Andrew Rice reports that Saudi Arabia is buying up African croplands. Amazingly, the headline asks whether there is "such a thing as agro-imperialism."
It's a strange question, given that most of the classic narratives of imperialism revolve around agriculture (e.g., tea, opium, rubber, bananas, palm oil). You wouldn't think it'd be necessary to invent a new, fashionably hyphenated name for the economic imperative that gave us the term "banana republic"...unless the goal is simply to treat established facts as controversial theories, so that business as usual can proceed while we quibble over terminology.
Maybe the confusion stems from the fact that in today's fully enlightened world, growing your country's food on a poorer country's land creates jobs and opportunities. This is a far cry from the imperialism of the bad old days, which was explicitly undertaken in the name of Radical Evil and had no use for humanitarian platitudes. In the 1800s, plantation owners paid their laborers starvation wages as an expression of racialist contempt. Nowadays, they do it out of love.
Or failing that, necessity.
A variety of factors — some transitory, like the spike in food prices, and others intractable, like global population growth and water scarcity — have created a market for farmland, as rich but resource-deprived nations in the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere seek to outsource their food production to places where fields are cheap and abundant. Because much of the world’s arable land is already in use — almost 90 percent, according to one estimate, if you take out forests and fragile ecosystems — the search has led to the countries least touched by development, in Africa.I'm not sure how you distinguish "fragile ecosystems" from the other kind. Maybe they don't withstand conversion to industrial monoculture? Or maybe the distinction has less to do with biology than with the power and visibility of a given ecosystem's human defenders. By that measure, California's remaining wetlands are probably a lot more "fragile" than most of Africa.
Either way, Ethiopia is one of the countries that may or may not be falling prey to agro-imperialism.
“We are associated with hunger, although we have enormous investment opportunities,” explained Abi Woldemeskel, director general of the Ethiopian Investment Agency.As you can see, Abu Woldemeskel has a firm grasp of history. And that goes double for Robert Zeigler of the International Rice Research Institute:
“The idea that one country would go to another country,” says Robert Zeigler, “and lease some land, and expect that the rice produced there would be made available to them if there’s a food crisis in that host country, is ludicrous.”I'll say. I can't come up with a single example of a country that exported food crops while its people died of starvation, and I've been trying for several seconds. The scenario is even more ludicrous given that we're talking about Saudi Arabia, which has very little clout in international affairs and tends to buckle under the mildest criticism.
But if you want a really clear-eyed view of history, you must consult Susan Payne of Emergent Asset Management.
“Africa is the final frontier,” Payne told me after the conference. “It’s the one continent that remains relatively unexploited.”Roll over King Leopold, and tell Cecil Rhodes the news! Perhaps it's time for a new Berlin Conference.
Joking aside, there's an awful lot of money at stake here, so it's just as well that global warming turned out to be a hoax.