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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
Maybe you've noticed food has gotten more expensive in recent years. It's certainly caught the attention of big investors. Some are betting that farming is going to pay off big. That's why they're buying up farmland, especially in places where it's cheap, like Africa. In doing so, they're often pushing aside subsistence farmers who had been using the land. Critics call it a global land grab. So, this week, we go to Africa to Mozambique and take a close look at some of those big investor-owned farms.
NPR's Dan Charles has the first of two reports.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: In 2008, as stock prices collapsed and food prices soared, the phones started ringing at the offices of HighQuest Partners, a consulting firm in St. Louis that specializes in agriculture.
Philippe de Laparouse, managing director at HighQuest Partners, says pension funds and university endowments were calling.
PHILIPPE DE LAPAROUSE: I think at that time the interest on the part of investors was, you know, capital preservation.
CHARLES: They wanted to park their money someplace safe and they were interested in farmland. But then, some of them also realized growing food might actually be really profitable. Demand for food keeps rising and climate change might play havoc with supply.
LAPAROUSE: That makes people concerned about where, you know, food is going to come from.
CHARLES: One person who got in early on the trend is Jes Tarp. He's CEO of a company called Aslan Global Management. Almost a decade ago, he picked up 30,000 acres of farmland in Ukraine.
JES TARP: Our investors have received in excess of 10 percent returns ever since the project started. And those numbers are going up.
CHARLES: But what you can do in Europe, he says, is dwarfed by the potential opportunities in Africa.
TARP: Africa has a tremendous future in terms of agriculture. Africa could feed much of the world.
CHARLES: According to land surveys, of all the land in Africa where crops could grow, only a small part is being farmed right now. And the land that is growing crops isn't producing very much - by many estimates, only a quarter of its potential. In theory this is a huge opportunity for investors and also for the Africans who own that land.
In practice it's really complicated.
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CHARLES: One hot spot in this global land rush is Mozambique, a country in southern Africa with beautiful beaches and also extreme poverty. It's the kind of place where if you want to cook chicken you go to the market and pick up a live one.
Nobody can actually buy land in Mozambique. The government owns it all. But the government will give companies exclusive rights to land for 50 or a hundred years and it's really cheap. Dozens of companies, foreign and local, have lined up to seize the opportunity, setting up mega-farms that cover thousands of acres.
One of these farms has landed right beside the village of Ruasse, in northern Mozambique. Getting there takes work - in my case, it meant bouncing along 60 miles of dirt road past a steady stream of people walking down that road carrying wood for cooking and bags of corn.
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CHARLES: Ruasse is collection of one-room brick houses with thatched roofs scattered across hard-packed dirt. People here live from the crops they can grow on the land nearby, or the goats that are wandering through the village right now.
Caterina Alberto, one of the most prosperous farmers here, says the arrival of that huge farming enterprise next door was a shock.
CATERINA ALBERTO: (Through Translator) It was said that the company was coming in here but no one told us that the company was coming to destroy us.
CHARLES: The company, in this case, is Quifel Natural Resources based in Portugal. Here's what she says happened. Representatives from the company showed up in Ruasse several years ago with a proposal. We want to grow cash crops on the land across the road from your village, they said. We'll grow sunflower, sesame, and soybeans. We'd like 25,000 acres. That's almost 40 square miles.
Now, most of the people here were already growing crops on that land. It's great farmland; it's fertile and all the trees were cleared away decades ago. That's why the company wanted it.
ALBERTO: (Foreign language spoken)
CHARLES: Caterina Alberto says the people from Quifel National Resources made a lot of promises. They said they'd pay local farmers for any land the farmers might lose; and they'd clear new land somewhere else for them. The company promised to drill a well, which the village really needs. Also, improvements for the school and the clinic, jobs.
So the people of Ruasse said yes. And the national government gave Quifel National Resources the land in December of 2009.
ALBERTO: (Through Translator) As soon as they got here with all their gear, they just went ahead and started their work. They went into the place where people had already planted corn, banana trees and sugar cane.
CHARLES: In fact, she says the company plowed up crops that farmers were almost ready to harvest. She lost about 10 acres. None of the farmers got any money or new land.
It's still going on. About two months ago, the company plowed up more fields. Two men from the village take me to see the spot. Francisco Muine Penaciaia is young and almost shaking with anger. Vitorino Munalile is an old man and shows no emotion at all. He's barefoot and has trouble walking across the rough, plowed ground.
MUINE PENACIAIA: (Foreign language spoken)
CHARLES: Here, says Penaciaia, this is where we were growing sorghum, corn, and cassava. We were counting on these crops for food or to sell, so we'd have some money to buy food later.
PENACIAIA: (Foreign language spoken)
CHARLES: Do you have food to eat for the wintertime?
VITORINO MUNALILE: (Foreign language spoken)
CHARLES: Only a little, says Munalile.
I ask if the company paid them any money for the crops they destroyed.
MUNALILE: (Foreign language spoken)
PENACIAIA: They always say they'll pay something. They're always saying that but they never pay.
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CHARLES: The company hasn't drilled the well that the village wanted. People here still carry their water from a nearby stream. And on the day I was in Ruasse, the company's small fleet of John Deere tractors was hauling big tanks of water from that stream to some newly planted potato fields. Caterina Alberto says that's another big problem.
ALBERTO: (Through Translator) This whole community has just one river. This one here. And by the month of August, this river will be dry. That's why the population is complaining. So you see the situation we're in.
CHARLES: She says villagers have complained to local government officials but the government hasn't done anything to help them.
The CEO of Quifel Natural Resources, Rui Laurentino, declined to speak on tape. In a phone interview, he said his company plans to start what he calls the social component of its project this year. The plan, he says, includes improving Ruasse's medical services and school.
He also says the company will pay farmers very soon for land that they've lost. And he says, since my visit in May, the company has started clearing new land for those farmers.
According to many observers at farmer advocacy organizations and at the World Bank, this experience with big land investments is common, even typical. In Mozambique and across Africa, there are complaints about broken promises and subsistence farmers getting pushed aside.
Joao Muthombene, executive director of Mozambique's Christian Association for Community Development, says local communities in Mozambique do have legal protection on paper.
JOAO MUTHOMBENE: There's a law which says that you have to negotiate with the communities. But what we have seen is that no company is taking it seriously.
CHARLES: Yet, he says, it doesn't have to be this way. The fact that companies are interested in Africa's farmland shouldn't be a threat, he says. It's a good thing. The deals just have to be fair for local people.
And in the village of Ruasse, I heard pretty much the same thing. Small farmers there told me there's enough land here for everybody. We don't mind if big farms come here if they keep their promises. In fact, they said there's another big investor-owned farm not far away and that one's fine. That one has been a good neighbor.
I'll have the story of that farm tomorrow.
Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.