New York Times profiles African land grabs (2 of 2)

This is part two of our response to the New York Times article entitled African Farmers Displaced as Investors Move In. In the first part, we explored how land right affects your investment with us. Now we'll look at how different definitions of productive land use is driving development in our partner community Arimae.

The article touches on the state and locals' lack of financial resources contributing to the land appropriation. Regarding the lack of development of three million acres along the Niger River, an official states "Even if you gave the population there the land, they do not have the means to develop it, nor does the state ...". The state run trust is therefore welcoming new investors as a means to develop the area.

We see similar tensions in our work in Panama. Our indigenous partner Arimae used to control over 72,000 hectares of land, but between 1969-1981 they lost approx 64,001 due to development and the influx of inhabitants from other provinces. They have fought diligently for the last 30 years to retain ownership of the remaining 7,999 hectares of what's left of their reserve.
The reason Arimae lost so much land was because the national government supported the elimination of forests ("unproductive" land) by converting them for agriculture purposes ("productive" land) through the concept of "social use". This concept gives a person the right to claim land if they have have worked it and converted it to "social use." Under Panamanian law land is said to be under "social use" when:

  • It is cultivated with pastures, occupied by horses or cattle in a proportion no less than one animal for every two hectares of land
  • When at least two-thirds is planted and maintained under cultivation
  • When at least two-thirds is planted and maintained under cultivation with trees for the extraction of wood apt to be processed
  • It is converted into urban areas according to effective legal dispositions

As migrant farmers develop a region through the concept of "social use" and begin to settle in large numbers they create the need for roads in order to transport their products to urban markets. Deforestation serves as the mechanism for development as it is a way to rapidly clear land for the purposes of road construction and create small urban centers and communities. Lending institutions such as the Agricultural Development Bank instituted programs that favor cattle raising over other forms of agricultural development providing a ready source of funding for cattle farmers to expand operations.

It's difficult for Arimae to justify the value of their standing forests as the national population grows, land for agriculture becomes more scarce, and the agricultural sector tries to increase production. Similar to the African villagers, Arimae has undergone the appropriation of land by their government in order to make it more "productive" according to global standards of development.