Posted on November 4, 2009

Congo Hands Land to South African Farmers

Sebastien Berger, London Telegraph, October 21, 2009

More than half a million acres of neglected state farms in the south will be signed over in the first tranche with more to follow if the scheme is a success.

It is estimated that 25 million acres, almost one third of all Congo’s land, is underused.

In the first stage of the programme, South African farmers will be given rent-free, renewable 30-year leases on an area the size of West Yorkshire in the hope they will be able to improve the country’s farming industry.

The deal is the latest twist on the recent scramble for land in Africa which has seen foreign countries buying up huge areas of land in the hope of securing food supplies.

China, South Korea, and India have all made major investments in African land and raw material reserves in recent years.

But the contract between the South African commercial farmers’ union, Agri-SA, and the central African country is the first time such an agreement has been struck within the continent.

The country is in the throes of an oil boom but has no commercial agricultural sector of its own.

Most food sold in shops has to be imported, mostly from France, the former colonial power, and is extremely expensive. Tomatoes retail for around £8 a kilo and meat more than £30 a kilo.

Theo de Jager, deputy president of Agri-SA said hundreds of farmers were likely to take up the opportunity and the first assessment visits were expected by the end of next month.

Such agreements have proved immensely controversial elsewhere–an agreement for the South Korean conglomerate Daewoo to take over much of Madagascar was a factor in the overthrow of president Marc Ravalomanana earlier this year.

But Mr de Jager said: “We don’t want to go in there and be part of a conflict or create a conflict, we don’t want to be in competition with people who are already using that land.

“We are Africans ourselves, we have been here for generations and I think we understand them better than other commercial farmers from elsewhere in the world.

“We are used to integrating with the local communities, it’s not like when the Chinese in DR Congo bring in their own labour force and inputs.”

Paul Nkounkou, a retired agricultural engineer in Congo, added: “We have at our disposal a lot of uncultivated land because we lack the material and financial means. These South African investors are welcome.”

There has been criticism of the deal in France, pointing out that Denis Sassou-Nguesso, the Congolese president, is widely considered to be severely corrupt.

But Mr de Jager believes such attacks are motivated by a desire to protect French interests against competition.

“We are not into politics, he invited us and it seems to us like a good deal,” he said.

It could be the first of many such agreements, as South African farmers feel under pressure because of a commitment by the ANC government to redistribute 30 per cent of the country’s agricultural land to black owners by 2014.

Pretoria has so far operated a ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ approach and is adamant there will be no repetition of the chaos in Zimbabwe, but Mr de Jager said negotiations are under way with 16 other African countries to secure similar deals.

“There’s no way to expand here, we have a drastic shortage of arable land and water, so it’s the logical thing to look at opportunities beyond our borders.”