A PROMISING FIELD: Chinese and Algerian agricultural specialists inspect a farm in north Algeria's Relizane Province on March 24 (XINHUA)
It's the kind of headline that sells magazines: "China Buys Up the World." It appeared in a November 2010 issue of The Economist, illustrated by a faceless, militaristic figure loading cars, oil barrels, power lines and various manufactured goods into a giant shopping basket. But reports of the Chinese Government buying up hundreds of thousands of acres of land in Africa to grow crops for Chinese dinner tables, or to secure political or military interests, are simply a misrepresentation of the far more complex issue of Chinese aid to Africa, said panelists at a May 16 conference sponsored by the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C.
"Agriculture is part of the general framework of policies and preferences for going global, but there hasn't been a real highlighting of attention to this. I think these issues are still controversial in China in terms of how much food security should be a domestic matter that can be controlled within the borders of China and how much it should rely on global trade," said Deborah Brautigam, Professor, Director of the SAIS China Africa Research Initiative, and author of The Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa and Chinese Aid and African Development: Exporting Green Revolution.
It's easy to overestimate China's agricultural interest in Africa, Brautigam said. China has 20 percent of the world's population, but only 9 percent of the world's arable land and 6 percent of its fresh water resources. The growing middle class has increased demand for meat and soybeans that are used to feed livestock. It seems likely China would be interested in the millions of acres of uncultivated land in Africa.
Media histrionics over large-scale farming projects funded by the Chinese Government, however, are demonstrably false. Reports of "land grabbing" can be broken into five categories, according to Brautigam: media myths and false reports; aid projects that have now been privatized; construction contracts; government projects that were launched more than a decade ago; and real, current interests.
Case in point is a 2010 joint venture agreement between the China National Agricultural Development Group and the China-Africa Development Fund to carry out agricultural investment in Africa.
"This fund was mistakenly described in one medium as being a $5-billion fund to invest in agriculture in Africa and that's far from the real story," Brautigam said. "The real story is that it is a 1-billion-renminbi fund, which is $161 million. This is still a sizeable amount of money, but it's a small fraction of $5 billion—and so far what they've done is to buy into existing Chinese ventures that have been around for quite a while."
According to research published by economists Jean-Jacques Gabas and Tang Xiaoyang for French agricultural research group CIRAD, China is considered a major donor of agricultural aid in sub-Saharan Africa, though the amount of its aid remains well below that of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries (about $130 million from 2009 to 2012). Of the 100 projects included in the study, 60 percent were given grants and the remaining were awarded public or private loans. Chinese aid, however, is expected to increase with the growing needs of China's developing infrastructure and the search for mineral and oil resources. The preferred method for aid and investment is trending toward joint ventures, privatization and government grants.
But is "land grabbing" a part of the package? Absolutely not, conclude Gabas and Tang. According to Land Matrix data, China's public and private land acquisitions represent 290,000 hectares—15 times less than the land acquired by the United States and almost 10 times less than the United Arab Emirates. Chinese agricultural companies almost exclusively develop food crops for local African markets. Products that are exported are goods such as palm oil for the Chinese agro-food industry or sisal for the textile industry.
"Contrary to the idea that the government in Beijing is orchestrating a surge of Chinese companies and entrepreneurs, Chinese cooperation is marked by the multiplication—most often uncoordinated—of diverse operators. Until the 1990s, the Chinese Government controlled all interventions in the agricultural sector in Africa. But since then, the institutional landscape has become more diversified and complex," wrote Gabas and Tang.
One African country where the Chinese state actually has made investments is Zambia, with eight, current and viable projects. Since political changes in the 1990s, Zambia has had a marked openness to foreign investment and China has cooperated on a series of "friendship farms" in areas such as poultry. The largest Chinese-owned farm in the country is a 3,500-hectare egg producer called Johnken Farm, which supplies 10 percent of eggs sold in Zambia.
"For some reason, the Western media have been fascinated with Chinese chicken farms in Zambia," said Solange Chatelard, a researcher with the Max Planck Institute and Ph.D. candidate at Sciences Po in Paris. "There's an over-inflation of what China is actually doing on a large scale on the African Continent and at the same time a preoccupation with state-driven investment and large scale agro-business that is masking the phenomenon of private investment on a small scale. They are very different kinds of agricultural investment."
Most of the Chinese in Zambia who are involved in agriculture are small entrepreneurs growing crops for local markets. These "highly diverse" rural entrepreneurs are unlikely to receive loans from Chinese banks or investors. They are not professional farmers and more likely have stumbled across their trade as a way to make money, Chatelard said.
In the West African country of Mali, Chinese investors have entered the sugar market. The country produces just 35,000 tons of sugar and consumes 200,000-250,000 tons annually. China is a main world sugar producer and has advanced production technology, so an investment into meeting the Malian need for sugar is logical, said Nama Ouattara, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Paris-Sud. In 1984, China and Mali signed a memorandum of understanding that resulted in the establishment of Sukala SA, a sugar producer that was 60 percent owned by a Chinese state-owned enterprise and 40 percent owned by the Malian Government. In 2009, the cooperation was transformed into a joint venture agreement. The agreement specifically mandates that sugar production techniques used by the Chinese should be shared with local employees, she said.
In total, there are 123 overseas agricultural investments by the Chinese state or state-backed businesses, said Xu Xiuli, Associate Professor of development studies at the China Agricultural University in Beijing. Most of these investments are on the provincial or local level, she said, far from the type of agro-imperialism that the media portray.
The Johns Hopkins University SAIS launched the China Africa Research Initiative this year to promote research and collaboration to better understand the economic and political dimensions of China-Africa relations and their implications for human security and global development. In its initial efforts, the initiative is focused on agriculture, a topic that touches on multiple concerns, such as supply chains, global manufacturing, trade, peacekeeping and strategic cooperation between major powers in Africa, said David Lampton, SAIS Professor of China studies.
In addition to conferences, the initiative includes the development of new courses for students, seminars, educational opportunities and efforts to rectify media and public misperceptions on Chinese-African relations, Robert Thompson, SAIS Professor of global agriculture, told Beijing Review.
"China's motive is for Africa to feed Africans," Thompson said. "If Africa doesn't produce enough food it will be a massive importer, driving up food prices. It makes no economic sense to grow food in Africa and ship it back around Singapore and up to China."
The author is a contributing writer to Beijing Review, living in New York City
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