The Many Faces of the Investor Rush in Southern Africa

Towards a Typology of Commercial Land Deals
24 March 2011

This working paper reviews the latest experiences of land grabbing in Southern Africa, detailing questions of scale and duration, initiation, negotiation processes, production sectors, employment, natural resource use and more.

My view is that you want government to be as small as possible. In a sense, Africa can start with a clean slate... Listen, I want to control that ground. I don’t want someone saying, ‘Thank you for your investment, now get out’. I want a country that’s weaker. There’s a cost to dealing with strong countries: resource nationalism. People forget that. - Phil Heilberg, US investor with allocation of one million acres in Southern Sudan (cited in Funk 2010, 62)
The popular term ‘land grabbing’, while effective as activist terminology, obscures vast differences in the legality, structure and outcomes of commercial land deals and deflects attention from the roles of domestic elites and governments as partners, intermediaries and beneficiaries. As multilateral institutions debate regulatory frameworks, competition grows over defining the terms of the debate. A recent paper by Borras and Franco (2010) usefully distinguishes between two paradigms: ‘securing land rights’ through ‘good governance’, with an emphasis on procedural guarantees and efficient administration; and a ‘food sovereignty’ and ‘land sovereignty’ approach, which questions not only the processes through which land uses are transformed and land rights transferred, but also the direction of agrarian change.

This paper reviews experiences of recent land deals which have curtailed rural communities’ access to land and water in Southern Africa. As a work in progress, it summarises initial evidence of the characteristics of this new wave of deals on public lands and land held under customary tenure, and maps the distribution of these investments across the region. It draws attention to their diverse manifestations – to questions of scale and duration; initiation and negotiation processes; production sectors; employment; natural resource use; determination, payment and distribution of compensation; investment partnerships and repatriation of profits; and end users. It adopts a schematic analytical framework for distinguishing between different types of land deals in the region and argues that this is important for considering the implications for unfolding future trajectories of agrarian change.