Can the world continue to feed itself? Mali’s peasants are subsistence farmers, and 75% of Malians are farmers, but rich, land-hungry nations like China, Saudi Arabia and even Ukraine are leasing its land in order to turn large areas into agribusiness sugar farms, and turn the farmers there into small businessmen. Many Malian peasants do not welcome these efforts, seeing them as yet another manifestation of imperialism and dependence, and emphasise the ‘culture’ part of their agriculture. The flashpoint is in the fertile region of the Office Du Niger, where the American-led consortium Sosumar is pressuring the Government for land. Sosumar is on a mission, convinced this modern mass farming is good for Mali’s development away from poverty, but local activist Ibrahima has other ideas, stressing the need for food sovereignty where Mali can provide for itself independently and pursue agro-ecology not agribusiness. Activists like him fight a losing battle, beaten and tear-gassed as their land is invaded. But as Mali experiences a military coup, the developers are scared off – can Mali’s farmers combat food shortages and escape poverty on their own terms?
Apocalyptic scenarios abound for the future of the world’s food supply, including that of rich countries, and there have already been riots from those without access to it. Mali’s situation is especially precarious, with two thirds of the country being desert, and an ensuing reliance on the Office Du Niger as its bread basket. But capitalism always sees an opportunity in a crisis, and a coalition of outside investors, backed by the African Development Fund, is promising to secure the country’s food supply whilst exporting the area’s agricultural products to richer countries. Their methods are promised to be collaborative and consensual with local people, seeking their consent to make their agricultural land profit-motivated. They guarantee it’s not a new form of colonialism – rather compassionate business, not imposed and skewed towards outsiders. Villages hold intense debates – how to decide between being guaranteed you’ll feed your family on one hand, versus the irreversible dangers of being dependent on corporate entities whose collaborative ethos and overall interest could wane at any time.
60% of the world’s available arable land is in African countries, and it could be said this should be a source of bargaining power for the continent. The reality is that Governments must balance providing for their poor populations against calling the bluff of richer populations’ rampant appetites, and the former usually wins. The Office du Niger has never been a sugar-growing region and it’s a major cultural shift to suggest growing a crop that’s not needed for its diet, in amounts that far exceed local necessity. Being a profit-driven subcontractor breaks the thousands-year-old relationship between a household and its land. But it’s undeniable that the region needs investment, and this is a rare form that offers to empower local people and offer a route out of poverty without asking for obscene amounts in return.
Yet, will it be the Malian Government who benefits most at the expense of local farmers anyway, as has been the trend dating back to colonialism in this region? Suspicion of the Government’s overall motives is borne out when it’s displaced by the military, which many farmers welcome, regarding national Governments as being embarrassed by farming and the small-scale economics that it represents. The investment moves to Nigeria, which has a long-term strategy for feeding its people that Mali appears to lack. Or is it that Nigeria has just accepted, on behalf of its people, the cultural trade-off for poverty relief that many other African countries would feel was too much of a backwards step to dependency? Do the majority of farmers in Mali really know best how poverty can be alleviated, or does the decision need making on their behalf by well-meaning activist-investors?