Here’s a link to a well-written and subtle analysis by Oxfam stalwart and land rights expert Robin Palmer, supporting Oxfam’s reputation for policy leadership, with the provocative title “Would Cecil Rhodes have signed a code of conduct [in relation to large scale land acquisition]?”
Palmer draws on his experience of the scramble for Cambodia, reviews the literature available on land acquisition, biofuel production, etc and reaches uncomfortable conclusions in this excellent paper. In particular, while no-one would deny the critical importance of increasing agricultural productivity in Africa, the risks to the rural poor from the latest scramble (echoing Leopold in Congo and Rhodes in Zimbabwe) from dispossession, dislocation and displacement are huge. In these circumstances, Proudhon's radical statement makes a great deal of sense. The whole idea of fencing off great swathes of land may have contributed to economic growth, but it certainly raises complex ethical questions over the right of individuals to own, in perpetuity, pieces of the planet. Furthermore, anyone with knowledge of recent events in Zimbabwe understands the political timebomb that the inequitable distribution of land can trigger.
These concerns will, of course, be far from the minds of the current wave of private equity fund managers criss-crossing the continent in search of arable land, with their investment horizon of no more than seven or eight years and for whom investments in African agriculture are little more than a play on undervalued land assets. Palmer concludes that Cecil Rhodes would have been more than willing to sign a code of conduct, but would have abandoned it at the first obstacle. It is hard to escape the conclusion that present investors will adopt a similar strategy.