Over the past few years, the media has breathlessly chronicled an African land rush of mind-boggling scale and audacity. Highlights have included the handover of more than 300,000 hectares of Ethiopia to a single Indian company and a notorious incident in which Madagascar announced the transfer of nearly half of its arable land to a South Korean conglomerate, free of charge. Not all of the headline deals have been agricultural — there’s also the 150,000-hectare safari park for Dubai royalty near Tanzania’s Serengeti and a secret bid by foreign logging companies to clear-cut a quarter of Liberia’s surface area. But by far the greatest attention has gone to farming ventures.
According to one estimate, in the space of just a few years, international investors have snapped up the equivalent of Britain, France, Germany, and Italy’s farmland combined in the developing world. New data compiled by researchers in Senegal suggests, however, that such dramatic figures, which are usually compiled and reported by activist groups who are opposed to large-scale land deals, are vastly overblown. While the opacity of land transfers means that nobody knows for certain how much land has actually changed hands in Africa, a mounting body of evidence points to a recurring pattern in which insecure property rights and political disputes cause initially euphoric global investors to cancel proposed deals or walk away from farming projects across the continent.