How much agricultural land is China actually grabbing in Africa?

Men plow agricultural land in Mozambique. There is no data to back up claims of a state-sanctioned land-grabbing policy by China in Africa. Photo by: Peter Fredenburg / WorldFish / CC BY-NC-ND

News headlines have trumpeted announcements of big Chinese agricultural land grabs in Africa, which Beijing denies despite the Western media’s claims that it’s a growing problem.

The author of a recent paper on the issue is one of the very few non-Chinese experts who disagrees with the popular version, and defends there is no data to back up claims of a state-sanctioned land-grabbing policy by China in Africa.

Deborah Brautigam, professor of international development and comparative politics at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, has conducted an extensive review of media announcements about Chinese land acquisitions and investments approved by Beijing.

According to the mainstream media, about 10 million hectares of agricultural land in Africa is controlled by Chinese companies, but the amount she found was actually under cultivation or concession was just about 100,000 hectares.

Brautigam explained that many projects that were announced or approved never came to fruition or were smaller than originally planned or publicized, largely due to implementation challenges. In addition, some of the projects were previously built through China’s different aid programs and then leased by private companies when local governments failed to take over or successfully run the farms.

“The interest is not as intense [as some were saying],” she said this week at an event hosted by the Center for Global Development in Washington D.C. “It doesn’t look like it’s for food security.”

China mainly imports cocoa and sesame along with some cotton and tobacco from Africa, Brautigam noted, adding that there isn’t proof of the claim some have made that China is obtaining land in Africa to ensure the Asian juggernaut’s future food security.

The expert and author of the 2008 book The dragon's gift: The real story of China in Africa acknowledged that while the amount of land China leases and cultivates may be smaller than reported, there remain some challenges with Chinese investments. Those include farmers who are unhappy with the competition or displeased with practices like the use of chemicals or hormones, a lack of understanding of women’s role in farming and a failure to recognize shifting cultivation and unique land use agreements.

One of the issues raised in the discussion was how China’s presence and practices compares to that of other countries, a question Brautigam said she didn’t have an answer for but that would require more accurate data.

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About the author

  • Saldiner adva

    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.

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