In scenarios that sound like something out of an espionage novel, wealthy individuals and companies have been swooping down on the poorest regions of the African continent and buying up enormous swaths of land—an estimated 5 percent of the entire continent, according to a massive database compiled by the Land Matrix project, an international partnership involving five major European research centers and 40 civil society and research groups from around the world.
For years, conspiracy theorists have made claims about the wealthy exploiting Third World countries and sucking out all the resources—now, finally, the Land Matrix project has come up with proof that the conspiracies were not so far off base. While the database recorded deals in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the report said that most of the land grab took place in Africa. Between 2000 and 2010, the researchers estimated that more than 200m hectares of land were sold or leased—an amount equal to eight times the size of the U.K.—in the three continents. In Africa, they identified deals covering 56.2m hectares—roughly the size of Kenya.
What made the deals even shadier is that most of them went down in private, by way of secretive deals made by governments, investors and speculators. According to a report in the Mail & Guardian, “researchers said the data confirms suspicions that wealthy food-importing countries have been targeting farmland in poorer countries with high rates of hunger and weak land governance.”
While much of the deal-making was done by poor governments eager to attract foreign investment, many of the deals didn’t even bring significant cash to the government. For instance, in South Sudan the report says a Norwegian investor secured a 99-year lease for 179,000 hectares at the bargain basement rate of 7 cents per hectare.