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“MCC African partner countries are open for business”
Ambassador John Danilovich, CEO of the MCC, June 2008

When the European powers invaded Africa they brought with them their systems of private property. Laws were established based on these systems, in order to justify, entrench and facilitate the takeover of lands from local communities. But such laws were hardly ever applied or respected beyond the boundaries of the European farms and plantations. With independence, although the Western laws often stayed on the books, the African states assumed ultimate and often sole ownership of all lands in their territories. But in practice they did not have the power to manage these lands. So the vast majority of land in the African countryside, through the colonial period and up until today, has been governed according to local communities’ customary land practices. 1

These customary practices are often complex and rarely static. They have evolved over time, shifting with local power politics and adapting to new pressures, such as urbanisation, migration, deforestation or the fragmentation of lands. They are based on varied and overlapping rights and responsibilities, and profoundly integrated with local farming, fishing and pastoral practices. In official circles, these systems of land management have been marginalised and condemned for years, but today they are under unprecedented attack.2

Africa has become the new frontier for global food (and agrofuel) production. Billions of dollars are being mobilised to create the infrastructure that will connect more of Africa’s farmland to global markets, and billions more are being mobilised by investors to take over that farmland to produce for those markets. To get a sense of the extent of what is transpiring, one need only look at the massive oil-palm plantation planned for Liberia by the world’s largest palm-oil companies, or the joint Japanese–Brazilian project to transform vast areas of Mozambique into Brazilian-style soya plantations.3 There is no place for Africa’s millions of small farmers in this new vision. And, like the colonial powers that came before, the new wave of invaders needs a legal and administrative structure to justify and facilitate the takeover of these lands.

For more than a decade now, the World Bank, USAID and a slew of other international agencies and foreign donors have been laying the foundations for this conquest. Although there are subtle differences in their approaches, the land programmes of these various agencies converge around the same goal of creating commercial land markets based on private property titles in the areas of Africa targeted by foreign investors. Teams of consultants are constantly being parachuted across the continent to rewrite laws, register titles and set up satellite mapping and cadastral systems to smooth the way for foreign investors to acquire African farmland. Now, with the scramble for Africa’s land resources at a feverish level, some of these players are turning up the heat to ensure that the corporate interests they defend get their piece of the pie. For US investors eyeing land in Africa, one programme stands out above the rest: the US government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). As the experiences with its land projects in Mali, Ghana, Mozambique and Benin make plain, the MCC is playing a key role in commodifying Africa’s farmlands and opening them up to US agribusiness.

Box 1: MCC and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA)

In June 2008, the MCC and AGRA signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that establishes a framework for their cooperation in Africa. Under the MoU, both sides agree to:

  • jointly assess and make recommendations for changes in policy and regulations governing the food and agriculture system in a given country to remove constraints to economic growth;
  • coordinate the planning of the implementation of their programmes for specific geographical and functional areas;
  • communicate regularly with each other to coordinate their efforts.

MCC and AGRA are also collaborating on several specific projects, including:

  • seed policy reform in Ghana;
  • rice seed production and distribution in Madagascar;
  • provision of seeds and extension services for farmers in MCA–Mali’s project in the Office du Niger;
  • a US$100-million fund with Standard Bank to provide farmers with loans in Ghana, Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda.