Africa’s Land is not For Sell: Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Opinion By: Benita Kayembe

Graduate Student in Global Health and Population, Harvard University
May 31, 2023

“White people invented money; it has value for them. So, if they are giving it to us in exchange for our land, it means that our land is more valuable than their money”[1]. This is a quote from a Malian elder in Land Rush that made me reflect on the importance, or rather, the non-importance of development projects in Africa. My understanding of capitalism and opposition to land grabbing was simultaneously enlightened. Some powerful nations exercise land grabbing at the expense of economically poor states. Transnational land acquisition on the African continent is an issue that needs to be solved.


The increasing accession of land in Africa is problematic. These land acquisitions are said to differ from older forms of foreign agricultural investment since here, investors are resource seeking instead of market seeking [2]. Nearly 2.5 million hectares of land were rented or purchased in 5 African countries from 2004 to 2009 [3] and approximately 35 million hectares of African land have been sold in the past 20 years [4]. 


Some of the biggest holders in these land acquisitions are Middle Eastern countries with an estimated control of more than 7.6 million cultivable lands overseas [3]. While Middle Eastern countries and others like the United States, China, Belgium are benefiting from transnational land acquisitions, the most impoverished groups in African states are left with no land. Land grabbing has fibbed many African leaders into believing that transnational land acquisition could be a key to their economic development. Most embrace such development projects without, perhaps, a proper understanding of how such politics and policies negatively affect their population and, in most cases, subject them to forced migration and the plunge to poverty. 


Land is undeniably one of the most valuable assets in the world. Most of the Africans from whom it is being taken inherited it from their ancestors [1]. They depend on it to feed themselves and their families. Africa has faced project after project, but where are the benefits? Previously, colonial powers took Africans’ freedom and dignity in the name of colonization [5]. Now, their land is being taken in the name of globalization.  


I perceive the concept of land grabbing as a modern form of colonization. The old form of colonization happened when, paraphrasing Jomo Kenyatta, “When the missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land, and the missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land, and we had the Bible” [6]. From this perspective, it is worrisome that a modern form of colonization could be taking place through land grabbing. Here, economically advanced countries are going to Africa with money and grandiose development ideas to acquire land, while perfidiously promising to contribute to their economies by developing modern farming to create employment and other opportunities. Unfortunately, perhaps due to power dynamics, Africans seem not to be benefitting from these transactions [1]. They are being scammed into losing the land they got back after their independence. They are involuntarily displaced to benefit the new world’s economic powers.


The old form of colonization created borders all over Africa to make countries and call nations their own, and to extract natural resources in a colonial division of labor[5]. Contemporarily, land grabbing is taking place, not through formal colonization, but through policies and international forces, claiming the lands of the most vulnerable populations. This time, it is not through a colonial division of labor, but rather through a ‘global’ division of labor that takes advantage of people at the bottom of the economic hierarchy. 


Some argue that through transnational land transactions, economically advanced countries are seeking to invest in poor countries’ communities [1]. Yet, that seems to not hold true when looking at the way some treat the community members in regions where they work. For example, in LandRush, a woman shared that the investors who acquired their land mistreated them because they were resisting letting go of their land, letting go of their home [1]. It was their land; passed on by their ancestors. Now, evicted, they had nowhere to go.


Transnational land acquisition has penetrated the most vulnerable regions of the world, taking, and grabbing their most valuable possessions in the name of trying to improve their lives [1]. Land grabbing is invading the livelihoods of communities that depend on their lands to survive. Let us consider what happens to these communities when their land is sold and taken away from them. Let us consider what happens to them when they no longer have their land to feed themselves and their communities.


In hopes to increase their economic standing and cash flow, many African leaders are selling their nations’ land, while neglecting the fact that land has always been one of the most valuable assets in the world. I hope that African leaders -- who are willingly supporting land grabbing -- reconsider their stance. I hope that international and national policies and politics stop supporting transnational land acquisition. Many vulnerable communities depend on their land for their livelihood; they are not interested in sacrificing what feeds them to benefit foreign investors.

We gratefully acknowledge Dr. Ashenafi Teshome Guta for his comments and Benjamin Njila Tchakounte Fields for editing this op-ed piece.


[1] Berkeley, Hugo and Osvalde Lewat, directors. Land Rush. 2012.
[2] Hallam, D. (2011). International investment in developing country agriculture—issues and challenges. Food Security, 3(S1), 91–98.
[3]Aryeetey, Ernest, and Zenia Lewis. “African Land Grabbing: Whose Interests Are Served?” Brookings, Brookings, 28 July 2016,
[4]Toulemonde, Marie. “Inside the Great African Land Rush.” The Africa, The Africa Report, 2 Apr. 2021,
[5] McMichael, Philip, and Heloise Weber. Development and Social Change: a Global Perspective. SAGE Publications, Inc., 2022.
[6] Kenyatta, J. (n.d.). Jomo Kenyatta. Retrieved January 25, 2022, from