The moral illegalities of ‘legal’ business dealings

Some nations have benefited from foreign investment more than others

Liam Hiller, Politics Editor

Investment in foreign land by large companies, or land-grabs as they have become known, have drastically increased in popularity since the beginning of the millennium. The majority of these investments have taken place in Sub-Saharan Africa where vast amounts of land, up to 90 percent in fact, is owned by the state rather than the individuals that live, work and die on it. This makes it easy for governments to sell this land to foreign companies looking to start up business, most of which is agricultural, in the area.

The idea behind the investments from the company’s point of view is that they can buy the land in order to farm the goods growing there. These range from corn to palm oil and all other varieties of food and fuel belonging to the region.

In theory by setting up these plantations and farming operations it allows the companies to employ local workers, creating more employment, and also allows the workers to benefit from cheap use of the product. In reality however it has, on the whole, not really turned out this way.

The companies buying the land, most of which are American, European or Chinese, seem to have rather loose guidelines when it comes to negotiating leases with the governments. This allows them to take advantage of the local authorities’ keenness to sell, due to poverty and corruption, and therefore normally ends up with the nation getting a less than satisfactory deal.

An example of this was recently detailed by the Guardian’s Claire Provost in an article regarding Sierra Leone. Claire described a deal in which Belgian Investment Company Socfin SL agreed a 50 year lease for 6,500 hectares of land for which they would pay five dollars per hectare per annum. Even for those with no idea of the general price of land in Africa, this sounds cheap.

African farming has been plagued by numerous issues

It is not only the price that is a problem however. The fact that many of these leases are so long means that once the time is up the tribes and families that had previously lived on the land will struggle to identify what is theirs. This in turn could lead to the company keeping control of the area for some time or worse, tribal disputes could break out.

There are also problems with these deals out with the contractual agreements. Many local families and farmers affected by the land-grabs feel that they have not been given the work nor the cheap produce that they were promised. Many have in fact found that they are now struggling more than they had previously been as the little they did have to sell or eat has been taken away from them.

Not all promises have been broken though. Some locals have been given work and in certain areas employment rates have rose. This should surely be a good sign for the development of the area but again problems have appeared. Those that have been given this work have complained of poor working conditions, lack of food breaks, poor treatment by their employers and ridiculously low wages, in many cases less than two dollars per day. To add to the difficulties random dismissals have become a common feature.

This affected population of people clearly feel that their governments have not treated them well and are seriously affecting the development of their areas and country as a whole. They may feel more contempt and betrayal towards some of the countries from which the investors are coming though, and rightly so.

It was the home nations of companies such as Socfin SL and the British Forestry company that granted these people their land in the first place. Most of the people living in these areas have even managed to keep hold of the documentation handed down through the last two generations which states that their fathers and fathers before them fought for the colonial armies of the time and that the land they live on today was a gift for their service.

For businesses from these nations to now come and strip them of this land, without giving any compensation in most cases, is seen as highly disrespectful and has provoked much anger towards not only the businesses themselves but also the Western governments.

It is clear now, as it has been for just over a decade, that these land-grabs are not only killing the land as a result of their use of chemicals and fertilisers, but they are also killing the people. More and more are forced to become refugees every day and with it more and more tribal conflicts over land are breaking out, more and more struggle to find food, more and more are catching disease and ultimately more and more lives are being lost. This is clearly an issue that deserves the utmost attention from governments around the world however the problem is: How do you stop something that is perfectly legal?

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