Posts Tagged ‘agriculture’

Big farm, big deal

Last but not least on my round-up of what was blogged while I was putting my feet up, my eye was caught by this article from Madeleine Bunting on a massive land deal on Mali (bought by the Libyans). It is so far from least that I have created an entirely new category Land Tenure to house it. I should be blogging a lot more about land as it is critical to just about every conservation and development project* I have ever come across.

These kind of land deals are serious business in Africa these days, and so they should be. Africa has got a lot of land which is underutilised. Various problems raise their head. From a conservation perspective unutilised land might have a lot of utility as a biodiversity reserve. I’m generally not a big fan of trying to cover half the earth in protected areas, but that is not to say there are not good arguments for adding to what we’ve got, especially in lesser known habitats. Moreover, as this blog is certainly prepared to argue, creating a protected area is not necessary to conserving habitat. However, plonking a new big agricultural project smack down in the middle  of a biodiversity hotspot, as I have seen happen, really does not count as a good idea.

Another problem with land deals is you always have to ask: whose land is it? Unfortunately the politicians’ answer does not always accord with local views on the matter. As with any such large investments, even ignoring the lure of corruption, there are often incentives for officials and politicians to simplify a more complex situation on the ground in order to appeal to investors. If all of this translated into full compensation for those affected and better services for all this would be less of a problem, but Africa’s governance problems have severely eroded governments’ capacity to act as an honest broker across all sorts of issues. The strength of feeling over this incredibly sensitive issue should never be underestimated; a major land deal between S Korea and Madagascar was cited as a factor in the less-than-constitutional change of government there in 2009.

But, the thing that often gets missed in all of these discussions is the question: why is this land underutilised? It certainly isn’t all remote wilderness. Agriculture in much of sub-Saharan Africa is a byword for inefficient production. Governments are now seeking to resolve this by bringing in foreign expertise and investment, but the fact is that, around here at least, they could do much to free up the agricultural sector without selling out their countrymen. Government run marketing boards and cooperatives are horrendously inept, and it is hard to see what benefits they bring smallholder farmers; however evil the much abused middle-man is, he at least has the incentive to get the best kind of inputs (seed, fertiliser, pesticides) to the farmers at the right time of year. Unfortunately politicians like to take a rather paternalistic attitude to rural farmers when in fact often the best thing they could do is just get right out of the way other than a few very basic market interventions such as subsidised inputs (ref recent stories on Malawi) and setting floor prices on staple produce (to limit the ‘evilness’ of the middle men).

Finally, governments could clear up land tenure properly so farmers could use their land as collateral on loans. But that would limit politicians’ scope for making those big deals they love so much … so not much chance of that happening any time soon.

* By which I mean either straight conservation or combined conservation and development project. Obviously there are all sorts of education and health related interventions which have nothing to do with land tenure. It is, though, also a critical issue in recovery after natural disasters such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake, see David Week’s recent remarks on the issue. (Refer also to the post and comments on ActionAid Australia’s blog; it seems the government Haiti, in echoes of what I see here, was never much interested in land tenure reform or clarity before the earthquake either.)

New year, new start

It’s the start of a new year (hope you all celebrated in style, folks!), and many people choose this time to start something new. Of course not all of  them last, but mostly we at least mean them do so when we begin them, even all those ill-fated fitness drives. No-one deliberately joins the gym in January if they actually intend to stop going in February.

Donors are no different (though their financial year may be). They always like to start something new, to fund that innovative new project that transforms the aid landscape. This has two pernicious effects. Firstly, it means that boring old-style stuff (even last year’s great innovation) that has been proven to work is no longer the flavour du jour, which is a great pity since if something is proven to work (and is value for money) then it ought to be a no-brainer to fund. Not so! This can be incredibly frustrating for NGOs who regularly have to find new justifications to fund the same old work.

Secondly, in the absence of endlessly increasing amounts of money (maybe not an issue for DfID over the next few years), one or more existing projects have to make way for the new ones. This is easily accomplished by putting a timeframe on all these projects in the first place, thereby automatically freeing up funds later on. Hence we end up with fixed term development projects in which we are only just approaching success when the taps are turned off. I have written before about the sustainability issue (my greatest pet peeve), but I recently also came across a fantastic (old) post by Owen Barder on the issue.

As Owen pointed out more recently, this fixed-term fixation is especially hypocritical when applied to such things as agricultural subsidies. And yet the default approach of otherwise reasoned commenters (ok, one commenter at least) is to assume that subsidies must be for a limited period only.

How about this for a new start instead: what if donors just funded the same old stuff for once, and didn’t put a term limit on it right from the start, but said “Let’s see how this goes …”?

Zoning farms and forests?

Apparently Jeffrey Sachs and a bunch of food scientists think we should zoning farmland according to the results of scientific assessments. (I don’t have a subscription to Nature, so am having to rely on Richard Black’s blog post.) As with much of what Prof Sachs suggests, it is hard to disagree with the principles he propounds, but I do wonder to what extent these ideas are feasible. In many human affairs the problem is not so much working out what would be the ideal way to manage something, but how to get from where we are (with all the vested interests and established ways) to where we want to get to. Political and social systems are inevitably evolved systems with all the inherent imperfections that kind of heritage implies. Richard Black draws the analogy with city planning, but most major cities in developing countries are largely unplanned, especially in the poorest countries, with development happening far faster than planners can keep up. Indeed unmanageable rules systems may well lead to corruption as being the only way out of the impasse.

Richard Black does point to some encouraging signs in Brazil, although arguably his examples are cases where conservationists have pragmatically surrendered the moral high ground in favour of active engagement with agricultural interests. I applaud the approach, but it is a big leap from such obvious self-interest to enlightened self-restraint when it comes to expanding your farm. As everyone from Brazilian soy-barons to Israeli settlers knows, facts on the ground count for an awful lot, and I fear land grabs will be a menace to conservation for many years to come. It would help, of course, if these land grabs were not encouraged by planning bureaucracies with ungrounded and over-simplified notions of land resources, of which I have seen a few examples at close quarters, and I suppose if Sachs et al’s proposed network of agricultural land research centres can help mitigate this then we should be thankful. But overall, I tend to side with Bill Easterly when it comes to the choice of Planners vs Seekers, and this kind of approach does rather sound like another gigantic planning exercise.

Projects such as Valuing the Arc are, I am sure, daunting technical challenges which should not be underestimated, and the researchers involved will have to use a range of innovative approaches to succeed. But it will take real visionary zeal and political cunning to translate such research into practical action. The research, alas, is usually the easy bit.

Why can’t Africa feed itself any more?

Just listened to George Ayittey’s fascinating TED talk on African governance and economic development. He mentions the statistic, which I’ve heard before in the same context that at independence Ghana was richer than South Korea, that when the colonial era ended Africa was a net exporter of food, while now it is dependent on charity and food imports. There are all sorts of strands to this story, and I am far from an expert on such issues. But I wonder whether in considering why this happened (as opposed to what we can do about it) we might be focusing on the wrong issue? I do not know the stats for food production in Africa over the past 50 years, but I do know that the population has exploded. Is the reason that Africa can no longer feed itself primarily because of too many mouths to feed? That is to say, have improving health standards which, I would venture to suggest are probably largely a result of Western aid, led indirectly to food shortages? Should we be holding this situation up as a terrible, gut-wrenching ‘success story’ of modern aid?

I agree with George Ayittey that we should invest more in development at the bottom end, where most poor Africans are to be found, although, as a conservationist, I am not sure that the example he holds up of building bigger fishing boats is the best solution; that one has boom and bust written all over it. (I am also aware of counter-arguments about industrialisation and urbanisation being the key to economic development.) But I wonder whether we miss the point when we lambast African governments for the economic decline over which they have presided. Sure governance was abysmal, but decolonisation happened extremely rapidly in societies where most economic activity was controlled and driven by the colonists. At independence Tanzania famously had only a handful of university graduates; now they number in the tens of thousands. Maybe, in the spirit of all the best tragedies, this was an inevitable tragedy. The post-war era saw such changes in cultural norms that European governments could no longer deny independence to those who requested it, nor even delay it. But such was the state of societal development at that point, perhaps things had to get worse, much, much worse, before they could get better?

In the part of the world I live in, I think things bottomed out a while ago, and life is definitely getting better, sometimes with the help of development aid (e.g. paved roads), sometimes as a result of private sector investment (e.g. mobile telephones), and sometimes even as a result of changes of government policy (e.g. easement of market restrictions). But it’s going to be a long hard slog, and Africa probably won’t be able to feed itself for a while.

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