Why land deals in Africa could make the Great Irish Famine a minor event

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Some of you may have noticed some land deals in Africa being announced in the press over the past few years. The stories invariably include China in the headlines “China Gives Up On Europe, Will Target Africa Instead | ZeroHedge” or “Chinese acquisitions: China buys up the world | The Economist” or “Fears of Chinese land grab as Beijing’s billions buy up resources …

What is less well known is that these land grabs are part of a wider neo-colonial move on the part of many nations and private sector participants. Some researchers estimate that more than 200m hectares of land – 30 times the size of the Ireland – were sold or leased between 2000 and 2010. While China has purchased over 2.3 million hectares of farmland abroad, it is might not be the biggest player. US investors have purchased over 3.1 million hectares, Malaysian investors 3.1 million hectares, United Arab Emirates investors 2.2 million hectares, Indian investors 1.9 million hectares and Saudi Arabian investors over 1 million hectares. Ireland is 6.9 million hectares by way of comparison.

So what, you may argue. This has got to be a good thing. Africa has not benefited from the modern agricultural revolution and if we want to feed a population of 10 billion we need to make use of all of the world’s potential farmland. Which brings us to the Great Irish Famine of 1845 and 1852 when over one million people died and another million emigrated from Ireland, causing the population to fall by 20-25%.

The Great Famine

Firstly, it is important to state that during the entire period of the Great Famine between 1845 and 1852 Ireland should not have run out of food. In fact, Ireland was a net exporter of food throughout the period. Had the food been kept in the country and the land been used to adequately feed its population, no famine would have occurred. As it is today, Ireland was then blessed with great soils and weather for growing food.

So what was going on? Some background history is important: Ireland had long been controlled by the English monarch. From 1607 onwards Catholics had been banned from holding public office, or serving in the army. In 1641 there had been an Irish Rebellion. The English put this down and financiers called “Adventurers” had loaned Parliament to pay for this. Under the 1642 Adventurers Act, the major Catholic landholders in Ireland had their lands confiscated, which was then granted to the Adventurers to either sell off or hold.

Over the next 150 years further anti Catholic and Irish legislation was enacted and sometimes repealed. This included exclusions from voting, a ban on intermarriage with Protestants, exclusion from legal professions and judiciary, a ban on foreign education, a ban on conversion from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism, a ban on Catholics inheriting Protestant land, a ban on Catholics teaching, etc. Many of these laws were not widely observed and some were temporary. What was clear, however, was a long term policy of discrimination against Irish Catholics.

In 1829 the Catholic Relief Act was enacted, which removed most of the remaining restrictions on Roman Catholics in the United Kingdom. Ireland, which had joined the United Kingdom in the Act of Union in 1801, was the main beneficiary of this. For Catholics, who made up 80% of the Irish population, however, this was in many cases too late.

Most of the land in Ireland was now under the control of English and Anglo-Irish Protestant families. Some of the estates were huge and importantly for our story here, many of the landlords lived in England and were absentee landlords. They relied on land agents, called middlemen, to collect their rents from tenant farmers and then send the money back to England.

Middlemen leased the land from landlords on long term contracts and then sublet the land in to smaller and smaller parcels of land under a structure called “conacre (corn- acre)”. Conacre was an 11 month land lease, which meant that there was sufficient time to sow and harvest a crop but did not create any long term legal rights between the tenant and the landlord, rather like a short term property let today. The rent was paid in cash, labour or part of the crop. Due to the short term nature of the relationship, the tenant had little incentive to improve the land and the landlord could switch tenants and activities – such as raising sheep or cattle instead – at will.

The potato had originally been introduced as a garden crop and by 1815 it had become the staple all year round crop for farmers. Potatoes had many advantages – they generated a significant amount of calories per acre, could be grown easily, even in poor soils, and could be stored well. As more farmland in Ireland was used to raise cattle and sheep for export, conacre farmers relied increasingly on potatoes as their main diet. The high density of potato farming made the crop highly susceptible to disease and when phytophthora infestans, potato blight, arrived in 1845 it spread rapidly. About 1/3 to 1/2 of all potato crops were destroyed. In 1846 3/4 of the harvest was lost. In 1847 there were few seed potatoes available and so the yield was poor again. In 1848 yields were only 2/3 of normal.

To help alleviate the problem, the British government belatedly decreed that relief should come from the landowners. To stop paying relief the landowners, in turn, evicted farmers off their land, resulting in a mass of newly landless AND destitute farmers. Many then emigrated to England, Scotland, the US, Canada and Australia. Good numbers are hard to establish, but by the mid 1850s almost 2 million Irish had left their homeland.

The Great Irish Famine had complicated origins and much of the data about what actually happened and to how many people was either never recorded or lost. But certain aspects do stand out from this simplified history:

  1. a system of absentee landlords meant that there was no social contract between the landlords and their tenants resulting in attitudes to the poor and destitute that were indifferent at best, inhumane at worst;
  2. the country should have been in a position to feed itself;
  3. food was exported throughout the period;
  4. over a million Irish died;
  5. over a million Irish had no choice but to emigrate.
Which brings us back to the present and the land grabs that are taking place all over the world.

Modern land grabs

The Oakland Institute and LandPortal.info through their Land Matrix database are two organisations that have started to document the huge land acquisitions and leases that are taking place. They include details of deals such as Iowa based AgriSol Energy’s intended plan to lease 800,000 acres in Tanzania during which 160,000 long term residents were to be evicted as part of this process. The table below, from Land Matrix, shows the main participating investor countries, by number of deals and by hectares of land acquired or leased. In most cases the investors are private and include Ivy League university endowments, hedge funds to pension funds. As a result, your money may be involved in these transactions.

The Oakland Institute says that these policies will create additional food insecurity, take away land and water from local populations and transform valuable grazing land, natural forests and food producing fields into plantations for agrofuels and trees for export. Land Matrix has a 64 page report on the subject. Some of its key findings are:

  1. Africa is the most targeted region, with Sudan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Madagascar, Zambia and the DR Congo as the most popular;
  2. 66% of deals are in countries with high levels of hunger;
  3. Most projects are export orientated;
  4. Investors are competing for land with local farming communities;
  5. Forested areas are highly affected;
  6. Investment is from wealthier food importing countries;
  7. Rush for land is being driven by long term food trends;
  8. Investors are acquiring water rights;
  9. Governments are selling land that is used by small holders;
  10. There is very little evidence of benefits from employment generation.

So the question is whether there is a possible parallel with what was going on in Ireland in the 1800s and what is going on around the world now with respects to land grabs.

Are there parallels with the Great Famine?

There are no perfect parallels in history. However, there are a number of overlaps that are problematic:

  1. Absentee landlords: Absentee landlords in Ireland meant that there was no social contract between the landlord and the tenant. This social contract is important, because if things go wrong and there is no social contract landlords walk, leaving poor tenant farmers to deal with the issues themselves. Having landlords living thousands of miles away cannot be conducive to having a strong social contract. Investors are investing to make a good return on their invested cash, not to promote general social well being.
  2. Power imbalance between the host country and the investing country. Ireland had very weak political governance. The majority population, the Roman Catholics, had faced centuries of discrimination resulting in low levels of political participation, low levels of education and low levels of land ownership. Many of the host countries for modern investors, such as Ethiopia, Sudan and DR Congo are equally weak. Local politicians are more likely to benefit personally from these transactions, compared to the populations that they are supposed to represent.
  3. Export focus on the food. Ireland’s land became increasingly export orientated, which did little to benefit the local population. Unlike Ireland, which was fertile and benefited from good rains, many of these modern countries struggle to feed themselves. What will happen to domestic food consumption if more of their land is turned over to the export of crops, which may not even be used for human consumption – such as palm oil?
  4. Small holdings are being turned into large plantations. African farming is still dominated by small holdings, which employ relatively large numbers of people. Modern economies rely on only 2% of their populations to feed themselves. What will happen to the people who live on the land? Where will they go? Will the investor nations accept tens or hundreds of millions of immigrants?

History, Future. Now. remains on the fence about these new land grabs. So far, there does not appear to be widespread major problems and perhaps there never will be. Unfortunately, the scale of these acquisitions suggests that at some point in time in one of these countries a chain of events not to dissimilar to the Great Famine will occur.

With the numbers of people involved, the consequences could make the Great Irish Famine look like a minor event.

It is by understanding our history that we can best understand the present. By understanding the present we are able to understand how our societies will develop in the future.

This is what History, Future. Now. is all about.

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