(December 21, 2014) A recent article in the Wall Street Journal had the headline Congo seeks investors for farmland bigger than France. It is hard to imagine a worse idea, one which if fully carried out will doom most rural Congolese to lives as plantation workers—low-paid and hard, with their birthright of land effectively sold to foreigners.
The first paragraph of the article makes the idea sound attractive. “[It is] an attempt to attract capital and technology capable of boosting jobs and food productivity in one of the world’s poorest countries.”
But of course the basic question is: why not help Congolese farmers develop agricultural production? The question was asked by the Journal reporter Simon Clark, and the answer provided by John Ulimwengu, an adviser to the Congolese prime minister (who is also a senior researcher at the Washington International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, a UN agency) was that Congo’s plan to lease land to investors was developed after an earlier initiative to support small-scale farmers failed. A government project to provide seeds and equipment wasn’t sustainable because it depended on limited public funds, Mr. Ulimwengu said. The farmers also didn’t have the capacity to store and process their produce, or transport it to market.
The government does not have enough resources to help its people. Really? Congo is one of the most resource-rich regions of the world. Minerals mined in Congo are essential for the world’s electronics, such as cellphones, microchips and computers. Why isn’t the government collecting taxes on these mineral exports and using the resources to support the largest group of productive people in the country? Governments can be run for the benefit of the people, or they can be run for the benefit of govenment officials themselves and a small group of rich and powerful allies. It is worth considering that the latter is true of the Congolese goverment. The DRC is perceived as one of the most corrupt countries in the world (154 out of 175 countries ranked in the Transparency International 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index.) How can a government bypass its own very poor people, who could have their lives improved by basic improvements in their crop production and ability to market their crops? The government is selling 25 year leases to the land. It would be interesting to track what happens to the money received for those leases.
The lack of government resources is in fact belied by what the Congolese government is doing to support this land lease. The first of 21 agribusiness sites of 80,000 hectares siite (small farms usually run about 4 hectares or less) is being connected to power from a hydroelectric dam, with the government already spending $83 million on the site.
It is very likely that the establishment of these large farms will trample the land ownership rights of local people, which are often traditional, and not properly codified by a government land registry. It is not at all clear that the government has the right to lease the land. Such claims are being ignored now, and will be much more difficult to acknowledge once the land is in the hands of foreigners, and is developed.
A fundamental process of economic development that benefits all the people of the country, not just outsiders and a select few within the country, is increasing agricultural productivity for its farmers. The farmers gain because they produce more. The rest of the country gains because, as production goes up, prices go down, leaving everyone with more food at lower prices. This large farm/plantation agriculture will direct the directs the lions share of the benefits to the foreigh owners/leasors of the land, with the only benefit the lease payments, and the small wage payments to the agricultural workers, who will have little choice but to work for these large landholders, because they have been deprived of the land through the government leases. Agricultural worker life in large farm/plantation agriculture is very hard. See, for example, the recent series of articles on Mexican large farms in the Los Angeles Times.
There is no more important hunger issue than improving the lives of poor farmers thoughout the world. It appears that the DRC’s current agricultural policy will result in dispossesing rural people in the DRC of their land and locking them into permanent poverty.
* Lane Vanderslice is the editor of Hunger Notes