Let’s go shopping in Congo!

While I was reading about environmental problems and land use, I stumbled upon a news that shocked me quite a bit. Well, I guess that it is a common knowledge that we, the humankind, are quite dirty, greedy, gluttonous being. We like to eat a lot, often we eat to much (I encourage you to think about the feast of the Christmas holidays), we do not pay always attention where we throw away our waste, and we even shower too long (I challenge everyone to say that the warm spurt of water under the shower is not an orgasmic feeling!). Well, all these habits have a cost. We need water, land, and energy to produce crops. We then need water, land, and energy to raise the livestock or catch/raise fishes. We then need water, land, and energy to clean up the waste of these activities. We need to drink then, to shower, to clean the flat, offices, clothes, cars, dogs, baby buds. Well, for almost all of these things that represent by now usual activities we do during our life, we constantly need water, energy and land.

Even with no calculation and maps at hands it appears obvious that we would need an incredible, almost infinite, amount of water, land and energy to satisfy the need of almost 7.4 billion people. It is even more obvious that this is not the case, and especially countries with higher live standards are in constant need of these life-essentials. In this situation where the demand is much higher then the actual offer I would follow my parents teaching: being diligent, use frugally the few resources you have.

¡¡¡ WRONG !!!

The easiest solution that both wealthy country and countries with emerging economies found is to buy at rock bottom price cultivable lands in poorer countries. These lands are then mainly used to produce crops for both food and energy purposes. The products are then imported in the buyer country, in the attempt of mitigate the rising demand of food and energy. In the last couple of years the extend of this practice emerged, and it is astonishing. More than 5% of Africa’s agricultural land has been bought or leased by investors [1]. United Arabs Emirates bought hundreds of hectares in Pakistan. The same did South Korea in Sudan. And of course the rising star in the world economy, China, could not have been less cocky, and it recently bought almost 1/20th of Ukraine land to use for the next 50 years [2]. Considering only  agricultural land acquisitions, more than 50% of lands have been purchased in Africa, with Democratic republic of Congo that has sold more than 6 millions hectares [3], which correspond roughly to 4 millions soccer pitches. China seem to like farming abroad. In fact they grow cabbage in Congo, raise fish in Angola and grow nuts in Mozambique [4]. According with Land Matrix, a global and independent land monitoring initiative that promotes transparency and accountability in decisions over land and investment, till now more than 48 millions of hectares have been sold. This correspond to more than 24 million Colosseum, more than 380 Rio de Janeiro, and almost 2 times the area of Ecuador.

The figure below was take from the paper of Seaquist et al., (2014), and it shows the top 20 countries in the global land trade network. The grey bars indicate “imports”, meaning that the country is buying another country’s land, and the red bars indicate “exports”, meaning that the countries are selling their land.


As it can be seen, this is a common practice adopted by the countries with the strongest economies in the world. Now, many questions pop up in my mind. For example, there are billions of dollars running around this business, where are this money going? If this money would be of benefit for the population, this sounds like a decent win-win deal. However, it seems to me that poorest countries are also the ones that have often the more corrupted governments. Therefore, I am not quite sure that the population will indeed get any benefit from this multi-billions deals. Also, if the buyers buy unused lands and bring work to the local people, this sounds also as a win-win deal for me. However, it seems that often this is not the case, and there is a competition between local poor farmers and rich foreigner buyers [1]. Finally, growing crops or raising livestock requires not only land, but also water and energy. Where are this resources coming from? Is there a competition, once more, between poorer local farmer and rich cocky foreigners for the local, often limited, resources? Something that seems to be a good thing is that there is an effort to make these deals more transparent and regulated [5]. And yet, all this complicated mechanisms looks quite weird to me, it is almost like a new legalized colonialism sugar coated by billions of dollars. I still think that the teaching of my parents would have been a better and easier choice: “just do not be a pig! Use rationally the product of your backyard, instead of going shopping in Congo!”.


J W Seaquist, Emma Li Johansson and Kimberly A Nichola, 2014, Architecture of the global land acquisition system: applying the tools of network science to identify key vulnerabilities, Environmental Research Letters, Volume 9, Number 11

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