "Investing in Agriculture for Economic Growth and Food Security".
It is now six years since the AU adopted the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), which provided the framework for the most recent Economic Report on Africa, issued by the AU and the UN's Economic Commission for Africa. This report emphasises the need for the continent to give greater attention to this crucial, but often neglected sector, if the essential goals of economic diversification, job creation and poverty alleviation are to be realised in Africa. It talks of the opportunities for the creation of regional value chains integrating agriculture with other economic sectors to promote sustainable development. Agribusiness, processing, bio-fuels, soil management, seed improvement and fertiliser production all form part of this chain.
The urgency of renewed attention to the agricultural sector has been driven by the realisation that Africa's traditional exports are both too limited in number and too vulnerable to sudden shifts in global commodities markets, as witnessed so dramatically over the past year. It also reflects a need to reduce dependency upon food aid to meet the needs of Africa's rapidly growing population and to address the anomaly of the continent remaining a net importer of food, despite it boasting the world's largest area of unused arable land and pasturage.
The sudden spike in staple food prices and the social distress and political unrest to which this gave rise have also focused attention on a sector that lends itself poorly to the developmental photo-opportunities and media coverage offered by infrastructural turn-key projects.
But this price rise and the uncertainties of global food markets has also concentrated the attention of a number of states beyond Africa, rich in capital but suffering a dearth of viable agricultural land or the water to irrigate it. This is not a new phenomenon, and for a few years now agriculturally stressed countries have sought to reduce their dependency on the vagaries of the market by investing in countries with an apparent abundance of underutilised land. Economic privatisation opened up huge tracts of fertile land in Russia, Siberia and Ukraine for such purposes.
Now, Africa and South-east Asia have become sought after venues for the investment of foreign agricultural capital, especially from the Middle East and Asia. Much of this investment comes in the form of the securing of long-term leases on farmland, which are then developed and farmed to provide crops for export to the country providing the capital. The International Food Policy Institute has estimated that some 20 million hectares may have been leased in this fashion, equivalent to a fifth of the agricultural area of Europe.
Such arrangements may also be attractive to host governments, eager to cash in on underused or undeveloped natural assets. Advocates of these policies also emphasise the gains to be made in employment, technology transfer and infrastructural development. These may all suggest a convenient fit with the policies to be explored in Sirte, where years of underinvestment in agriculture will come under the spotlight. But one is well advised to be careful of what one wishes for, and the casual and opaque way in which some African governments have already entered into agreements with overseas investors should give cause for alarm.
It does not take a great deal of imagination to realise that the "offsets" being offered by investors in terms of infrastructure, technology and jobs for the locals may not live up to expectations. Under what conditions would African governments be motivated to terminate or abrogate contracts with wealthy sovereign funders? Can one assume that the governments themselves act with the long-term interests of their own citizens at heart? A noticeable lack of transparency in the initiation, negotiation and implementation of existing contracts would suggest otherwise. Speculation about an attempt by President Marc Ravalomanana of Madagascar to lease a vast part of his island to Korean investors was used by his opponents to mobilise popular opinion against him. The details of this "deal" are still unclear.
But there are other ways in which such apparently beneficial deals may exacerbate the situation in a continent in which political and community conflict are already rife. It is very easy for governments to claim that under law they have the right to dispose of land and the water on and beneath it. Across much of Africa, systems of registered and commercially oriented tenure do not exist, which is not to say that communal land rights should be ignored. This applies as much to the rights of farming communities as to nomadic pastoralists. Tampering with such customary rights has been a fertile source of conflict in Africa, as the recent histories of Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and Cote d'Ivoire all demonstrate.
In their deliberations in Sirte, Africa's leaders would do well to contemplate the social and political costs of offers that may seem too good to refuse. They, and would-be investors, should also be reminded of the protection they are bound by international law to provide for the people of Africa who depend upon the soil for their livelihoods.
Those who remain ignorant of such obligations would do well to read the report of the UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, published on 11 June this year. Entitled Large-scale land acquisitions and leases: A set of core principles and measures to address the human rights challenge, this excellent piece provides a succinct set of guidelines for the possible implementation of such policies.
Richard Cornwell, Senior Research Consultant, African Security Analysis Programme, ISS Pretoria