National Geographic : 2014 Jul
60 national geographic • july 2014 It’s an optimistic vision, for sure. Thailand cur- rently exports more agricultural products than all sub-Saharan countries combined, and the specter of climate change threatens to hammer Africa’s yields. But the thorniest question is, Who will do the farming in Africa’s future? Will it be poor farmers like Chirime working one-acre plots, who make up roughly 70 percent of the conti- nent’s labor force? Or will it be giant corporations like Wanbao, operating industrial farms modeled on those of the American Midwest? Humanitarian groups that deal with global hunger and peasants’ rights call corporate land deals neocolonialism and agri-imperialism. Yet veterans of agricultural development say the mas- sive infusion of private cash, infrastructure, and technology that such deals may bring to poor ru- ral areas could be a catalyst for desperately needed development—if big projects and small farmers can work together. The key, says USAID’s Gregory Myers, is protecting the land rights of the people. “This could significantly reduce global poverty, and that could be the story of the century.” “IF YOU WROTE A LETTER to God and asked him for the best soil and climate conditions for farming, this is what he’d send you,” says Miguel Bosch, an Argentine agronomist who manages Hoyo Hoyo, a nearly 25,000-acre corporate soybean farm in northern Mozambique. “It is a paradise for growers. I’ve spent many years farming in Brazil and Argentina and have never seen such soil.” Fertile land, skyrocketing demand for soybeans and rice, and a government willing to cut big land deals have put the former Portuguese colony at the center of the land rush sweeping the conti- nent. In 2013 the nation was the third poorest on the planet, with almost half its children under five stunted by malnutrition. Recent discover- ies of world-class coal and natural gas deposits in the north as well as other mining and forestry concessions are slowly changing its fortunes. The rush to tap these hydrocarbons has ignited Mozambique’s economy, which grew by an esti- mated 7 percent in 2013. Massive infrastructure projects are springing up, many financed largely by loans from nations eager to curry favor with political leaders and get in on the action. Japan is building roads and bridges. Portuguese compa- nies are building ports and rail lines. China has al- ready built a new airport, the parliament building, the national soccer stadium, and even the new presidential palace overlooking the broad bay in the capital, Maputo. In 2013 President Armando Guebuza spent a week visiting the new Chinese president with a ten-billion-dollar wish list of new construction projects in hand. Little of that bounty has trickled down to the nation’s 24 million citizens, more than half of whom still live on less than $1.25 a day. A return to civil unrest is the only thing that could upset the river of cash flowing into Mozambique. After riots over food prices broke out in Maputo in 2010, President Guebuza fired his agriculture minister and replaced him with Interior Minis- ter José Pacheco, an agronomist, who has con- tinued courting investors at conferences around the world. Of its 89 million acres of arable land, the government deems almost 85 percent “un- utilized.” Since 2004 some six million acres have been leased to both foreign and domestic in- vestors for everything from forestry products to biofuels to sugarcane, roughly 7 percent of the country’s arable land—among the highest rates in Africa. Signing a deal with a ministry official in a swank Maputo hotel is the easy part. Getting a massive corporate farm up and running and turning a profit in the midst of often hostile neighbors is something else entirely. Hoyo Hoyo, located in the nation’s prime soybean-growing region of Gurué, was supposed to be a shining example of the new African agriculture. Instead it became the poster child for how such deals can go wrong. In 2009 Mozambican officials leased the nearly 25,000 acres of an abandoned state farm to a Portuguese company with ties to the government. But local villagers had been grow- ing food for their families there for years. When Contributing writer Joel Bourne reported on the global food crisis in 2009. Robin Hammond covered Zimbabwe in our May 2013 issue.