Forests to the Foreigners: Large-Scale Land Acquisitions in Gabon



For the past decade, the land rush discourse has analyzed foreign investment in land and agriculture around the world, with Africa being a continent of particular focus due to the scale of acquisitions that have taken place. Gabon, a largely forested state in Central Africa, has been neglected in the land rush conversations, despite having over half of its land allocated to forestry, agriculture, and mining concessions. This paper draws on existing evidence and contributes new empirical data through expert interviews to fill this critical knowledge gap. We situate Gabon's historic relationship with land, establishing the intrinsic relationship between colonial land tenure systems and present-day land rights. Our findings analyze the macro context of investors and investments, as well as the impacts related to rural–urban linkages and infrastructure development into the forests, civil society, human–environment relationships, and certification programs. While challenges continue to be experienced, the promise of Gabon's first national land use plan—the use of sustainable concessions and mandatory forestry certification—offers a unique opportunity for Gabon to transition towards a future that better benefits its population while also protecting its natural resources. 

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Resisting Rural Dispossession

Dip Kapoor brought together a collective of works that highlight many stories that have not been widely told, stories of localized resistance to large-scale land acquisitions and land grabs. These processes have occasionally included these actors, but often presented them as victims without agency, not actors expressing their agency. In this regard, "Against Colonization and Rural Dispossession: Local Resistance in South and East Asia, the Pacific and Africa" (2017) is a good addition. The book in an edited volume, I share three quotes that stood out:

Narrative: "These struggles are misrepresented by accounts of colonial historiographers and writers who depict our story as one of 'loss'. In their story, we have 'lost' our land and cultural knowledge. These are colonially blurred, minimizing, if not euphemizing, versions of the history of my people. In our experience, these things have not been lost, but 'taken'. These extensive and intensive experiences of a collective people so heavily and systematically dispossessed require a deeper understanding than the nouns 'loss' or 'dispossession' can only begin to offer." (p. 29)

Inequality: "While Adivasis constitute 22 percent of the population in Odisha, they account for 42 percent of the development-displaced persons (DDPs), and at the national level, of the 21.3 million people estimated to be DDPs between 1951 and 1990 due to mines, dams, industry, and parks, they account for 40 percent" (p. 71)

Gender: "The women then stood in a line as a fence of shins (pagar betis) to stop the truck. Some even climbed the truck to unload the confiscated coconuts, while others seized and hid the truck's keys. They took the police as hostages and demanded the release of their fellow villagers. Some women involved in holding the police hostage admitted that the spontaneous action was to avoid bloody fights if they let their husbands physically attack the police – so they ask their men to stay behind while they took the lead. They even provoked, if not cautioned, the police by accusing them of trying to sexually harass them. The experience of taking the police as hostages emboldened them to confront the constant threats and intimidation from police and company laborers / hired thugs, especially when their husbands were imprisoned and they were vulnerable." (p. 111)

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FDI in Large-Scale Agriculture in Africa

In 2019 Atkeyelsh Persson published "Foreign Direct Investment in Large-Scale Agriculture in Africa: Economic, Social and Environmental Sustainability in Ethiopia". The book (presumably) draws on doctoral work done at UCT (finished in 2016) and most of the data / findings presented come from 2014 or before. The book offers unique insight into environmental and sustainability impacts. The case studies are valuable references for readers and researchers. Unfortunately the book sells for US$155.00.

That said, the book is frustrating to read. For example, the author states that large-scale land acquisitions are/were concentrated in Gambella and Benishangul Gumuz regions, with one in SNNP that was excluded (and was listed as not operational in 2014). The reason this is confusing is that the author cites Rahmato's (2011) work (Land to the Investors), which lists 22 agricultural investments above 5,000 hectares outside of these regions, as well as many others in Gambella and Benishangul Gumuz. There is no source listed for the data that is presented (e.g. in Figure 7.2, page 71), that are used to arrive at these conclusions. It can take years to publish a book, but what is stated was not the case in 2014 (when data collection seems to have stopped) nor in 2016 (when the dissertation was defended). In 2011, Rahmato had shown that Oromia was the region with the most foreign investment occurring, but Oromia does not appear anywhere in the study (raising questions about data and how the conclusions were drawn). The policy changes that took place in 2013 (well before the dissertation was submitted) are not included, which seems a critical omission given that foreign, large-scale, agricultural investment effectively stopped from that point forward. With many interviews conducted in 2014, it is unclear how this did not factor into the study. There is no mention that one of the case studies (Karuturi) was cancelled in 2015, by the Government of Ethiopia (nor all the legal proceedings that followed). Many questions.

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New Publication: Gulf Cooperation Council Countries and the Global Land Grab

Cochrane, L. and Amery, H. (2017) Gulf Cooperation Council Countries and the Global Land Grab. Arab World Geographer 20(1): 17-41.

Abstract: A rapid increase in large-scale land acquisitions associated with the food-commodity price spike in 2008 resulted in a flurry of journalistic, non-governmental organization, and academic publications. One of the primary narratives that emerged was that oil-rich Gulf states were driving a "land grab" from resource-poor countries. However, little was known about who was making deals and where. This article assesses the extent to which the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are, in fact, primary players. We first compare the total number of deals and land areas involved, finding that individual GCC member states have been relatively minor players compared to the United States, the United Kingdom, China, Singapore, and Malaysia—each of whom, moreover, finalized more deals than all the GCC countries put together. We next compare the geographic distribution of acquisitions, comparing the trends for GCC member states with those of the major investing countries, and assess which countries have acquired land from the most financially constrained nations. We conclude with a critical discussion that reflects on the narrative of oil-rich Gulf states as a driving force behind the global land grab and the potential reasons for its prominence.

Full version available via author. Send me an email if you would like a copy.

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