The Daewoo-Madagascar land grab: Ten years on

Boys use catapults to scare away birds from their rice paddy fields in the outskirts of the capital Antananarivo October 30, 2013. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The number of land grabs for food and agriculture continues to grow, with most of the deals taking place in Africa

Renée Vellvé is co-founder and programme staff of GRAIN, an international group supporting social movements in the struggle for food sovereignty.

Mamy Rakotondrainibe is the president of the Collective for the Defence of Malagasy Lands - TANY, a civil society organisation fighting land grabs that affect the citizens and farmers of Madagascar.

On 18 November 2008, The Financial Times exposed a massive deal being negotiated between a South Korean company Daewoo Logistics and the government of Madagascar.

Through this deal, the company was seeking access to about 1.3 million hectares of land to grow maize for export while the local communities were uninformed. The breaking of this story helped lead to the overthrow of the Malagasy government a few months later, and woke the world up to an outrageous new trend of global land grabbing for agricultural production.

Ten years later, what are we seeing?

For one, we are seeing that the number of land grabs for food and agriculture continues to grow.

In 2016, GRAIN tallied 500 deals covering 30 million hectares in 70 countries, with half of the deals in Africa.

However, the pace of land deals has slowed, and many big projects have failed often going bankrupt or being stopped by community resistance.

To escape the social backlash, some investors are switching to more diffuse and subtle forms of land grabbing such as: contract farming, special economic zones, agropoles and infrastructure corridors. But any way you slice it, land concentration is increasing.

We are also seeing more clearly how violence and lawlessness underpin many of these deals. In 2016, the International Criminal Court broadened its mandate to include land grabbing as a “crime against humanity”, which it will now prosecute.

In 2017, Global Witness recorded the highest number of land defenders being killed on the ground, pointing out that the number one driver was agri-business. This past year several corrupt politicians and businessmen were thrown into jail for grabbing large swaths of farmland to launder illicit funds. The human price tag is rising.

On the ground, though, we are witnessing immense hope.

People are organising and building alliances to expose these projects and recover control of their lands.

Across West Africa, women displaced by palm oil plantations run by Asian conglomerates like Wilmar, Olam, Golden Agri-Resources and others are learning from each other, building strategies together and gaining the voice and strength to lead the fight.

Communities living adjacent to giant farms funded by European groups Socfin and Bolloré have formed an alliance to pressure the investors to heed their demands for unpolluted water, decent working conditions and the return of their lands.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, villagers resisting the 100,000 hectare Feronia palm oil operation, formerly held by Unilever, are challenging the very legality of the project in a complaint to the European governments backing it.

More examples abound, including from Asia, Europe and the Americas. But the bottom line is that we have to do more to stop these large-scale land deals at the source. None of them are feeding local populations – they are mostly fuelling conflict, dispossession and abuse.

Back in Madagascar, time appears to have stood still. Daewoo Logistics is still present in the country. Their botched 2008 land bid has haunted the current election cycle, as the same politicians who pushed for and against the deal ten years ago are vying for the presidency once again.

As Malagasy communities struggle against several other land grabs, less monstrous than Daewoo’s attempt, we hope that history won’t repeat itself and that the new regime resists any further temptation to lease off the country’s resources for the benefit of a few.

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