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Should Ongoing Land Deals in the Congo Basin be Criminalized?
Phil René Oyono, RRI Fellow 22 .12. 2020  

Africa is currently experiencing what can be called its “third great land transformation.” This follows the first one inaugurated by colonial powers, and a second one launched by postcolonial states for developmental and infrastructural purposes. The 21st century wave of land grabs, which has exploded in recent years, constitutes the third.

It is a new form of agrarian capitalism – and perhaps corporate colonialism – driven by a growing global emphasis on large land and agricultural investments. The continent is currently witnessing an unprecedented commodification of land, marked by the dispossession of local communities from their lands in countries such as Sudan, DRC, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Madagascar, Mali, Republic of Congo, and Mozambique.

There is, so far, a lack of authoritative data on trends, size, and terms of land deals in most cases. But according to recent estimates, 55 to 65 million hectares of arable land are involved in large-scale land deals in the whole of Africa. In this game of supply and demand, the Congo Basin region (or Central Africa as a whole), with its 550 millions of available arable land and considered the world’s second ecological lung after Amazonia, stands out. The region currently accounts for about 63 percent of the area provided by African countries for land deals.  As Congolese expert Brice Pongui put it to me in an interview, “As in the old good days of colonial concessions, Central Africa is and remains the favorite terrain of capitalist multinationals. Our political systems are weak and have always served neo-colonial interests.

The causes of this new explosion are many, including what can be called “globalized financialization and speculation of land” by large corporations based in Western countries, Singapore, China, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This has resulted in the rise of a new agrarian capitalism characterized by rural dispossession, corruption in decision-making bodies, growing transnational land grabbing networks and neo-liberal trade agreements.

Transnational and foreign corporations have thus marked their nest in Central Africa, acquiring huge portions of land (over 1,000 ha in size). More than anywhere else, this region has been long susceptible to a patrimonialism of resources by elites. These land deals cohabit with other forms of often controversial – but flourishing – land use schemes, like commercial logging and mining, whose disastrous effects on community land rights and the environment have grown since the colonial period. In the eastern part of DR Congo, for example, since the early 2000s we have seen a proliferation of joint ventures between top-level military elites and Asian investors to establish agricultural and intensive livestock concessions, leading to deadly conflicts based on land claims and struggles for access.

A map of the Congo Basin

Many of these land transactions are not transparent and are tainted with legal irregularities such as lack of free consent from local communities, lack of validation of contracts by ministries of land, payment of bribes to state agents, and capture of customary chiefs by subnational administrative authorities in some cases. In each country, these actions have involved a chain of actors including investors, national decision-makers, bureaucrats, sub-national authorities, customary chiefs, and other middlemen.

Such harmful land deals are currently being addressed by new disciplines such as rural criminology, green criminology, and new agrarian studies, as well as movements for environmental justice and eco-justice. In addition, the International Criminal Court (ICC) is now taking an interest in crime linked to environmental destruction, illegal exploitation of natural resources, and unlawful dispossession of community lands. An unprecedented 2016 complaint filed at the ICC by Cambodian activists against land grabbing entrepreneurs, led to the Court’s recognition of the criminal nature of land grabbing and environmental destruction and its catastrophic outcomes on local communities’ and Indigenous Peoples’ rights.

The Republic of Congo, DRC, and Cameroon have recently introduced land reforms relating to land reserves and agro-industrial parks. However, some community land rights advocates and researchers warn that these developments are tools for attracting foreign land investors, large-scale land acquisitions, and creating spaces of complicity between transnational corporations and national decision-makers in a region rife with corruption. Land deals become illicit and criminal when: (i) the rights holders are, from one country to another, robbed or dispossessed, through irregular operations conducted by multinationals, public officials, national elites, and subnational elites; (ii) the entire value chain is governed by corrupt dynamics and illegal practices.

While large-scale opaque land acquisitions in the Congo Basin like those described above are typically described by policy makers and the ruling elites as a strategic axis in promising national development programs, they are quite often destructive of local communities and Indigenous Peoples’ fundamental and operational land rights.  In Cameroon, for example, land concessions allocated for 99 years – in a country where life expectancy is around 50 years – deprive two generations of local peoples access to their land, taking away their livelihoods and sustenance.

These facts create a strong case for looking at the ongoing land deals in the Congo Basin from a transnational organized crime perspective. Indeed, an in-depth analysis on the politics of land grabbing in the region is more critical than ever before. As Kinshasa-based Indigenous Peoples representative Kapupu Diwa told me, “There is no development behind such land transfers (as) it is not beneficial to Indigenous Peoples. Like the huge network of national parks that cover the country, these large-sale land acquisitions mean the second death of our communities.

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