The NYT asks “Is There Such a Thing as Agro-Imperialism”?. Read (here)
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While some worry over a new colonization of land in African and the developing world others point to the enormous investment opportunities available. These investments moreover would have aggregate benefits.
“Africa is the final frontier,” Payne told me after the conference. “It’s the one continent that remains relatively unexploited.” Emergent’s African Agricultural Land Fund, started last year, is investing several hundred million dollars into commercial farms around the continent. Africa may be known for decrepit infrastructure and corrupt governments — problems that are being steadily alleviated, Payne argues — but land and labor come so cheaply there that she calculates the risks are worthwhile.
The payoffs could be immense. In a country like Ethiopia, farmers put in backbreaking effort, but they yield about a third as much wheat per acre as do Europe, China or Chile. Even modest interventions could start to close this gap. One small example: the black soil I saw throughout the Great Rift region. Known as vertisol, it’s a product of volcanic activity and possesses the nutrients to produce enormous harvests. Because of its high clay content, however, it becomes sticky and waterlogged during the rainy season, which makes it very difficult to plow by traditional methods. With the addition of advanced implements, improved seeds and fertilizer, you can double the amount of wheat it yields. Ethiopia, like all of Africa, is full of such opportunities, which is one reason the World Bank says that investing in agriculture is one of the most effective ways to speed economic development on the continent.
However, there are models others suggests which would be more socially beneficial while still increasing productivity and agricultural output.
But the argument against enormous land concessions needn’t be based solely on appeals to human rights, environmental warnings or romanticism. It’s possible to be a believer in development without endorsing Paul Collier’s view that the small landholders stand in its way. In fact, there’s a whole school of economic thought that says that Collier is wrong, that big is not necessarily better in agriculture — and that the land deals therefore might be unwise not because they’re wrong but because they’re unprofitable. A recent World Bank study found that large-scale export agriculture in Africa has succeeded only with plantation crops like sugar and tea or in ventures that were propped up by extreme government subsidies, during colonialism or during the apartheid era in South Africa.
On a bright Rift Valley afternoon, I went to see another option, a cooperative scheme under which a group of around 300 Ethiopians, working plots of 4 to 10 acres, were getting into export agriculture. During the European winter, they grew green beans for the Dutch market. The rest of the year, they cultivated corn and other crops for local consumption. The land had been irrigated with the help of a nonprofit organization and an Ethiopian commercial farmer named Tsegaye Abebe, who brought all the produce to market.