Contested Global Landscapes

A Multidisciplinary Initiative of the Cornell Institute for the Social Sciences

Woman with her passion fruit crop (Photo: USAID)

by Rebecca Smalley, Land and Commercialisation in Africa project

After a period in which African agriculture was seen by many as a rather amorphous sector of subsistence farmers, it is coming to be recognised as a highly dynamic area. New types of farm are appearing on the landscape, including developments that are reminiscent of colonial estates, yet reflective of our globalised food system. Incoming investments are generating land conflicts and sparking resistance.

African agriculture is now presented as a place of commercialisation and entrepreneurship, but also of under-development and out-migration to the cities, to the mines, to any kind of livelihood that can supplement low farming incomes. Donors, policymakers and academics are now asking what forms future agricultural investments should take in sub-Saharan Africa.

Much of the debate is a response to the global land rush. But there is also a wider discussion going on about efforts to commercialise African agriculture and increase productivity: efforts which have brought together African governments in a nexus with agribusiness firms and influential donors such as the African Development Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Initiatives such as the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) and the African Union’s 2009 Sirte Declaration have set the scene for increased investment in African agriculture.

This growing interest connects with some long-standing controversies: among them are the colonial scramble for African resources, and the debate about whether large-scale or small-scale farming is more efficient. In the discussions about the agricultural developments that are currently taking place through large-scale land deals and other avenues, sweeping assumptions are being made about the likely results – be it displacement and impoverishment of local people, or positive economic spillovers.

Researchers and practitioners working on rural issues in Africa have found, though, that there are many dimensions to the impacts of commercial agriculture. A wide range of individuals and groups could stand to lose or gain from agricultural change.

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