Challenging Africa’s ‘enclosure’

Monday, 24th August 2009 at 8:00 UTC Leave a comment

One would hardly think it worth while to invest in African farmland, given the images of starvation which are still attached, and sometimes quite accurately, to the continent. But yet the BBC recently reported on a land grab that could threaten the food sovereignty, as well as the livelihoods, of many  vulnerable Africans.

Anyone with a reasonable grounding in English history knows the immense suffering caused by the Enclosure Acts, that deprived peasants of what little rights they already had to a livelihood. And so began a period of intense social upheaval that would eventually lead to factory reform acts several hundred years later, designed to at last rectify some of the enormous injustices that had been created in society and perpetuated over a century.

So how similar is today’s sudden flow of investment in to Africa. To some extent, it depends on the end-use of the land; if this is a move to ensure more productive farming of food for African consumption, then that’s probably not entirely a bad thing, particularly if consideration is given to dietary needs and so forth. The fact is, Africa has never been a continent to benefit from outside interference in that way.

Africa is a continent that still needs to live off its land. Those who don’t live in one of two conditions: the squalor of the slums that surround almost every one of its population centres, or the very few services that exist, like bus drivers and teachers, neither of which constitute a middle-class in today’s standards. And then there’s the super rich.

The major difference, one might try and claim, between England and Africa at their times of land commodification, was between technical land owners. The people of England essentially belonged to their land owners, a set up that implied a few token rights for the peasant, rights that became too much of a burden for the rich in their quest to get richer. One might claim that the people of Africa are largely at their own disposal, and that the land doesn’t belong to a rich land owner.

But who does the land belong to? Sadly, we arrived at a point some decades or centuries ago, depending on how and where you look, where un-owned land ceased to be any part of our reality; too incapable of simply allowing nature to live and let live, we demanded to know who owned every square inch, and in plenty of cases murdered our way to ownership of anything who’s ownership we didn’t like.

For the people of Africa, the only plausible answer has therefore been to have their government own the land they work. Instead of living on an estate, they live within the State, farming it’s land in return for a tax-like rent. But this set up is no more benevolent at its core than the idea of the Lord of the Manor with his responsibility to his serfs.

Those in power simply don’t want that kind of responsibility, and by definition of “being in power” have the ability to change the rules to their liking. Indeed, it could be argued that almost the entire history of human civilisation has been an attempt to shift responsibility for others away from ourselves, even when the responsibilities were minimal and brought huge benefits.

Indeed, history has shown that Africa is a continent with a particularly poor track record for fair governments, be that in the days of the slave trade, where tribal leaders had no regrets about selling their captured enemies into slavery, to colonialism where Whites abused Blacks, to today, with Mugabe as perhaps the obvious example, though I realise there are more. Indeed, where Latin America has often been a continent in resistance, Africa, for whatever reason (and I’m not even sure most of the stated reasons are fair) is a continent that has had little success if any in giving it’s people a voice.

And so where are the anti-enclosure protests? Who is going to guarantee that those who need the land for their very survival are not simply added to the scrap heaps of humanity represented in Africa’s vast slums? My worry, therefore, is that this is becoming a non-issue, one in which ordinary African’s are becoming, yet again, the silent victims.

The BBC article might be showing an example of a western company with some attempts to show morality, but it makes allusions to China and other countries getting involved. Can we afford for such countries to become land owners in Africa? Is this not just the birth of a new Chinese empire. This isn’t the neo-colonialism we were supposed to be dealing with in the 21st Century, where local rulers are subjected to policy-discrimination that forces their hand, but instead a resurgence of the bare-faced colonialism of physical presence, population transfer (both of Chinese and of African farmers) and direct environmental degradation.

So why aren’t British NGO’s up in arms about this? Well, partly because resources are elsewhere, and perhaps partly because they haven’t been convinced into action. Whilst it would be good to know my own MP’s views on this, perhaps more importantly, individuals need to be banging on the doors of the NGO industry demanding to know why this isn’t under their radar, and if it is, why they weren’t the ones telling us, instead of us having to rely on the BBC for the warning.

Entry filed under: Africa, Development, Economics, Food, News, Poverty.

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