Land Rush

This post was contributed by Sonia Rothwell, an alumna of Birkbeck’s MSc International Security and Global Governance. This event was part of a series of film-screenings leading up to Surplus: A Sypmosium on Wealth, Waste and Excess, which takes place on 21 June.

There is sometimes a danger when discussing Africa and big business in the same sentence to see commerce as the hawkish outsider taking advantage of fragile or indeed non-existent governance. Hugo Berkley’s film, “Land Rush”, about agribusiness, produced for the Why Poverty? strand on BBC Four last year, has a more ambiguous, cautiously optimistic slant. Could big business bring big bucks to Mali and turn some of its smallholders into sugar cane growing specialists?

In the fascinating Q and A session after the film screening, with Birkbeck’s Isobel Tomlinson, Berkley admitted he had a whole raft more material and this already hot topic would certainly bear more airings. The thrust of the story is that land poor rich nations such as Saudi Arabia are leasing fertile tracts from countries such as Mali to feed their own populations.  The case studies Hugo Berkley has found represent the dilemma facing subsistence farmers whose own livelihoods and needs appear to be at odds with the ambitions and financial needs of their state. Some farmers appeared to back the project which was being developed by SOSUMAR (the Markala Sugar Company) while others complained of a land-grab. The balance of the film was fine: can development increase at the pace which Mali arguably needs without the involvement of the global private sector?

Tantalisingly, there was no conclusion to the story, the project which was to have brought sugar cane farming to Mali’s central region was delayed by bureaucracy and the outbreak of serious civil unrest: the investors moved elsewhere. And it is that same unrest which has exacerbated the food security situation recently with some NGOs estimating that one in five households in the North of the country is facing severe food shortages there. Could the food shortages trigger more long-term unrest, forcing families to migrate elsewhere, with all of the potentially unsettling consequences that suggests?

One has to question however, the decision to grow sugar cane. What is motivating nations like Ukraine to invest in these crops, is it to satisfy the appetites of domestic markets or is it to satisfy quotas on the production of bio-fuels (of which sugar cane is a source)? Another question which the film does not answer but which merits further discussion, is whether land in the world’s poorest countries ultimately is being used to help prop up global commodities corporations and if so, what can or should be done to regulate such trade?

The film is a curtain-raiser to Birkbeck’s upcoming event, Surplus: a Symposium on Wealth, Waste and Excess, a debate which promises to be as compelling as it is timely.


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