In 2008, Balima Coulibaly and his fellow villagers watched with dread as the Malian government handed over 100,000 hectares of fertile land to Libyan investors. There was no discussion of the impact of the land transfer on Malian farmers or their impoverished communities. Local families had farmed the land for generations.
The 50-year renewable lease is one of Africa’s largest and most secretive foreign agricultural land deals. The project is just one example of deals in which international investors buy or lease large tracts of agricultural land as an investment—and small-scale farmers fear displacement.
Seven years after the contract was signed, Libya in is chaos, Mali is grappling with its own insurgency, and the project has stalled. The only visible signs of the deal are fading billboards advertising the Malibya project and an irrigation canal. Local villages still lack paved roads, phone lines or water pipes.
Mr. Coulibaly is a local leader. He sits on the floor of a sweltering mud house in Sangha village, as children with plastic bags tied to their feet in place of shoes cling to their mothers. He laments, “We don’t know what will happen to us.”
Like most countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Mali is on the UN list of least developed countries. According to the UN World Food Programme, more than half of Mali’s 15 million citizens live below the official poverty line. Nearly two million are officially categorized as “hungry.”
Advocates of land deals argue they bring much-needed investment to Africa, provide jobs, and improve the productivity of the land. But rights activists say that it’s rare for locals to be properly compensated for their losses. In Mali, tens of thousands of poor families who live on and farm the leased land are uncertain about their future. Mr. Coulibaly says, “We have a big hunger problem. At the moment, we are just trying to survive.”
Chantal Jacovetti is a researcher with Mali’s Coordination of National Farmers’ Organizations. She says foreign investors often want land, but not the farmers who live there. Ms. Jacovetti adds, “Some communities have been on that land for 800 years. [But now] … companies want to grab this land and get rid of the [farmers].”
According to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, an undated copy of the contract shows that the deal granted Malibya investors the rights to water “without restrictions” from June to December, and with some limits in drier months.
Sidiki Coulibaly is a chief from the neighbouring village of Finn. He says a 40-kilometre canal built to irrigate rice fields cuts through ancestral territory. But local people are not allowed to use the water, and authorities have ignored their requests for water access and pipes. Binan Coulibaly is a local farmer. He asks, “How can they guarantee water for foreigners and not us Malian people? It’s already difficult for us to survive.”
Sinaly Thiero is deputy director of the Office du Niger, the region where the project is based. He dismissed concerns over the deal, saying that the “Libyans are not going to take our lands and bring them back to Libya.” But Mr. Thiero is uncertain about the project’s future. No one from Libya has visited the site since the Libyan civil war in 2011. Mr. Thiero says the deal could be revoked unless there is progress on food production and investment in infrastructure. But he refused to say when that decision might be made.
Back in Sangha, Balima Coulibaly is worried that local families will be evicted if the project starts up again. He says, “We invested a lot in these lands, planting trees and building things—but one day they could come and take it all away.”
To read the full article on which this story was based, Shrouded in secrecy, one of Africa’s biggest land deals stalls, go to: http://www.trust.org/item/20150518040102-3e4l2 
Photo: In a 2013 file photo, farmer Bintou Samake plants beans while carrying her son Mahamadou on her back at a farm in Heremakono, Mali. Credit: REUTERS/Joe Penney