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Is Egypt land deal a blessing or curse for Uganda?

By Vision Reporter

Added 3rd July 2009 03:00 AM

EGYPT is planning to acquire 200 hectares of land in Gulu district to introduce a variety of wheat that can thrive in Uganda. Egyptian and Ugandan agricultural experts analysed soil samples from five districts and concluded that Gulu had the best soil and

EGYPT is planning to acquire 200 hectares of land in Gulu district to introduce a variety of wheat that can thrive in Uganda. Egyptian and Ugandan agricultural experts analysed soil samples from five districts and concluded that Gulu had the best soil and

By Lydia Namubiru

EGYPT is planning to acquire 200 hectares of land in Gulu district to introduce a variety of wheat that can thrive in Uganda. Egyptian and Ugandan agricultural experts analysed soil samples from five districts and concluded that Gulu had the best soil and climate for the purpose.

Okassai Opolot, the commissioner for food production and marketing in the agriculture ministry, says the experts collected soil samples from Masindi, Hoima, Gulu, Amuru and Kapchorwa districts. “Preliminary results show that Gulu is the most suitable. It is one of the most suitable places for wheat production in East Africa.”

Although Kapchorwa is currently the main wheat producing district in Uganda, the Egyptians said the climate there was too humid. In Gulu, the Egyptians, who domestically produce less than half of the 14 million tonnes of wheat they need, have struck gold and they are moving fast to get it. They want to establish a joint wheat production project with Uganda, where the oil-rich country provides capital and machinery while Uganda provides land and labour. Output from the project would be shared between the two countries.

To secure this deal, the Egyptians are moving even faster than the situation on ground. According to Opolot, talks about land allocation for a joint wheat production project are yet to begin. The tentative plan is to give Egypt a few hectares for a training farm.

“They want 200 hectares but the ministry does not have all that. We may offer about 20-30 hectares for a nuclear farm to be used for training,” Opolot says.
He says the plan is to mobilise as many out-grower farmers as it takes to raise the acreage needed.

However, three weeks ago, an Egyptian agricultural official told the international press that within weeks, his country would be signing a deal to grow wheat on 200 hectares of land in Uganda. Abdelaziz el-Deeb said this would be part of Egypt’s plan to establish 14 farms in the Nile Basin countries, in order to protect its water supply and boost self-sufficiency in wheat, the staple food of the oil rich nation.

Deeb’s pronouncement about the deal is causing a stir amongst Ugandans, especially land policy analysts in the private sector. “What we are worried about is the level of openness in this deal.” Bashir Twesigye, a land expert with Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE) declares. “It is a quiet deal.”

Margaret Rugadya, a private land policy consultant, has similar concerns. “We do not know what the Government is signing.”

Top officials at the lands ministry are unaware of the deal. “There has been no deal or even canvassing for Uganda to give land to Egypt,” says Mayanja Nkangi, the chairperson of the Uganda Land Commision. Omara Atubo, the lands minister, also knows nothing about the deal.
The agriculture ministry explains that it was not necessary to announce the planned deal before establishing that the land is suitable for wheat production.
Land rights activists argue that the Government has to negotiate a deal that benefits the local people. “Much of that land that is being talked about is not unencumbered. There are people living and farming it. What are the measures towards compensating these people?” Twesigye asks.

He adds that even if the people were to be compensated fairly, they still will have problems relating to livelihoods. “The fact that this land is being given away on a long term lease has livelihood implications on the local people because for all that time, they will not be able to access it,” he argues.

There is another fear. What if Uganda is falling into the trap of a much bigger and more threatening international trend? “It is increasingly becoming a trend at the international level for rich countries to come to the developed world and acquire land for agriculture.

First, it was companies that represented the interests of these states. Now, the governments themselves are coming and quite easily getting the land,” Twesigye points out. These are often rich countries that have little arable land. They traditionally import a lot of food but have lately grown wary of buying it, following food price fluctuations and unreliable supply in the past few years. They have now decided to simply acquire land in the poorer world, grow their food and then ship it back home.

South Korea and the United Arab Emirates have been granted 690,000 and 400,000 hectares, respectively, in Sudan alone.

In Congo, China has 2.8 million hectares. In Madagascar, a South Korean firm, Daewoo Logistics, got a deal to use 1.3 million hectares for 99 years, without paying a penny. In Kenya, Qatar is seeking to lease 40,000 hectares for vegetable growing in the fertile River Tana delta. In exchange, Qatar would construct a port for Kenya, but the vegetable produce would be shipped back to Qatar.

In Mozambique, China has leased extensive farmland and is reportedly shipping Chinese farmers to work on the leased land. Egypt intends to establish 14 wheat farms in the Nile Basin countries.

According the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a think-tank in Washington, DC, between 15 million and 20 million hectares of farmland in poor countries have been subject to transactions or talks involving foreigners since 2006. Critics are calling these deals the new scramble for Africa. Others are referring to the trend as a kind of neo-colonialist land grabbing.

The head of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, Jacques Diouf, has warned that the deals could lead to a kind of neo-colonialism where poor states produce food for the rich ones while their own people go hungry.

In many places, these deals are very controversial. The 1.3m hectare deal between Madagascar and Daewoo, raised so much hostility from the Malagasies that it contributed to the recent civilian coup, that saw the president overthrown. The hostile side said that the deal would make Madagascar a “South Korean colony.” The 1.3m hectares is reportedly nearly half of all the arable land on the island.

In Kenya, the 40,000 hectares deal with Qatar appears to have fallen through, following fervent protests from both the civil society and the public. Other critics say the governments of the poor countries are grabbing land from their citizens to sell it.

“Host governments usually claim that the land they are offering for sale or lease is vacant or owned by the state. That is not always true. “Empty” land often supports herders who graze animals on it. Land may be formally owned by the state but contain people who have farmed it for generations. Their customary rights are recognised locally, but often not accepted in law,” explains an article in last month’s issue of the UK magazine, the Economist.

In Gulu, where Egypt wants the 200 hectares, land is primarily owned under the customary tenure system. The price at which the land is given is also a worrisome issue among the critics.

In Madagascar, Daewoo officials were reported to have said they expected to pay nothing for the 1.3m hectares they were leasing for 99 years. Daewoo is expected to make the deal fair by providing jobs and constructing relevant road and railway infrastructure.

Here, what the Egyptians will pay and how Uganda will benefit is yet to be negotiated, according to the agriculture ministry. Opolot says he is aware of the global trend but that the Uganda deal will be different because the out-grower farmers will retain their land. Land for the nuclear farm will come off government owned acreage. The ministry will also negotiate for a deal that ensures the project meets Uganda’s needs before exporting any wheat.
Even skeptics agree the deal is not a bad thing for Uganda as it could go a long way in improving the chronically under-invested agricultural sector.

“Foreign direct investment has never been a bad thing,” Rugadya concedes. She says there are policy models that can be used to create a win-win situation. The land policy consultant cites the out-growers model as one such win-win strategy. Serious consideration, she argues, should be given to issues like how customary owners’ rights are going to be managed and how Uganda and Egypt will share the benefits from the planned farms.

Twesigye argues for the consultative path. “Let the process be conducted in a consultative manner. Parliament and the local communities should all be involved,” he says. Otherwise, he warns, the process allows for a lot of corruption. Whether this will be a good or bad deal for Uganda depends on how it is negotiated.

Is Egypt land deal a blessing or curse for Uganda?

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