courtesy AfromusingAgricultural investment is the one bright spot amid the gloomy outlook for FDI to developing countries as the recession drags on, according to the new World Investment Report 2009.  UNCTAD, which produces the report each year, predicts that agribusiness will be at the forefront of the next “FDI boom” as it is less susceptible to business cycles and slumps in demand than other sectors. 

FDI in agriculture brings with it the promise of direct government revenues (taxes, fees, royalties) along with jobs, market access, technology transfer and infrastructure.  On the other hand, large-scale investments and land transfers may threaten local rights, resource access and livelihoods.  Impacts may extend well beyond the actual project site if, for example, a big producer floods the national market and displaces existing small-scale suppliers. 

“Land grabs” have made plenty of headlines in 2009, but what is their real extent and impact?  One argument is that the phenomenon is exaggerated.  Recent land deals account for only 2-5% of suitable agricultural land in sample African countries, for example.  Many of giant deals such as the 10 million ha deal between the Republic of Congo and South Africa’s commercial farmers’ association Agri-SA, scheduled to be signed in October 2009, are likely in reality to involve development of much smaller contiguous areas.  Furthermore, most approved deals are yet to go into operation, raising the possibility that some at least are purely speculative.

But small total land areas do not mean low impact.  In spite of the common rhetoric that biofuels should – and will – be confined to “marginal” or “waste” land, the reality is that large-scale agricultural projects are targeting the best land.  In Mali, the national land registry shows that large-scale land acquisitions for biofuels and food over the past five years have been confined to the highest potential, irrigated lands.  These are the areas that are most likely to under existing uses and claims.

There are two key issues at stake.  The first is whether there is a place for large-scale agribusiness in the local and national economy – this is a question that every country needs to explore, preferably through open and wide-reaching public debate that weighs up the pros and cons honestly.  The second is that the actual substance of agricultural investment deals is key to long-term benefits and outcomes.  Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, for instance, has been particularly alert to opportunities to renegotiate the terms of major natural resource contracts, leading to more equitable terms on taxation, transparency and local benefits in the country’s deals with ArcelorMittal and Firestone.

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