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Chinese Farmers Seek To Till African, South American Soil

Yesterday’s post on the drought in the wheat lands of the northern plain prompted an e-mail (always welcome, but please also free feel to share as a comment) asking whether anything happened about Beijing’s plans to lease farmland in Africa and South America.

This was a hot topic of conversation a year back before the commodities boom — and everything else, come to that  — went bust. Just as China needed to secure strategic supplies of energy and raw materials by investing at the source in supplier nations, so the same logic was applied to food. Last May, the agriculture ministry proposed making supporting overseas land acquisitions by domestic agricultural companies official government policy, similar to the support given to state-owned banks, manufacturers and oil companies to undertake their foreign direct investment.

China’s demand for commodities has slumped since, but that for food hasn’t. With only 7% of the world’s arable land (and shrinking thanks to urbanization), plus calorie intakes rising, food imports have inevitably been growing. China is only able to pay lip service to its policy of food self-sufficiency, and has been for some years.

Regardless of official policy, Beijing has quietly encouraged Chinese enterprises to invest in agricultural ventures in relatively unexploited regions of Africa and Latin America, and that would at the same time appeal to countries’ development needs.  China is also funding ten new agricultural training centers across Africa to raise the continent’s overall farm productivity. It has discussed with various countries leasing land to be worked by Chinese farmers, much as Chinese labor has been shipped into Chinese funded construction projects overseas.

The largest existing example of that we’ve heard of is more than 6,600 hectares in Brazil farmed by 30 Chinese families, who export the soybeans they grow directly back to China. In Africa, some 350 Chinese are successfully farming 4,000 leased hectares in Uganda. Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Zambia, too, have Chinese-leased farms on a smaller scale.

In 2007, the head of the Export-Import Bank, Li Ruogu, pledged his support for Chinese farmers migrating to Africa. He also told an audience in  Chongqing that more than 12 million farmers from the surrounding area would have to leave their land by 2020. Finding work in Africa, he thought, would be easier than finding a new job at home.

Chinese investment could certainly raise Africa’s agricultural productivity and build much needed farm infrastructure like storage silos and irrigation systms. But there are deep sensitivities that could be hurt. Foreign-run farms and plantations are historically closely connected with colonialism in Africa, one reason that many African nations still restrict land ownership by foreigners.

Given the political sensitivities in likely recipient countries, the agricultural ministry’s proposal last May, as far as we know, remains just that. But certainly no official is likely to stand in the way of any Chinese farmer looking to till foreign soil.

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