Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Land Grabbers and the Pimps that Supply them

I'm trying to figure out if the Kenyan government is peopled by idiots or if they have genocidal tendencies. Perhaps both are true of them. Millions of Kenyans are facing food shortages, water shortages and all the longer term consequences that go with these catastrophes. Perhaps as many as one third of the population, maybe even more, do not have enough to eat or drink and they do not have the means to purchase enough food or drink for themselves or their dependents.

So what do the Kenyan government do? They lease a huge piece of land, said to be 40,000 hectares, to the Qatari government so they can grow food crops for Qataris. This is good fertile land; as to how many Kenyans will be displaced, with or without compensation, in order to accommodate the food security of a population that is neither starving nor poor, we are not told.

So, not only is the government leasing land where they could be growing food for Kenyans, but the industrial scale agricultural production that will be employed by the Qataris will require as much water as the area can provide, perhaps more. The two things, food and water, the lack of which is threatening the health and probably the lives of so many Kenyans, are being handed over to a country that should be well able to find an alternative solution for their own problems.

What is Kenya getting in return? A 2.5 billion dollar port in Lamu. The port in Mombasa is not even working to full capacity, the infrastructure surrounding it is in pieces but the Qatari government is offering a brand new port in Lamu. Lamu and the Tana River, where the industrial scale agriculture will take place, are areas of great natural beauty. They are also areas of great ecological importance. It seems hard to believe that a proper assessment has been made of the needs of Kenya's people and the impact that these two major projects will have.

If you look at the Tana River area and the island of Lamu on a map of Kenya you will notice how few roads there are in this region. Travelling overland from other parts of Kenya involves circuitous routes. Will the Qatari government funds also stretch to roads connecting the region to the rest of the country? It seems unlikely. But once these projects are underway, there may not be many reasons left to go to the areas anyway.

Already in the Tana River area, various countries lease land to grow things like sugar cane, to be used as a biofuel. These other countries are not even worried about producing food on Kenyan land, they just need something to stick in their car. Suddenly, people all over the world are 'helping Africans to develop their agricultural potential'. It's not as if Kenyans even gain anything from such projects. Large scale agricultural production is not labour intensive and most of the people living in these areas have been bought off for a pittance. The claims that significant numbers of jobs will be created are just the usual rubbish.

I don't want to sell Kenyan politicians short; they did appeal to international donors for food relief. I hope these donors will ask how deals like the one with the Qatari government will help alleviate starvation in Kenya. The country doesn't need food relief, it needs to use the assets it has got properly. Leasing them to a country that doesn't need them for an asset that Kenya doesn't need is hardly the answer.

People in the Kenyan government have denied that the deal has gone ahead and say it was only discussed. However, land is already being used in Kenya to produce biofuel crops for other countries, I have met people involved in biofuel crop production. The 40,000 hectare figure above is dwarfed by some of the other deals being discussed. Other large scale agricultural projects have been implemented by foreign operators and have caused large scale destruction, displacement of people, loss of livelihoods and other problems that are not reported in the foreign press. Only certain sorts of internal displacement are deemed worthy of note by the foreign press and instances where rich countries benefit can safely be ignored.

Countries other than Kenya have been involved in betraying their people in similar ways, Tanzania, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Sudan, Ghana and Mali, for example. No doubt, the respective political situations in some of those countries make it pretty easy to get land at knock down prices. And Qatar is not the only country to profit from such betrayal, the list also includes other Gulf States, the US, China and South Korea.

There are several questions that governments and others involved in such deals do not address. When large scale agricultural production obviates the need to employ most of the people who live in an area sold or leased out, where are these unemployed and landless people supposed to go? Cities already have far more people than they have housing, infrastructure, water, sanitation or food for. Rural unemployment in other areas is also very high and most people depend on some way of subsisting rather than having formal jobs. Where will they go and what will they do?

When these other countries have used up their 5 to 25 year lease, what will happen with the land then? Presumably it will be pretty useless. The ecologies of the areas being leased will have been destroyed, water tables will have been lowered, soil will have been leeched, both soil and water will have been poisoned by fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and other pollutants. Unless it is redeveloped for some other purpose, it will be useless. Right now, areas like Lamu attract a lot of tourists (when the civil disturbances are not too numerous) but there will be little attractive about these places once the factory farmers have done their work.

It sounds as if Kenyans could end up with even less than they have now and for many, that's not a lot.


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