May 3, 2011

The new treck of the Boers

Almost two centuries the Boers are on the move again - this time by plane. Their new destination is the whole of the African continent, courted by countries who believe the Boers’ agricultural expertise can launch an agrarian revolution across the continent. They are being offered millions of hectares of allegedly virgin land, as well as land already farmed by smallholders or used as pastures by herders.

Congo-Brazzaville for example has offered South Africa farmers long leases on up to 10m hectares of land. This area includes abandoned state farms and bush in the remote south-west of the country. The first contracts, which put 88.000 hectares in the hands of 70 farmers, were signed at a ceremony in the country in April. But also in Mozambique some 800 South African farmers have acquired land in the southern province of Gaza, thanks to an arrangement set up by sugar farmer Charl Senekal, an associate of South African President Jacob Zuma. And Zambia, for example, wants South African pioneers to grow maize, whereas Sudan is offering land and irrigation water to grow sugar cane. Another deal, currently on hold, would see the Boers take over 35.000 hectares of Libya.

Since the end of apartheid there have been sporadic moves north by white South African farmers. But the current migration was more organised, said Ruth Hall of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. "South Africa is exporting [not just] its farmers, but also its value chains, to the rest of the continent," she told a meeting on international land grabs in Brighton, England.

The association Agri South Africa, which represents 70.000 South Africa farmers, is most of the times organising the mass movement. Its president Johannes Moller made a pitch for new deals at a conference on large-scale farming in Africa, held in Cairo in April 2010. Since then, AgriSA had received offers of land from 22 African countries, said Hall. Along with free land come tax holidays, free rein to export produce and profits, and promises of new roads and power lines -- angering locals who have never enjoyed such benefits. The migration is also attracting support from major South African finance houses such as Standard Bank.
Many African countries think that the new white farmers would end their reliance on food imports. But the farmers and their financiers often have other plans. Theo de Jager, AgriSA deputy president and mastermind of the international deals, said that the farmers in Congo-Brazzaville wanted to grow tropical fruit for export rather than grain for locals.

Another trouble concerns the land the farmers are being offered. Governments claim that there was ample "empty" land, without adding agriculture will endanger forests and other biodiversity hotspots. However, much of the land is furthermore already occupied by farmers and pastoralists. The government of Congo-Brazzaville claimed that the land it has been handing over to white South Africans had been empty since more than ten yours, when state farms were closed. However, as Hall stressed its former owners have returned and have been growing cassava and peanuts since then. It is therefore likely that the new treck, like the old one, will be met with resistance. (Mail & Guardian/Sadocc)

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