by Melissa Moore, Communications Director
After a prolific year of publishing policy reports and briefs that reveal the inner workings of crooked land deals in Africa, I was excited to have the opportunity to step away from the computer screen and take our call to end land grabs directly to investors on their home turf. It seemed all too fitting that the venue for the 4th annual Global AgInvestment Conference, New York's famed Waldorf-Astoria, features an Empire Room (although named for the landmark building) as many of these land deals amount to a new form of colonization for Africa.
Inside the Waldorf's gilded doors, hedge fund managers looking to maximize returns in the African land market--regardless of the impact on food security, communities, or the environment--were vying for teacher union pensions, university endowment funds, and other investors by pitching their funds as development opportunities that would create jobs and provide infrastructure in rural African communities.
Amid the bustle of a busy Manhattan morning, I joined the diverse coalition of students, African activists, food justice organizers, family farm representatives, civil society groups, and occupy wall street participants across the street from the Waldorf. Colleagues based in NYC had prepared a fantastic range of signs for everyone to use, and a large banner proclaiming "Wall Street Speculators Out of Africa." As the first conference goers emerged from the hotel during a break between sessions, the group of protesters assembled to shed light on the reality of land grabs throughout the African continent.
We greeted the conference attendees outside the Waldorf's main entrance with a clear message about why such diverse individuals and organizations had come together to protest the Global AgInvesting Conference: the alarming pace of land grabs across the African continent; the calculated lack of transparency in the deals, which in effect absolves investors of accountability for their actions; and the displacement of small-scale farmers and pastoralists on some of the continent's most fertile lands, which are in turn leased to foreign firms for pennies on the dollar.
The group included a dedicated cadre of Ethiopian activists who explained to passersby how deals like those being pitched inside the hotel that day were responsible for the forced relocations of 1.5 million people in their country. They passionately recounted the tragedy of how farming families who were kicked off of their land had no option but to take low-wage, seasonal jobs on the plantations--established on the fields they used to farm--and could no longer afford bread to feed their families. Throughout the course of the day, the protesters standing in front of the historic hotel distributed more than a thousand informational flyers that detailed why we were protesting and included an op-ed debunking the AgInvestment Conference myths of employment, community development, and economic benefit for the country.
Our presence was definitely felt by the conference attendees, and as they walked to and from the hotel some investors scoffed at our group while others, clearly uncomfortable, averted their eyes from signs that read "Agrofuels don't feed people" and "End to land grabs" and more in Ethiopia's native tongue, Amharic. Some asked why we weren't inside the conference, and students who had joined the protest to sway their university's endowment funds to invest in more sustainable channels explained to the well-heeled businessman that they couldn't afford the $3,000 per person entry fee. Other AgInvestment participants emerged to debate the merits of land deals with the group; one protester, an occupy activist who lived in Sierra Leone and is familiar with the situation on the ground, refuted claims that industrial agriculture and monocrops were the solution to food security in the region.
One investor in particular claimed that AgInvestment deals would help countries develop and lift farmers out of poverty. However, when challenged on the benefits communities actually see, he explained that it was necessary for countries to provide tax breaks and water and mineral rights in addition to bargain prices for land because "investments in Africa are higher risk" and such concessions were crucial for investors to turn a profit. Once the investment schemes were profitable, he continued, then the funds would reinvest in communities. Ethiopian activists countered his narrative with the facts from the Gambella region, where indigenous Anuak villagers were evicted from their land when it was leased to the Indian-owned Karuturi firm. They recounted how the community was forced off of their traditional land with no compensation, plus the promised jobs have not materialized--so former self-sufficient farmers now struggle to eat since they must purchase food. Far from bringing development to the Anuak, the Karuturi deal has devastated the community. Not only do residents still lack basic infrastructure, they no longer even have their homes. The second phase--the one that would actually benefit Africans--has yet to come.
The same conference participant ended by threatening the Oakland Institute, positing that the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations were going to investigate the sources and documentation behind our Understanding Land Deals In Africa country reports and briefs in an effort to discredit the publications. They will find the OI is completely transparent, as all of the contracts and memos we researched are available for download--and many primary sources that underpin our publications are internal documents from the funds involved.
The 10-plus hour demonstration against exploitative land deals ended with a rousing display by the Occupy Wall St. Illuminator crew on the facade of the Waldorf-Astoria at nightfall. Onlookers watched as facts and figures about the effects of land grabs and statements such as "starvation is not an investment strategy" were projected across Fifth Avenue and the light pierced through the windows into the conference. We were protesting to ensure these land grabs will not remain in the shadows any longer but rather will be fully scrutinized by the light of day.