King Leopold’s Ghost and the 21st century scramble for Africa’s farms and foods | Land Portal

King Leopold’s Ghost and the 21st century scramble for Africa’s farms and foods


BY: Joan Baxter

About 10 million people — or more — perished in Belgian King Leopold’s Congo during the late 1800s and early 1900s.[i] In addition to the horrific human toll, another shocking thing about Leopold’s plundering of his huge African colony is that he managed to convince so many in Europe and the United States that his apparatus of exploitation and wealth collection was humanitarian and philanthropic, that his intention was to benefit the “natives”, help end the slave trade and bring “civilization”, and to further scientific endeavour.

Back then, there weren’t legions of communications and public relations specialists for hire to transform bad into good, to spin sin into virtue, and tailors who convinced naked emperors they were clad in robes of gold existed only in fairy tales. So the campaign of deception about Leopold’s actual intent in Africa probably started with the good king himself. He may genuinely have believed himself a noble fellow, and his right to conquer and pillage a chunk of Africa about 77 times the size of his own nation something that God granted his royal self.

Thankfully, times have changed.

Or have they?

The 21st century scramble for Africa

A new 21st century scramble for Africa is on. A whole new generation of very powerful and very rich people (the two are generally synonymous), large corporations, and development and financial institutions are busy carving up the continent. Transnational corporations and billionaire “philanthropists” are working with their friends in high political, academic, financial and development circles on a whole slew of “alliances” that they are selling as humanitarian, meant – or so their PR says – to nourish the continent and make it prosper. Profits that might accrue to them are hardly mentioned, at least not in the PR material produced for public consumption and not shareholders.

[Guinea is a favoured destination for mining “investors” after its bauxite, iron ore, gold and diamonds.]

Like Leopold before them, these new empire-builders portray and seem to see themselves as saviours, even as they take control of her natural resources in mining and extractives concessions, grab vast swaths of its land to produce a handful of commodity crops or just as “land banks”, and perhaps most tragic of all, ignore traditional knowledge and wisdom about farming systems, while appropriating the continent’s genetic property in the form of seeds and indigenous crops that African farmers have developed themselves over centuries.

But these facts get buried in the avalanche of rhetoric, jargon, terminology and sloganeering that is being harnessed to frame the latest assault on Africa – her resources, land, farms, food and seeds – as humanitarian.

Jargon that should come with health warnings

The World Economic Forum created a “New Vision for Agriculture”, something it created at its annual gathering of mostly very rich and powerful people in the (heavily guarded) mountaintop resort of Davos, Switzerland (a country where so much ill-got capital from Africa and the rest of the world is socked away in secret bank accounts). This “new” vision looks an awful like the same old and worn-out vision for unsustainable industrial agriculture and a corporate food chain that strangles family farms. The “NVA”, as it’s called, involves a large collection of multinational heavyweights – agrochemical and biotech corporations, international financial institutions and a few non-governmental organizations that tend to be corporate-friendly. The NVA “catalysed multistakeholder partnership platforms” (jargon that should come with a health warning), in Asia, Latin America and Africa, including the regional initiative dubbed “Grow Africa”.

[In Mali, farming involves trees, livestock and annual crops, immense diversity as insurance against drought and crop failure – traditional agroforestry systems should be strengthened, not transformed into monoculture.]

Like NVA, it’s hard to say what’s supposed to be new about Grow Africa. It is all about facilitating “>corporate investment”, and thus corporate profit for the 62 companies involved? No pretence of supporting smallholder farmers, or the restructuring of world trade to right all the wrongs caused by global imbalances and “free trade” agreements that make it so hard for Africa’s family farmers to make a decent living from their farming.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has already caused so much harm to Africa with its austerity programs in the past – structural adjustment and poverty alleviation papers – has also got in on act. It has pasted a new name to its old game, coming up with the slogan “Africa rising” for its neo-liberal economic recipes and corporate creep.

When the World Bank cosies up to the same cabal of corporations that control so much of the world’s food, land and seed, it says its purpose is to “unlock Africa’s agriculture” and “help nurse Africa’s baby agricultural industry to the maturity needed for it to satisfy demand from global retail giants like Walmart and Shoprite”. The World Bank’s proposed the solution is “A4D” or Agriculture For Development.


A glossary for green-washing

Green-tinged terms to cloak all the new initiatives in environmentally-friendly auras are popping up like mushrooms in bull droppings. The giant biotech and chemical company Syngenta is encouraging “no-till farming as an “environmentally sound and economical method of crop management”. What this really means is dousing fields with herbicides (presumably made by Syngenta) to kill the vegetation to make it easier to sow seed. Another term with an environmentally friendly ring for this kind of environmentally unfriendly farming is “conservation agriculture”.

Then there’s “climate-smart agriculture ” or “CSA” in the alphabet soup of the new and supposedly green techniques that are being developed for Africa and elsewhere, ostensibly to help save family farms and increase food production in the face of climate change. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines CSA as “agriculture that sustainably increases productivity and resilience (adaptation), sustainably increases productivity, resilience (adaptation), reduces /removes [greenhouse gases] GHGs (mitigation), and enhances achievement of national food security and development goals”.

All well and good. Just what the farmers needed. The only trouble is that CSA seems to mean anything one wants it to mean, including – when some use it – the same old dependence on corporate seed and chemical input packages that ensnare family farmers, reduce farm diversity and resilience to shocks, bring the risk of endless debt, and poison soils and water.

Much to the dismay of 100 civil society organizations struggling to defend family farmers, in September this year on the sidelines of the UN’s Climate Summit in New York, an alliance to promote CSA was launched. The Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture, comprises 20 governments, 30 organizations and corporations, including Fortune 500 companies McDonald’s and Kelloggs.

“The Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture will not deliver the solutions that we so urgently need,” said the coalition of civil society organizations. “Instead, climate-smart agriculture provides a dangerous platform for corporations to implement the very activities we oppose.” It is, they concluded, “clearly being structured to serve big business interests, not to address the climate crisis.”

[The corporate takeover of Africa’s food system, one market and food item at a time.]

Some of the companies that are involved in the takeover of Africa’s farms and seeds, driving the farmland grab in Africa or promoting genetically modified seeds, are boasting that they are already helping farmers deal with climate change.

For years Monsanto and other pushers of biotech crops have been trying to claim that only they, with their patented genetically modified or engineered seeds, can feed the world in the face of climate change, often only with the patented herbicides that go with them – in an all-out assault on Africa’s seed sovereignty.

Who needs weapons to subdue a continent when you control its seeds and seed supplies, the entire food chain?

Alliances for food security + Big Money = End of Food Sovereignty

The climate-smart alliance is just one of many big “Alliances” formed in recent years, all backed by big money, and all purportedly to help African farmers feed not just the continent but also the world.

There is the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, or AGRA, set up in 2006 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. AGRA’s declared mission is to “trigger a uniquely African green revolution that will transform African agriculture into a highly productive, efficient, competitive and sustainable system that assures food security and lifts millions out of povertysi [sic]”.[ii]

Who needs weapons to subdue a continent when you control its seeds and seed supplies, the entire food chain?

[In Cameroon, as elsewhere in Africa, the only insurance family farmers have is diversity of crops, including those they harvest from trees. Monoculture is not a solution to their problems, improved infrastructure and better access to local markets would be.]

It’s not obvious to anyone (except perhaps to its backers and corporate friends) that Africa needed a new green revolution, given that the first one in the 1960s and 70s failed Africa’s smallholder farmers. No matter, AGRA is awash in Gates dollars to promote an industrial model of agriculture in Africa, with the distribution and production of corporate-controlled seeds, chemical fertilizers and international value chains, all in the guise of helping smallholders on the continent. Lurking in the wings are genetically modified seeds, and also the large-scale foreign land-grabbers, whom Bill Gates seems to think will be a boon to African agriculture, even if they take precious arable land away from African farmers.

Another big-money venture is the “New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition”, launched at the G8 Summit at Camp David in 2012, led by US President Obama. Much like “Grow Africa”, it involves 60 of the world’s largest agrochemical, fertilizer, food and beverage corporations. The US government heralds the New Alliance as a “shared commitment to achieve sustained and inclusive agricultural growth in sub-Saharan Africa” that – jargon overload alert! – “will help lift 50 million people out of poverty over the next 10 years by aligning the commitments of Africa’s leadership to drive effective country-led plans and policies for food security and nutrition; the intentions of private sector partners to increase investments where the conditions are right; and the commitments of G-8 members to expand Africa’s potential for rapid and sustained agricultural growth”.

Bono, the super-rich U2 front man that presents himself as a champion of Africa’s poor has been shilling for the Alliance as if it were a panacea for Africa, instead of the attack it is on the continent’s indigenous foods and its family farmers. More insightful and knowledgeable people than Bono have seen through the smokescreen of noble intentions, and described the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition as a “a euphemism for monocultured, genetically modified crops and toxic agrochemicals aimed at making poor farmers debt slaves to corporations, while destroying the ecosphere for profit”.

Business as usual? Not an option

All these big initiatives, “alliances” and supposedly “smart” approaches to tackling hunger and poverty in Africa, already suffering from climate change, are anchored in a blind, almost cult-like faith in neo-liberal economics and “The Market” to get us out of the terrible mess that this same dogma has landed us in. They are designed to take control of, not strengthen, Africa’s farmers, farming and food systems. The “investment” they speak of is not the investment so desperately needed by Africa’s family farmers, in infrastructure, in research that builds on local knowledge and resources and diversity. And the neo-liberal approaches they espouse fly in the face of independent research and the views of people with a genuine interest in the issues and not in concentrating profits for those at the top of the food chain they are constructing.

[Diverse crops, diverse markets, diverse and nutritious diets – Africa needs to build on these strengths.]

A landmark report that emerged from three years of research and consultative work involving 900 participants and 110 scientists, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), concluded that “business as usual is not an option” and called for more sustainable, agro-ecological agriculture to feed the world, combat climate change, enhance biodiversity conservation and prevent social breakdown and environmental collapse. The Assessment did not endorse the simplistic green revolution or the genetically modified, pesticide- and herbicide-laced solutions the corporate lobby has been pushing. As a result, it received precious little media or public attention.

Since then, study after study has shown that with the right techniques, organic and agro-ecological agriculture can indeed be as productive as “conventional” agriculture with its corporate seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and monocultures.

Valiant civil society groups and coalitions such as La Via Campesina have been struggling to counter the propaganda coming from the transnational corporations, development and financial institutions and billionaires – that have converged on Africa to get a piece of the action. One Alliance after the other – all with vast amounts of money to spend on PR – all intent on shaping and take control of Africa’s food, farms, farmland and crops.

All in the name of helping, of course, alleviating hunger and poverty in Africa and making the world a better place.

Wherever he may be spending eternity, King Leopold’s ghost must be smiling.


[i] Hochschild, Adam. 1998. King Leopold’s ghost: a story of greed, terror, and heroism in colonial Africa. NewYork:Houghton Mifflin Company.

[ii] AGRA website, (accessed 12 December 2014)

 african, AGRA, agro-ecology, Grow Africa, King Leopold, NVA


Joan Baxter is a Canadian journalist, development researcher, anthropologist, and award-winning author. She divides her time between Canada and Africa, where she has lived and worked for over 30 years.    View all posts by Joan

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