December 7, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

There has been much media attention recently over the extent of ‘land grabs’ for agriculture, or the ‘foreignisation of space’ occurring in Africa. Estimates suggest up to 230 million hectares of land have been leased or bought largely to produce food, animal feed or biofuel for export in the aftermath of the food and energy crises. Finance-rich yet resource-poor countries are snatching up land from willing African governments keen to develop their economies and alleviate poverty.

There is much contention over whether land grabs lesson poverty or in fact elevate problems by moving local peoples off their land and destroying the environment. Codes of conduct have been developed to ensure investors adhere to key principles, however these are rarely implemented.

One of the key criteria used to control land-grabbing processes is environmental sustainability: to ensure environmental impact assessment and monitoring are undertaken, soils are not depleted, biodiversity is not destroyed and the diversion of water from local peoples is prevented. Of great significance is ensuring that the ecosystem services that local people rely on for their wellbeing (e.g. nutrient cycling, pollination, medicine) are maintained.

I was recently working in the Democratic Republic of Congo as an environmental impact surveyor for a large commercial farming venture. Here I discovered a very interesting example of a ‘land grab’ situation, where the sole purpose of crop production is to supply local markets. Like other Sub-Saharan countries with a recent history of conflict, such as Angola, the DRC is largely dependent on highly priced food imports.

Many impact assessments project agricultural development to result in extreme losses of biodiversity due to land clearing, with associated soil degradation and changes in ecosystem functioning. I was surprised by how much more complex the situation was and the extent of environmental damage that occurred even before the land was purchased.

The farm is located in the rich copper belt region of Katanga. The major vegetation consists of secondary woodland interspersed by savannah grasslands. As I explored the concession I was surprised to find large areas of land already cleared by logging. Charcoal is used as a major energy source for most of the villages and city. Monitoring of satellite images indicates an accelerated rate of logging around road construction mirroring patterns seen in Brazilian and South-East Asian forests.

Due to the increase in tarmac roads across the country, woodland is becoming easily accessible – making logging for charcoal an easy earner. Logging-related disturbance is detrimental to the environment as it alters the composition of plant communities, increases fire frequencies and opens areas to poaching. Any laws against the rate of logging are rarely implemented due to the lack of resources (enforcement as well as provision of alternatives).

This posed an environmental conundrum. Was the clearing of land for agriculture, with commercial interests to make the farm as ‘sustainable’ as possible, really any worse than the logging that would be occurring had the farm not begun clearing? The logging undertaken by local stakeholders was fiercely competitive and unregulated while on the other hand the farm would monitor and conduct environmental impact surveys. Loggers, however, often selectively cut down trees leaving much of the community untouched.

Furthermore, vegetation on top of termite mounds, which reach 25m in diameter and support the highest biodiversity of species in the area, are left untouched by local charcoal producers. These termite mounds could act as islands which maintain ecological memory in the landscape by providing regeneration potential for plants on the surrounding ground. Bulldozers on the farm are used to clear all vegetation and flatten any termite mounds eliminating any such regeneration potential around newly cleared fields. However, significant numbers of termite mounds are likely to be left by the farm in reserve areas for biodiversity conservation.

The environmental impact of this ‘land grab’ is thus much more complex and although initially may seem destructive to the environment, often the alternative may be worse. As the population increases, logging will intensify to an unsustainable rate. Even if termite mounds are left timber may not regenerate fast enough and people will lose their income and primary source of energy. However, if new agricultural ventures provide jobs, and take an environmentally conscious and scientifically informed approach to ensure sustainable yields, the farm may be able to provide a long term financial solution for local peoples.

Large farms with a strong corporate social responsibility can also act as nuclei for developing agricultural knowledge and resource bases in post-conflict situations, which in turn helps to increase yields for local farming cooperatives. Most importantly, in countries like the DRC it appears that large scale agricultural expansion may be a necessity to help alleviate food insecurity in the region by substituting highly priced imports from South Africa, Europe and Asia.

Image: Natascha Mehrabi