Senegal: Farmers angered by large-scale land purchases

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Doudou Sow is furious. For the last 10 years, small-scale farmers in his area have been steadily losing their land to an influx of private investors. The Senegalese farmer says that outsiders have been purchasing fertile land in the Senegal River Valley where he has farmed for the last two decades.

Mr. Sow is a native of the Saint Louis Region in northern Senegal. He says, “I do not understand why hundreds of hectares are being given to outsiders when the priority should be to make land available to our own farmers.”

Policies in Senegal over the last decade have favoured large-scale acquisitions of farmland by both foreign and local investors. High profile schemes promoted agribusiness and biofuels. But the government of current President Macky Sall has been highly critical of the agricultural policies favoured by the previous administration under Abdoulaye Wade.

President Sall’s government, elected in 2012, is keen to review land ownership, arguing that it has not been properly reviewed since the post-independence era. The major piece of land legislation in Senegal dates back to 1964 and stresses free access to land and the importance of communal ownership under state control.

Between 2000 and 2010, more than 650,000 hectares of land were allocated to 17 private firms. This accounts for about 17 per cent of Senegal’s available crop land. According to a regional advocacy group, Pan-African Institute for Citizenship, Consumers and Development, ten of these firms are Senegalese and the others foreign-owned.

Mariam Sow is the coordinator of the Natural Protection program for the international NGO ENDA. Ms. Sow says, “These initiatives have led to a glut of private operators, including religious leaders and senior state officials, moving in on land in rural areas.”

She says the loss of farmland in areas like Gandon, 230 kilometres north of Dakar, is sapping farmers’ morale. She adds, “In losing their land … farmers lose a part of their identity.”

Many farmers agree strongly. The grassroots-based Fanaye Land Defence Association, based 430 kilometres north of Dakar, has expressed strong concern about changing patterns of land ownership.

Farmers in Fanaye say they need the state to show stronger support for local farmers. They are also disappointed that new landowners are failing to “add value” to the land they are buying by producing better crops and creating more employment for local people.

It is entirely legal for private investors to acquire land. But it conflicts with local farmers’ customary legal rights, and the majority of farmers do not have formal title deeds.

Tensions are strong in the Senegal River Valley. But Jean-Philippe Tre, an agro-economist at the World Bank, assures small-scale farmers that the growing presence of agribusiness is not land grabbing, but rather the development of commercial agriculture.

The Italian-backed company, Senhuile/Senethanol, acquired 20,000 hectares near Fanaye in 2011 by presidential decree. It has stated its intention to grow sweet potatoes to produce ethanol, and sunflower oil for export. Locals were promised thousands of jobs, but only 30 people have been employed so far.

Younouss Ball is a member of the Fanaye Land Defence Association. He says, “Given such conditions, young people do not have a reason to stay, and so they leave for the towns.”

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