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Understanding China’s foreign agriculture investments in the developing world



Canberra — China’s investment in foreign agriculture totaled $26 billion in 2016, with investments in 100 countries. But this may just be the tip of the iceberg.

A new report released by the United States Department of Agriculture on April 24 draws from Chinese language speeches, reports, and other secondary sources to understand both the scale and purpose of foreign investment in agriculture, forestry, and fisheries.

Developing countries in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America were among China’s investment regions, with the investment types and goals differing for each.

“In our review of Chinese investments in agriculture in developing countries, we found that some are commercial ventures, while others are foreign aid projects,” Elizabeth Gooch, an economist for the Economic Research Service of the USDA, explained to Devex. “We also found that some ventures seem inclined to pursue both commercial gain and philanthropic motivations.”

A timeline of foreign agricultural investment

According to the report, both agricultural imports and exports began to rise dramatically from 2001, after China joined the World Trade Organization. Political support for a global agriculture policy in 2007 increased foreign agricultural investments further, as did a food security measure linked to the Belt and Road initiative in 2012.

“China’s general ‘going out’ or ‘go global’ strategy began in the 1990s, as an initiative to strengthen Chinese companies by encouraging them to move out from their home base and into global markets,” the report explained.

But for agriculture, the going global strategy was more than just cementing business opportunities for Chinese companies: Foreign investment in agriculture was strongly linked to food security concerns.

A national food security strategy was outlined for China in a five-year plan from 2006 to 2010. The plan advocated for the country to “go global” using China’s large labor resources to develop foreign land, water, and energy resources.

“The plan encouraged large-scale, competitive food conglomerates to produce grains, oilseeds, and sugar crops on rented land in South and North America and Africa and then to transport these crops back to China to balance supply and demand,” the report said.

The five-year plan helped boost foreign investment in farming, forestry, and fishing, which increased five times between 2010 and 2016, reaching almost $3.3 billion, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics.

The report suggests acquisition of foreign technology to improve agricultural productivity has become another important objective in China’s outward agricultural investment linked to food security in recent years — and is particularly evident in investments related to pork, agricultural trading, and farm input companies.

Investing in developing countries

In 2017, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce estimated agriculture, forestry, and fishing investment in Southeast Asia to be valued at $3.1 billion.

“Southeast Asia has a tropical climate suited to rubber, oil palm, and cassava,” the USDA report said. “It also has a large ethnic Chinese population — an attribute that facilitates business ties.”

Malaysia and Indonesia are key investment regions for palm oil. Cambodia has also been an important location since the 1990s, when the government began leasing out large tracts of land — or economic land concessions — to foreign investors for agricultural operations. The amount of farmland available for economic land concessions now nears 1 million hectares in total, and Chinese businesses are leasing 24 percent of this total. Key investments are rubber and lumber.

Yet foreign aid has also been important to investment across Southeast Asia. In Cambodia, research into the mechanization of cassava cultivation has been a part of China’s foreign aid spending, while in Laos, aid was used to support investment in rice, corn, sugarcane, rubber, tobacco, and tropical fruit.

Investment in Latin America, meanwhile, is more closely linked with food security according to USDA, as it is a “land-abundant region that supplies more than half of China’s soybean imports.” Sugar, grains, oilseeds, and livestock products are among China’s other imports from the region.

But despite it being an important region for imports, it has been a difficult region for Chinese companies to do business in, with the USDA saying only “10 of 17 major Chinese land acquisitions in Latin America were confirmed and under cultivation.”

In Africa, foreign aid and goodwill appear to be an important factor in agricultural investment. According to the USDA, Africa has been a focus for the receipt of technical assistance related to agriculture — as well as the construction of roads, ocean ports, airports, rail, and schools which aim to foster agricultural trade in the long term.

Currently, Africa represents 12 percent of China’s foreign agricultural investment, but the country receives 2 percent of food imports from the continent. Gooch could not comment, however, on whether Chinese investment was expected to lead to greater imports from the region.

“We cannot speculate about the future impacts of Chinese investments in Africa on African exports to China, but we can reiterate the main reason for the growth in overseas investment by China in agriculture is related to China’s growing dependence on food imports,” she said.

Yet the report also suggests that this investment “may be designed to build goodwill in African countries to create business opportunities for Chinese importers and contractors.”

Technical ability is an important asset element in the foreign agricultural investment made by China in the developing world to build goodwill. It began with the 1996 establishment of a rice farm in Cuba by the Xintian Group — a 5,000 hectare rice farm that produced food for local markets. It was followed by similar investments in Mexico.

China does not import rice from either country.

Hubei Provincial Seed Group and Yuan Long Ping High-Tech Agriculture Company are among other Chinese companies that have played an important role in exporting rice seeds to support China’s foreign aid projects in Southeast Asia and Africa.

And USDA believes that rice will also play an important role in the delivery of technical services through the Belt and Road initiative.

While there is large investment from China across the globe, USDA reports that the majority has been concentrated in neighboring areas of Southeast Asia and the Russian Far East — areas both accessible and with an abundance of land for Chinese businesses. It is expected this will grow with the Belt and Road initiative.

Shifting to mergers and acquisitions

The USDA report identified a new trend in China’s foreign agricultural investments — a shifting away from land purchases toward mergers and acquisitions.

For example, the state owned China National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Corporation is gaining more control over commodity trading, processing, and logistics. Another state-owned entity, Bright Foods, is working to assemble a variety of companies and brands under its roof, while the privately owned New Hope Group, an animal feed company, has established joint ventures with Australian and New Zealand to meet the demand for animal protein in China.

But despite this push, they are facing a number of barriers in this space because of differences in legal systems and governance, cultures and values — as well as negative perceptions of Chinese companies internationally.

The report states that the scale of China’s outbound agricultural investments “appears to be less than is often portrayed in global news media.” Still, it is growing rapidly.

“Chinese officials have ambitious strategic plans for agricultural investments to help reshape patterns of agricultural trade and increase China’s influence in global markets,” the report says.

Limitations to the study

The USDA report highlights the barriers that exist in understanding China’s focus role in developing countries and what their aid program achieves. It draws its information from secondary sources within China, including speeches, reports, and news media — a methodology that clearly has limitations.

“There are differences between reported figures and reality,” Gooch said. “We specify in our report that we include Chinese acquisitions of agribusinesses that work in the processing and distribution of agricultural commodities as part of ‘going global’ in agriculture, and these ventures are not defined as agricultural overseas investments according to the Chinese government.”

“We are uncertain about the percentage we missed but are certain that the investments we present in the paper are not all the investments that China has made.”

For many researchers, the hope is that the newly established State International Development Cooperation Agency will provide greater transparency on China’s investments internationally, including agricultural investments in the developing world.

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Breaking: Witness Radio and Partners to Launch Human Rights Monitoring, Documentation, and Advocacy Project Tomorrow.



By Witness Radio Team.

Witness Radio, in collaboration with Dan Church Aid (DCA) and the National Coalition for Human Rights Defenders (NCHRD), is set to launch the Monitoring, Documentation, and Advocacy for Human Rights in Uganda (MDA-HRU) project tomorrow, 22nd February 2024, at Kabalega Resort Hotel in Hoima District.

The project, funded by the European Union, aims to promote the protection and respect for human rights, and enable access to remedy where violations occur especially in the Mid-Western and Karamoja sub-regions where private sector actors are increasingly involved in land-based investments (LBIs) through improved documentation, and evidence-based advocacy.

The three-year project, which commenced in October 2023, focuses its activities in the Mid-Western sub-region, covering Bulisa, Hoima, Masindi, Kiryandongo, Kikuube, Kagadi, Kibale, and Mubende districts, and Karamoja sub-region, covering Moroto, Napak, Nakapiripirit, Amudat, Nabilatuk, Abim, Kaabong, Kotido, and Karenga districts.

The project targets individuals and groups at high risk of human rights violations, including Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) and Land and Environmental Defenders (LEDs). It also engages government duty bearers such as policymakers and implementers in relevant ministries and local governments, recognizing their crucial role in securing land and environmental rights. Additionally, the project involves officials from institutional duty bearers including the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC), Equal Opportunities Commission, and courts, among others.

Representatives from the international community, faith leaders, and business actors are also included in the project’s scope, particularly those involved in land-based investments (LBIs) impacting the environment.

The project was initially launched in Moroto for the Karamoja region on the 19th of this month with the leadership of the National Coalition for Human Rights Defenders (NCHRD).

According to the project implementors,  the action is organized into four activity packages aimed at; enhancing the capacity and skills of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) and Land and Environmental Defenders (LEDs) in monitoring, documentation, reporting (MDR), and protection, establishing and reinforcing reporting and documentation mechanisms for advocacy and demand for corporate and government accountability;  providing response and support to HRDs and marginalized communities; and lastly facilitating collaboration and multi-stakeholder engagements that link local and national issues to national and international frameworks and spaces.

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Kiryandongo leadership agree to partner with Witness Radio Uganda to end rampant forced land evictions in the district.



By Witness Radio team.

Kiryandongo district leaders have embraced Witness Radio’s collaboration with the Kiryandongo district aimed at ending the rampant violent and illegal land evictions that have significantly harmed the livelihoods of the local communities in the area.

The warm welcome was made at the dialogue organized by Witness Radio Uganda, Uganda’s leading land and environmental rights watchdog at the Kiryandongo district headquarters, intended to reflect on the plight of land and environmental rights defenders, local and indigenous communities and the role of responsible land-based investments in protecting people and the planet.

Speaking at the high-level dialogue, that was participated in by technical officers, policy implementers, religious leaders, leaders of project affected persons (PAPs), politicians, media, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), and development partners that support land and environment rights as well as the Land Based Investments (LBIs) Companies in the Kiryandongo district, the leaders led by the District Local Council 5 Chairperson, Ms. Edith Aliguma Adyeri appreciated the efforts taken by Witness Radio organization to organize the dialogue meeting aimed at bringing together stakeholders to safeguard community land and environmental rights in order address the escalating vice of land grabbing in the area.

During the dialogue, participants shared harrowing accounts of the impacts of land evictions and environmental degradation, including tragic deaths, families torn asunder, young girls forced into marriage, a surge in teenage pregnancies, limited access to education, and significant environmental damage which have profoundly affected the lives of the local population in Kiryandongo.

Participants attending the dialogue.

In recent years, Kiryandongo district has been embroiled in violent land evictions orchestrated to accommodate multinational large-scale agriculture plantations and wealthy individuals leaving the poor marginalized.

According to various reports, including findings from Witness Radio’s 2020 research Land Grabs at a Gun Point, the forceful land acquisitions in Kiryandongo have significantly impacted the livelihoods of local communities. It is estimated that nearly 40,000 individuals have been displaced from their land to make room for land-based investments in the Kiryandongo district. However, leaders in the district also revealed in the dialogue that women and children are affected most.

The Kiryandongo Deputy Resident District Commissioner, Mr. Jonathan Akweteireho, emphasized that all offices within the Kiryandongo district are actively involved in addressing the prevalent land conflicts. He also extended a welcome to Witness Radio, acknowledging their collaborative efforts in tackling and resolving land and environmental issues in the district.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we all know that the land rights together with environmental rights have been violated in our district, but because we don’t know what our rights are, because we have not directly done what we could to safeguard our rights and now this is the time that Witness Radio has brought us together to safeguard our rights. I want to welcome you in Kiryandongo and be rest assured that we shall give you all the necessary support to help us manage these rampant cases,” Ms. Adyeri said in her remarks during the dialogue meeting.

The team leader at Witness Radio Uganda, Mr. Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebaggala expressed gratitude to the participants for their active involvement in the dialogue and revealed that Witness Radio’s objective is to find a holistic solution to the escalating land disputes in Kiryandongo district serving as an example to other districts.

“We are here to assist Kiryandongo district in attaining peace and stability because it stands as a hotspot for land grabbers in Uganda. Mismanagement of land conflicts in Uganda could potentially lead to a significant internal conflict. Everywhere you turn, voices are lamenting the loss of their land and property. Kiryandongo, abundant with ranches, suffers from a lack of a structured framework, which amplifies these land conflicts. The influx of wealthy investors further complicates the situation,” Mr. Ssebaggala disclosed.

Within the dialogue, Mr. Ssebaggala emphasized the need for the Kiryandongo district council to pass a by-law aimed at curbing land evictions as an initial step in addressing the prevalent land injustices.

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Kiryandongo authorities decry rising cases of land disputes



The LC5 chairperson of Kiryandongo, Ms Edith Aliguma Adyeri, has saidnland dispute has impacted on people’s lives, dignity and children’s education in the district.

Just like other parts of Uganda, conflicts over land in Kiryandongo arise when individuals – who often are blood relatives – compete for use of the same parcel of land or when members of the community lay claim over ownership of unutilised government land.

Ms Adyeri further said land and environmental rights affect people both directly and indirectly, “and we are not hearing it from afar. It is already together with us [here], it has already affected us!”

She was speaking at a meeting which sought to discuss alternative remedies to salvage the appalling land and environmental rights situation in Kiryandongo at the district headquarters on Thursday.

The one-day dialogue was aimed at reflecting on the plight of land and environmental rights defenders, local and indigenous communities and the role of responsible land-based investments in protecting people and the planet.

It was attended by private companies, members of civil society and local government officials and organised by Witness Radio – an advocate for land and environmental rights in Uganda – in partnership with Oxfam, and Kiryandongo District leadership.

“Some people have even died, families are broken up, and brothers are not seeing eye-to-eye because of land rights. Access to justice is equally becoming very difficult because when you hire one lawyer that
lawyer will talk to learned friends, and they agree. They leave you in suspense,” Ms Adyeri said.

According to her, some children have not accessed education because of land and environmental rights.

Mr Jonathan Akweteireho, the deputy Resident District Commissioner of Kiryandongo, said enlightened people especially should be sensitive to the historical injustice of this area.

“We can never handle the Bonyoro land question without thinking about that history. It will be an injustice to the incomers, to the government and to the leaders who don’t understand,” he said.

“We had 38 ranches here which on the guidance of these international organisations, especially the World Bank, the government restructured them, allowing people to settle there, they were never given titles and up to today, there are big problems in all those ranches,” he added.

Mr Jeff Wokulira Ssebaggala, the executive director of Witness Radio, said that a well-functional land sector supports land users or holders and investors, reduces inefficiencies and provides mechanisms to resolve land disputes.

Mr David Kyategeka, the secretary to the Kiryandongo District Land Board, said the issue of land rights is very clear but the major challenge has been sensitising the locals to know what rights he or she expects to enjoy out of this very important resource.


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