A Libyan agribusiness has bought the farming rights for 100,000 hectares of land in northern Mali.
The deal is part of the Malian government's strategy to promote private investment in rice production and includes the construction of a 40km irrigation canal.
But the region's farmers are concerned that the deal will have negative consequences for their livelihoods.
Under the agreement, Malibya, a subsidiary of a Libyan sovereign wealth fund, has been granted a 50-year lease to the land in the Office du Niger region.
Lamine Coulibaly, of Coordination Nationale des Organisations Paysannes (CNOP), an umbrella organisation representing the interests of farmers, said the agreement was driven by Libya's concerns over food security.
'Libya is dependent on multinationals for agricultural products. Following the example of other Arab countries, projects like this in Office du Niger are an attempt to end this dependency,' he said.
Land grab or opportunity?
Mali's Agricultural Minister Agatham Ag Alassane said that Mali had no choice if is going to feed its own population.
'Our concern today is to modernise agriculture, especially rice cultivation. To do this, we need a lot of resources and a lot of land. We cannot give a tractor to a small producer who would use it on two or three hectares; that would be a waste,' he is reported as saying.
CNOP said the local population were already being evicted from their land.
'The Chinese company contracted to build the canal has started work on the demolition of 150 houses. Other families have had their gardens destroyed along with all the food that they grow. So far there has been no compensation,' said Coulibaly.
Competition for water
Local farmers are expected to receive compensation in the form of irrigated land but there are fears that large-scale rice production by Malibya will mean they lose out on water.
'The project will increase competition for the waters of the river Niger, the most important irrigation resource in the country,' said Coulibaly.
He added that Malibya had entered into negotiations to have priority over water resources in the low season, when water supplies are weak.
Roger Wilson, of the World Land Trust, expressed concern at the apparent lack of transparency in the agreement being made.
'This is a strategic decision with a 50 year lock-in. There needs to be more information about the social and environmental ramifications of this project.'
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