Chinese agricultural investments in Africa have sparked fierce controversy, excoriated as colonial plunder or hailed as productive and beneficial to local farmers. But the picture here in Luwero, Uganda, 50 miles north of the capital, is rather one of inaction and incompetence.
At the first commercial Chinese agricultural operation in Uganda, the land lies idle and overgrown. First came mushrooms, then fish, pigs, and grains – all tried on soil that the owners found ill-suited to their attempts. At a different 600-acre farm, a promised 25,000 jobs have yielded about a hundred, and the handling of the wetlands has made it nearly impossible for locals to graze their livestock.
There is a false impression that Chinese companies control huge tracts of African land to grow crops to feed Chinese consumers. But researchers have found no Chinese companies exporting rice or other cereals back home. Yet there is also no way of telling how many businesses Chinese farmers have here because the government does not keep accurate records, says Josh Maiyo, an expert in Chinese-Ugandan relations.
Lubenge, Luwero District, Uganda
The first Abel Mukalazi knew of the land grab was when he saw workers erecting a barbed wire fence around the pasture where his family had grazed their cattle for half a century.
Three years later, Mr. Mukalazi looks out over the barbed wire at empty fields of rough grass stretching across the valley – not a blade of rice in sight – where the wetlands used to be. “They are doing nothing with that land,” he snorts. “Just messing us up.”
Rising Chinese agricultural investments in Africa have sparked fierce international controversy, excoriated by critics as colonial plunder and hailed in Beijing as productive and beneficial to local farmers. The view from Luwero, 50 miles north of the Ugandan capital, Kampala, suggests that neither version is accurate. The picture here, at two different Chinese-owned farms, is rather one of inaction and incompetence.
Such disappointing results are “not unusual at all” among Chinese agricultural investments in Uganda, says Josh Maiyo, an expert in Chinese-Ugandan relations at the University of Radboud in Nijmegen, Netherlands. “Very often they do not pan out” as promised, he adds.
When President Yoweri Museveni came here in 2016 to inaugurate the China-Uganda Agricultural Industrial Park, managed by Kehong, he lauded the project as “an important instrument of transforming the economy. What was forest is going to turn into a city.”
At the launch, Luo Heng, the Kehong president, pledged $220 million of investment to create 25,000 jobs, “agricultural technology training, crop planting demonstrations … poultry and livestock processing and an agricultural mechanization service.”
There is little evidence yet of such huge investment. Today the farm employs just 100 Ugandan laborers, Kehong finance manager Liu Jianghua says in an interview in his office, situated in the only habitable building yet constructed – a low three-sided structure around a sparsely planted courtyard that houses 10 Chinese employees and a canteen serving them Chinese food.
A dozen of those labourers could be seen on a recent visit to the farm, tilling a field in preparation for maize planting. There was no sign of the promised “agricultural mechanization.” They were wielding simple hoes.
Kehong has a 99-year lease on 600 acres of wetland but has planted only six acres of rice in each of the four growing seasons since the company moved in, according to Mr. Liu. “It has been very dry” for the past two years, he says. “The rain has not been coming” heavily enough to flood the paddy fields and grow rice, as planned, for the local market.
Local agricultural officials say the rains have been sufficient for local farmers to grow their crops, and Kehong is preparing to grow maize on 300 acres of its land in order to feed the 100,000 egg-laying chickens that Mr. Liu says will arrive to supply the local market with 85,000 eggs a day.
They will be housed in two long metal sheds, already fitted with battery cages imported from China. For the time being, however, the only poultry being raised are a few hundred broiler chicks in a ramshackle hut.
Legal, according to the court
Mr. Mukalazi challenged Kehong’s occupation of the wetland, but a local court ruled that his family’s lease had expired when – unbeknownst to him – a land broker secured the new 99-year lease and sold it on to Kehong.
Mr. Mukalazi is especially angry because irrigation earthworks that Kehong has carried out, including the excavation of a large trench, have drained the swamp on adjacent land that he owns, making it impossible to water his cattle in the dry season.
“Now the wetland water drains first into their dam,” he complains, standing beside a small pond, its surface dotted with lily pads, which is the only water source on his land. “This pond is less than half the size it used to be.”
Mr. Liu, Kehong’s financial manager, says his company has installed a tap and basin just inside its fence so as to allow neighbouring farmers access to water. But the single tap can be reached only by ducking under barbed wire – impossible for cows – and the water has to be carried in jerrycans back to the animals. This is totally impractical, Mr. Mukalazi points out.
He is not the only one to suffer. On the other side of the Chinese-owned farm “the swamp doesn’t hold water anymore,” says James Wandira, who was head of the district council when Kehong occupied its land. “Grazing animals has become impossible; some people have had to move away and others graze [their cows] now on their small plots of land, which is not sufficient.”
And it is not only farmers who have lodged complaints. Last March a fiberboard factory downstream from the Lubenge wetland found that its well had run dry, according to James Kunobere, a district environmental officer who refused Kehong permission to expand its operations because the swamp “is a refuge for our farmers in the dry season.”
On wetlands, little success
Hanhe too was launched with much fanfare (President Museveni visited the farm in 2014 to lend his imprimatur) and Chinese government funding from the China Development Bank amid ambitious dreams of exporting mushrooms to China and the world. Later the owner, Qiu Lijun, and his wife, Zhou Lisha, tried farming fish; growing rice, maize, and millet; and raising pigs.
All their efforts, though, came to naught. Their fishponds, their crops, and their animals were washed away in repeated floods. Today the farm lies idle and overgrown, its buildings deserted, its agricultural machinery abandoned and rusting in the long grass, the silence broken only by an occasional bleat from one of the goats that two local villagers have installed in a disused pen.
The owners gave up in 2016, explains Ms. Zhou in a telephone interview. “We failed to make our money back,” she says. “The land is wetland and suffers from floods. We were not aware of that because we came to the place in the dry season when there was no water. But floods destroyed our crops and our gardens.
“Also the land abounds in clay, so it is hard to grow things in it. We struggled to fight with the land but the floods were a big problem,” Ms. Zhou says. “Sometimes we could not even get to the farm.”
She and her husband have not given up the land they leased, and are thinking about processing agricultural products rather than growing them, Ms. Zhou said. “But there is no prospect of the farm ever realizing the potential that [its owners] claimed for it,” points out Dr. Maiyo, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on Hanhe.
Expectations vs. reality
At the height of Hanhe farm’s activity its owners were cultivating only 70 of the 400 acres they had leased from the government. But Western accounts estimated their landholding at 100,000 acres – 250 times the real figure.
That put it in the ranks of what Deborah Brautigam, who heads the China-Africa Research Initiative (CARI) at Johns Hopkins University, has branded “zombie land-grabs” – non-existent or grossly exaggerated Chinese agricultural investments. It is not uncommon for Chinese firms themselves to be the source of such exaggerations, inflating the size of their landholdings to impress potential investors back home.
Such reports feed the false impression that Chinese companies are leasing or buying huge tracts of African land on which to grow crops to feed Chinese consumers. Although Sinochem, a Chinese state-owned firm, has leased 120,000 acres to develop a rubber plantation in Cameroon, researchers at CARI have found no Chinese companies exporting rice or other cereals back home.
Professor Brautigam’s research shows that, rather, Chinese farms in Africa serve local markets; China devotes 12% of its overseas agricultural investment to Africa but buys only 2% of its food from the continent, according to a recent USDA report based on official Chinese figures.
There is no way of telling how many businesses Chinese farmers have set up in Uganda, says Dr. Maiyo, because the government does not keep accurate records, but he believes they number in the double digits.
Most of them, says Zhou Hang, who teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and who also studies Chinese investments in Uganda, are small affairs.
They raise rice, Chinese vegetables, and chickens that they sell to Chinese restaurants and the canteens set up by Chinese enterprises in Uganda employing large numbers of Chinese nationals, such as telecom giant Huawei and road construction firms, he adds.
More ambitious projects are generally less successful, according to Mr. Zhou. “The majority of big Chinese agricultural projects in Africa have not lived up to expectations – neither the Chinese government’s hype nor the way the Western media portrays them,” he says.
“Africa is seen as the Wild West in China,” says Dr Maiyo. “So-called Chinese investors … bandy around these huge figures and African leaders are very happy to hear them. They acquire large tracts of land for a song and then go back to China to secure investment,” but often the money does not materialize.
In Luwero, the result is disillusion. “These Chinese companies, they give the impression that the area will completely change,” says Brian Luwaga, a journalist in Luwero who has followed the impact of Chinese investment in the region. “But then you don’t see anything.”
Government orders arrest of notorious land grabber in Mubende district.
By Witness Radio team
The government of Uganda has ordered the Police in Mubende to oversee the arrest of a land grabber in the Mubende district whose evictions have caused suffering to residents in Mubende for over a decade.
The Prime minister of Uganda, Rt Hon. Robina Nabbanja while meeting the affected residents at her home in Kakumiro district ordered the arrest of Milly Naava Namutebi and halted all activities carried out by a land grabber on people’s land. She further made it clear that all residents remain on their land till her visit to ascertain the true owner of the land.
For over a decade, Naava has been carrying out forced evictions in the area with the assistance of the area police which has rendered people homeless. People have lost land, lack food, children are not schooling and families have broken as a result of her unending violent evictions. Defenders have been framed and arrested, whereas others have been beaten in evictions.
Over 3.5 square miles belonging to 4000 residents have all been taken by the wealthy investor without consent from the owners.
Over 60 residents of Kirwanyi in Kiruma sub-county led by their Chairman Bangirana Innocent pitched camp at the Prime minister’s home in protest of the increased and violent evictions of Naava and her men and wanted the prime minister’s intervention to save them from being evicted.
According to the residents, Naava with the protection of police officers was harvesting people’s crops including maize claiming she wanted to use the land. The residents informed Witness Radio that they have been on the said land for generations and wonder how Naava came to own it.
One of the victims, Mr. Lubuuka Godfrey who had over 20 acres of maize told the Prime minister that casual laborers attached to Naava and guarded by the police officers slashed all his plantation and ordered him to leave the land immediately.
“I direct the District Police Commander (DPC) of Mubende and the Resident District Commissioner (RDC) to withdraw the four police officers guarding Naava, and thereafter arrest her for causing distress to the people.” The Rt Hon Prime minister said.
At least 30 houses and hundreds of hectares of crops especially maize were destroyed in the recent violent evictions, according to a community land rights defender, Mr. Ssesazi Christopher.
Naava has on several occasions been arrested and charged for violently evicting people without compensating or resettling them. In July 2022, Naava together with his people at large were arrested, arraigned before the magistrate court in Mubende, and charged with 20 counts including forgery, malicious damage, fraud, and criminal trespass among others.
The Rt Hon Prime minister’s order comes after Naava defied directives of not evicting people on land that were given by the Minister of Lands, Hon Judith Nabakooba. Last year, Nabakooba visited the affected communities and directed no further evictions citing investigations into the land ownership.
Land grabs: Officials in Mubende district are colluding with economically powerful and politically connected people to grab local communities’ land.
By Witness Radio Team
Justine Nakachwa (not her real name) had never thought of losing land she and her family had happily lived on for decades. Her dream of owning farmland had come true.
The land passed down to generations of descendants from the late 1970s was now being claimed by a renowned businessman. She got staggered.
“I was shocked by this news because I have spent most of my life here. Am wondering how he could acquire the land without the knowledge of the whole village.” She painfully revealed this while speaking to a Witness Radio-Uganda reporter.
The sixty-year-old is one of the community members of over 800 smallholder farmers in the three villages; Biwaalwe, Kabaale, and Kyagaranyi in Kanyogoga parish, Butologo sub-county in Mubende district currently facing eviction by Tubikaku Uganda Limited, a company owned by City businessman Desh Kananura.
The smallholder farmers have been practicing subsistence farming on this land to earn a living since the 1970s.
Intending to secure ownership and legalize it, they conducted a search and due diligence, which revealed that the land had no encumbrances. In 2012, they applied for a lease. Sadly, the Mubende District Land Board declined to grant their request and instead awarded the lease of 906.4 hectares to a ghost company Tubikaku Uganda Limited.
The economically powerful and politically connected to grabbing the downtrodden land with the assistance of land board officials is rapidly growing in Uganda. With the aid of district land boards, cartels are increasingly disposing of smallholder farmers. This practice is now predominant in many districts in the country, especially Mubende district.
It is alleged that the District Land Board has previously leased people’s land to tycoons without following proper legal land acquisition procedures.
Seven years ago, a community’s land in Lwebigajji village in Mubende district of 226.5 hectares were grabbed by a local investor with the help of district land board officials. The community had lived on their land for over 30 years.
When the community showed interest in acquiring a leasehold on the land, the district land board of Mubende hurriedly offered the title to one Deo Semwogerere Mutyaba, a local businessman, who does not even own a decimal on the land.
Consequently, over 2000 families were affected. “In 2014, we requested the Mubende district lands board for a lease on this land, got surveyed using our efforts and resources, however upon returning the leasehold title in 2015, it had Semwogerere’s names as the owner of the land.” Grace Nantubiro, one of the community leaders said.
Samuel Wambi Mamali, a local businessman was also helped by the Mubende district land board officials to allegedly steal local community’s land covering three villages. These include Kyamukoona, Kijojolo, and Kalagala in Mubende District that have been occupied by locals for decades. The villages accommodate over 800 families.
The villagers indicated that Maamali fraudulently acquired a lease title he never applied for, did not consult community members on the land, nor at parish, or sub-county land committees that should have advised and guided on whether the land was lawfully being occupied and cultivated.
The few listed cases above are among several cases of grabbed land by wealthy and politically connected people in the Mubende district. The trend of district land boards facilitating land grabs has left many local and indigenous communities landless.
A community of over 300 smallholder farmers conned as their land is sold to a local investor without their consent.
By Witness Radio Team
As foreign agribusinesses take over Kiryandongo communities’ fertile land, other local investors are also eyeing the remaining land occupied by the poor families in the southwestern district of Uganda to grab their land.
A community of over 300 smallholder farmers in Ranch 22, Nyamuntende village in Kiryandongo district is being evicted by a local businessman Maseruka Robert who claims ownership of the land some have lived on for decades. Mr. Maseruka connived with some leaders in the community to grab land from the poor.
The evictions that started in August this year have caused the displacement of over 50 households so far on land measuring over 2000 acres without consultations or being fairly compensated. Crops belonging to residents, and houses were razed.
When evictions by multinationals soared in Uganda, the community acted swiftly to protect the interest on the land and avert a land grab. And in 2015, they applied for a lease of 49 years on the land from the Kiryandongo district land board which was granted to them.
However, unbeknownst to them, schemers would take advantage of this opportunity to grab their land. Earlier, the residents whose land is located on Ranch 22 Block 8 Bunyoro Ranching Scheme entrusted Wilson Sikhama, Ochema Richard, and a few other community members as their leaders in 2016 during the requisition of the land.
According to the residents, initially, the application processes unfolded as they had planned, however, Sikhama and Ochema allegedly connived with other people not known to the community to drop the names of some of the community members whom they had entrusted and replaced them with Julius Isingoma, Gerald Tumusiime, Messanger Gabriel Wabwire, Musokota William John and Simon Mwesige.
Residents further added that the land was titled in the names of the seven people who excluded the villagers. In 2019, when the community expected the location forms of the land per person, they understood that the land they had acquired was sold to one Maseruka Robert without their notification by Sikhama and the group.
In the same year 2019, the community ran to court seeking its intervention to regain the ownership of their land. The community was led by one of their own Mbabazi Samuel. In a blink of an eye, Mbabazi allegedly reached an agreement with the aforementioned group. On the 22nd of October 2020, he allegedly sold the said land to a group of people (Mr. Sikhama’s group) at One Hundred Million Shillings (100,000,000 equivalent to USD 26,483.79) without the approval of the community he represented.
After completion of the sale, the group of schemers sold the land to Maseruka who is now evicting the community.
In our interview with Maseruka, he failed to explain how he acquired the land but, insisted that he wanted the community to leave his land. “These people should leave my land because I want to use it, this is my land.” He maintained.
Some of the evictees whose houses were destroyed had relocated to their neighbors’ homes for fear of what would befall them. A 42-year-old widow and a mother of 10 said Maseruka’s accomplices destroyed her house leaving her destitute.
“These people wanted to give me 700,000/= (185.39) for the 15 acres of my land. When I resisted, they began destroying what they found including my house. They told me the money they were giving me was enough for me to vacate.” She explained.
The chairperson of the affected community, Mushija Caleb said his people are being forcefully evicted because they refused the peanuts given to them as compensation. He reiterated that his people don’t want to leave their land.
“They should not think of compensation irrespective of the amounts they are willing to offer because people are not interested in surrendering their land,” he added.
Defending Land And Environmental Rights1 week ago
Mubende police arrest and charge farmers that workers of a tree-planting company attacked.
Petitions1 week ago
Statement on the Dakar 2 Summit: “Climate smart agriculture” will worsen the climate crisis
Accountable Development To Communities2 days ago
The committee calls for the protection of projects’ host communities.
Defending Land And Environmental Rights2 days ago
State fails to produce a key witness, prematurely closes its prosecution in the trial of the eight land rights defenders
NGO work1 week ago
URGENT ALERT: Tanzanian Government Resorts to Cattle Seizures to Further Restrict Livelihoods of Maasai Pastoralists