Parliamentarians from the Pan-African Parliament, the Inter-parliamentary Committee of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) and members of the national Assembly of Benin met on 4-5 October in Cotonou in Benin at a conference organised with the support of AWEPA in order to discuss and adopt a declaration on the land rush taking place on the continent and in West Africa. The presentations delivered by representatives of international organisations, small farmers’ organisations, civil society, research institutions and government departments helped to fuel the debate and thinking on this increasingly problematic phenomenon (see the conference programme).
The land rush in Africa has been a growing concern over the past few years due to the combined effects of three main factors. The first factor is increased investment by third countries seeking to ensure their food security, as they do not benefit from favourable growing conditions in their own countries (lack of land and an unsuitable climate). The second main factor is the increase in speculative investment caused by rising agricultural raw material prices on the world markets. Finally, the third factor is land increasingly being used to produce biofuels. Although the true scale of the land rush is a topic of debate, one of the main aims of the conference was to find out why African countries are more affected than countries in other parts of the world.
Most of the participants stressed the fact that these foreign investors often opt to invest in countries with relatively weak and opaque land tenure systems that enable investors to sometimes pay extremely low rental prices to governments. However, other delegates stated that the lack of clarity about how land ownership systems work could also put off investors, notably the more responsible ones. There is a consensus about the need to reinforce government expertise and negotiating capacity when signing such contracts, if indeed they are to be of greater benefit to the countries and populations in question. The implementation of transparent registration systems for these investments, so that members of parliament and civil society can verify whether the rights of local communities are being respected and promote suitable legislative frameworks, was also one of the main discussion topics. In a general sense, political and economic governance appears to be a key factor.
At the end of the conference, the parliamentarians in attendance, using the information that was provided and debated, adopted a declaration inviting the leaders of the African Union member states to focus on the issue of the land rush. The parliamentarians notably stressed the need to apply the Maputo Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security in Africa, engage land ownership reforms that are clear and intelligible to all those involved, notably small-scale farmers and international investors, and first and foremost to ensure that the legislative framework makes the wellbeing of society a condition for these investments. This issue is particularly important because in most cases, the land rush goes hand-in-hand with appropriation of water resources. In order to implement the declaration, the parliamentarians undertook for example to debate these issues in their parliament, to improve legislation on land investment when it actually exists, and to take action in order to ensure that these deals are more transparent, given that some of them have a clear impact on the economic, ecological and social environment of many communities.
The conference was organised as part of the AWEPA Millennium Development Goals (MDG) programme.