Land and seed laws under attack as Africa is groomed for corporate recolonization

Sorghum, one of the crops that feeds Africa, is of little interest to profit-oriented corporate agriculture. Photo: Janki via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Sorghum, one of the crops that feeds Africa, is of little interest to profit-oriented corporate agriculture. Photo: Janki via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Across Africa, laws are being rewritten to open farming up to an agribusiness invasion - displacing the millions of small cultivators that now feed the continent, and replacing them with a new model of profit-oriented agriculture using patented seeds and varieties. The agencies effecting the transformation are legion - but they are all marching to a single drum.
This is not about safeguarding historic or cultural rights, but about creating market mechanisms ... 'security' is shorthand for the power of the market, private property and creditors.

A battle is raging for control of resources in Africa - land, water, seeds, minerals, ores, forests, oil, renewable energy sources.

Agriculture is one of the most important theatres of this battle. Governments, corporations, foundations and development agencies are pushing hard to commercialise and industrialise African farming.

Many of the key players are well known. They include the World Bank, the African Development Bank, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the G8, the African Union, the Bill Gates-funded 'Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa' (AGRA), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and the International Fertiliser Development Centre (IFDC).

Together they are committed to helping agribusiness become the continent's primary food commodity producer. To do this, they are not only pouring money into projects to transform farming operations on the ground - they are also changing African laws to accommodate the agribusiness agenda.

Privatising both land and seeds is essential for the corporate model to flourish in Africa. With regard to agricultural land, this means pushing for the official demarcation, registration and titling of farms. It also means making it possible for foreign investors to lease or own farmland on a long-term basis.

With regard to seeds, it means having governments require that seeds be registered in an official catalogue in order to be traded. It also means introducing intellectual property rights over plant varieties and criminalising farmers who ignore them. In all cases, the goal is to turn what has long been a commons into something that corporates can control and profit from.

Lifting the veil of secrecy

This survey aims to provide an overview of just who is pushing for which specific changes in these areas - looking not at the plans and projects, but at the actual texts that will define the new rules.

It was not easy to get information about this. Many phone calls to the World Bank and Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) offices went unanswered. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) brushed us off. Even African Union officials did not want to answer questions from - and be accountable to - African citizens doing this inventory.

This made the task of coming up with an accurate, detailed picture of what is going on quite difficult. We did learn a few things, though.

While there is a lot of civil society attention focused on the G8's New Alliance for Food and Nutrition, there are many more actors doing many similar things across Africa. Our limited review makes it clear that the greatest pressure to change land and seed laws comes from Washington DC - home to the World Bank, USAID and the MCC.

'Land reform' is to benefit investors, not farmers

Land certificates - which should be seen as a stepping stone to formal land titles - are being promoted as an appropriate way to 'securitise' poor peoples' rights to land. But how do we define the term 'land securitisation'?

This is not about safeguarding historic or cultural rights, but about creating market mechanisms ... 'security' is shorthand for the power of the market, private property and creditors.

As the objective claimed by most of the initiatives dealt with in this report, it could be understood as strengthening land rights. Many small food producers might conclude that their historic cultural rights to land - however they may be expressed - will be better recognised, thus protecting them from expropriation.

But for many governments and corporations, it means the creation of Western-type land markets based on formal instruments like titles and leases that can be traded. In fact, many initiatives such as the G8 New Alliance explicitly refer to securitisation of 'investors' rights to land.

So this is not about recording and safeguarding historic or cultural rights, but about creating market mechanisms. So in a world of grossly unequal players, 'security' is shorthand for the power of the market, private property and creditors.

Most of today's initiatives to address land laws, including those emanating from Africa, are overtly designed to accommodate, support and strengthen investments in land and large scale land deals, rather than achieve equity or to recognise longstanding or historical community rights over land at a time of rising conflicts over land and land resources.

Most of the initiatives to change current land laws come from outside Africa. Yes, African structures like the African Union and the Pan-African Parliament are deeply engaged in facilitating changes to legislation in African states, but many people question how 'indigenous' these processes really are.

It is clear that strings are being pulled, by Washington and Europe in particular, in a well orchestrated campaign to alter land governance in Africa.

Seed laws based on neoliberal ideologies

When it comes to seed laws, the picture is reversed. Subregional African bodies - SADC, COMESA, OAPI and the like - are working to create new rules for the exchange and trade of seeds. But the recipes they are applying - seed marketing restrictions and plant variety protection schemes - are borrowed directly from the US and Europe.

And the changes to seed policy being promoted by the G8 New Alliance, the World Bank and others refer to neither farmer-based seed systems nor farmers' rights. They make no effort to strengthen farming systems that are already functioning.

Rather, the proposed solutions are simplified, but unworkable solutions to complex situations that will not work - though an elite category of farmers may enjoy some small short term benefits.

With seeds, which represent a rich cultural heritage of Africa's local communities, the push to transform them into income-generating private property, and marginalise traditional varieties, is still making more headway on paper than in practice. This is due to many complexities, one of which is the growing awareness of and popular resistance to the seed industry agenda.

But the resolve of those who intend to turn Africa into a new market for global agro-input suppliers is not to be underestimated, and a notable consolidation of seed suppliers under foreign corporate ownership is under way. The path chosen will have profound implications for the capacity of African farmers to adapt to climate change.

Interconnectedness between different initiatives is significant, although these relationships are not always clear for groups on the ground. Our attempt to show these connections gives a picture of how very narrow agendas are being pushed by a small elite in the service of globalised corporate interests intent on taking over agriculture in Africa.

New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition

"The 50 million people that the G8 New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition claims to be lifting out of poverty will only be allowed to escape poverty and hunger if they abandon their traditional rights and practices and buy their life saving seeds every year from the corporations lined up behind the G8", warned Tanzania Organic Agriculture Movement in September 2014.

Launched in 2012 by the G8 industrialised countries - Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, UK and US - the aim of the gtrandly titled G8 New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition is in fact to mobilise private capital for investment in African agriculture.

To be accepted into the programme, African governments are required to make important changes to their land and seed policies. The New Alliance prioritises granting national and transnational corporations (TNCs) new forms of access and control to the participating countries' resources, and gives them a seat at the same table as aid donors and recipient governments.

As of July 2014, ten African countries had signed Cooperative Framework Agreements (CFAs) to implement the New Alliance programme: Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal and Tanzania.

Under these agreements, these governments committed to 213 policy changes. Some 43 of these changes target land laws, with the overall stated objective of establishing "clear, secure and negotiable rights to land" - tradeable property titles.

The New Alliance also aims to implement both the Voluntary Guidelines (VGs) on 'Responsible Land Tenure' adopted by the Committee on World Food Security in 2012, and the 'Principles for Responsible Agriculture Investment' drawn up by the World Bank, FAO, IFAD and UN Conference on Trade and Development. This is considered especially important since the New Alliance directly facilitates access to farmland in Africa for investors.

New Alliance pushing seed 'reform'

As to seeds, all of the participating states, with the exception of Benin, agreed to adopt plant variety protection laws and rules for marketing seeds that better support the private sector.

Despite the fact that more than 80% of all seed in Africa is still produced and disseminated through 'informal' seed systems (on-farm seed saving and unregulated distribution between farmers), there is no recognition in the New Alliance programme of the importance of farmer-based systems of saving, sharing, exchanging and selling seeds.

African governments are being co-opted into reviewing their seed trade laws and supporting the implementation of Plant Variety Protection (PVP) laws, as has been seen in Ghana where farmers have risen up against the changes.

The strategy is to first harmonise seed trade laws such as border control measures, phytosanitary control, variety release systems and certification standards at the regional level, and then move on to harmonising PVP laws.

The effect is to create larger unified seed markets, in which the types of seeds on offer are restricted to commercially protected varieties. The age old rights of farmers to replant saved seed is curtailed and the marketing of traditional varieties of seed is strictly prohibited.

Concerns have been raised about how this agenda privatises seeds and the potential impacts this could have on small-scale farmers. Farmers will lose control of seeds regulated by a commercial system, while crop biodiversity may be eroded due to the focus on commercial varieties.

Making these processes hard to combat is the mutliplicity of programmes and initiatives carried out by different countries and both national and transnational entities in different parts of Africa, all offering short term benefits to governments but all directed towards a single objective - the neoliberal transformation of land, seed and plant variety governance to open the continent up for full scale agribusiness invasion.



The report: 'Land and seed laws under attack: who is pushing changes in Africa?' was drawn up jointly by AFSA and GRAIN. Researched and initially drafted by Mohamed Coulibaly, an independent legal expert in Mali, with support from AFSA members and GRAIN staff, it is meant to serve as a resource for groups and organisations wanting to become more involved in struggles for land and seed justice across Africa or for those who just want to learn more about who is pushing what kind of changes in these areas right now.

AFSA is a pan-African platform comprising networks and farmer organisations championing small African family farming based on agro-ecological and indigenous approaches that sustain food sovereignty and the livelihoods of communities.

GRAIN is a small international organisation that aims to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems.

This article is based on the above report.

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