Academic journal article African Studies Review

Large-Scale Land Deals and Local Livelihoods in Rwanda: The Bitter Fruit of a New Agrarian Model

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Large-Scale Land Deals and Local Livelihoods in Rwanda: The Bitter Fruit of a New Agrarian Model

Article excerpt


In a context of globalization and liberalization, Africa is increasingly confronted with the commercialization of its space. Various large-scale actors, including international private investors, investor states, and local entrepreneurs, are constantly seeking to expand their land holdings for the production of food crops or biofuels. This article presents two Rwandan case studies and analyzes how large-scale land acquisition by foreign and local elite players affects local livelihoods. It identifies broader agrarian and social changes taking place in Rwanda and Africa and provides suggestions as to how the tables might be turned in order to protect local livelihoods in the further evolution of Rwanda's agriculture.

Résumé: Dans un contexte de mondialisation et de libéralisation, l'Afrique est de plus en plus à la commercialisation de son territoire. Plusieurs acteurs de grande échelle, y compris des investisseurs privés internationaux, des états investisseurs, et des entrepreneurs locaux cherchent constamment à agrandir leurs avoirs en terres pour y faire pousser des cultures ou extraire des combustibles naturels. Cet article présente deux cas d'étude au Rwanda et analyse comment l'acquisition de terres étendues par des figures de l'élite locale et étrangère impacte la subsistance des locaux. Cet article évoque les changements sociaux et agricoles plus larges ayant lieu au Rwanda et en Afrique, et offre des suggestions pour changer le cours des choses afin de protéger les moyens de subsistance des locaux dans l'évolution future de l'agriculture au Rwanda.

Key Words: Land grabbing; agriculture; peasant livelihoods; central Africa; Rwanda

Introduction: The Place of Small-Scale Peasants in Large-Scale Land Deals

In October 2009 the Rwandan news media euphorically reported that the country's government had sealed a major deal for the production of biodiesel. The signing of the US$250 million contract was witnessed by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In addition to the Rwandan government, two major private companies were involved: Eco-Fuel Global, a U.S.-based company charged with the technical aspects, and Eco Positive, a U.K.-based company entrusted with managing the financial side. Under the agreement, 12 million Jatropha Curcas trees would be planted on around ten thousand hectares (1/250th of Rwanda's total surface area) of "marginal" land in the Eastern Province, where food crops cannot be sustained. It was estimated that within three to six years, the plantations would yield enough for the production of 20 million liters of biodiesel annually, covering roughly 13 percent of Rwanda's current fuel consumption and providing sixty-five hundred jobs (Rwandan News Agency 2009; Hitimana 2009). The project fits neatly into the Sustainable Growth for Jobs and Exports project, the flagship program of the Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper, which aims at a "big push" public investment program that will "create strong incentives for the Private Sector to increase its investment rate in subsequent years" (GoR 2007:1).

Rwanda is not the only country where large-scale land acquisitions by major investment projects are taking place. In the first twelve months after the 2008 commodity boom, investors acquired more than 40 million hectares of land, over 75 percent of which was located in sub-Saharan Africa (World Bank 2010). Even before the commodity boom, interest in Africa's natural resources was growing. Van Braun and Meinzen-Dick (2009) provide an extensive overview of deals since 2006 under which foreign governments, actors operating in the private sector, and agricultural investment funds have acquired access to thousands of hectares in developing countries. It should be noted here that investors are not necessarily interested in using this land for purely agricultural purposes. Zoomers (2010) and Merlet and Jamart (2009), for example, mention the rise in (eco)tourism in developing countries; land use for the exploitation of mineral, energy, and forestry resources; the designation of protected areas and nature reserves; and land requirements for infrastructure projects and urban expansion. …

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