Benin: Small-scale farmers denounce land acquisitions (by Mikaïla Issa, for Farm Radio Weekly in Benin)

| June 4, 2012

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Aballon Ake is a young farmer from the village of Tchaourou, 56 kilometers from the city of Parakou in northern Benin. Mr. Ake, along with other farmers, was recently deprived of his livelihood through a massive land purchase. He says, “I lost my whole field of yams and I have received nothing in return as compensation. Today I am without my only capital, land … and my hoe is at rest ….”

Member of Parliament Séfou Fagbohoun acquired Mr. Ake’s land. It is alleged that the politician intended to help the farmers’ co-operative of which Mr. Ake is a member, but then took the land. The co-operative members protested in vain.

Benin has over eight million hectares of agricultural land. But less than a quarter is currently cultivated. This vast expanse of land suitable for farming makes the country a target for investors.

National financial groups and foreign investors are acquiring thousands of hectares of land, taking it from farming families. Rural communities suffer when farmers are deprived of land. Farmers have no access to food, economic activities come to a halt, and the natural environment is neglected.

Many small-scale farmers like Mr. Ake are left behind. Some ask their neighbours if they can cultivate pieces of their land. Others consider going to the big cities in search of employment.

It is alleged that senior officials from Benin have taken advantage of their position to obtain thousands of hectares of land. Nestor Mahinou is the Executive Secretary of a farmers’ organization called Synergie Paysanne. He says, “With the influence of authority and power of money, some politicians manage to acquire farms of up to 900 hectares.”

Land deals pose a major threat to food security, as most buyers do not cultivate their land for several years after purchase. There are often large jatropha plantations, a raw material for biofuels, on the most fertile land. One chief says, “It is unclear what the new owners do with their new land. They promise to install food processing industries and to build social and community infrastructure. But so far, nothing concrete.”

When farmers want to use the purchased lands, the owners often refuse and conflicts arise. Dame Azia Hawé is the spokeswoman for the women of Alpha-quarra, a district in the city of Djougou, 150 kilometres from Parakou. She reports the following story: “In Djougou, a lady was chased by a white landowner because she had gone onto his land in search of firewood. She now has two broken legs after being hit by the landowner’s car.” Ms. Hawé says that police were contacted but have not followed up.

The National Farmers’ Union of Benin and a number of other civil society organizations are concerned. Simon Bodea is general secretary of Synergie Paysanne. He says, “In 2008, it was found that businessmen, MPs and even ministers gave guidance to other states such as China, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia … on how to acquire between 10,000 and 25,000 hectares of land.”

While farmers denounced the actions as land grabbing, section 390 of the proposed new land code promotes land purchases. It states that “everyone can buy up to 1000 hectares.” Moussa Souley is the head of a family of farmers in Tchaourou district. He says, “If no decision is taken to regulate the situation, soon Benin will no longer have reserves of farmland.”

Since Mr. Ake lost his land, he has been working on his neighbours’ farm. But he plans to leave home and find a better living in a big city.