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As the international community joins hands to stop the threat of the Ebola virus, Bahati Jacques of Africa Faith and Justice Network, a Catholic advocacy organization based in Washington DC, would like to also shine some light, stop and prevent another serious and rapidly growing threat to Africa's future: land grabbing. 

To ensure food security for a fast growing world population and satisfy the world’s urgent need for clean energy for cars, plane and other machines, Africa is once again the place to find cheap resources, as was the case during colonization. The effects of land grabs are worse than those of colonialism because in most cases people are being relocated from their ancestral homelands and deprived of the space needed for communities to expand. The lease terms vary between fifty to ninety years and are sometimes renewable.  No community can be displaced for that long a period of time and remain cohesive, supportive and alive.   

This October, AFJN’s staff Melaura Homan-Smith and I traveled to Brewaniase , a town in Ghana’s Volta region to find out more about a land grab deal by Herakles Farms, a New York based agribusiness which less than a year ago sold the property to a British company, Volta Red. Given Herakles Farms’ history of corruption, intimidation of landowners, violence and legal action against local activists and community organizers who oppose its land grabbing efforts in South-West Cameroon, we wanted to once again shine more light on Herakles Farms’ ugly past  dealings in Ghana.

In fact, Africa’s agriculture is one of the many businesses with great investment opportunities.  But there is an extremely huge difference between responsible investment and land grabbing. The International Land Coalition members, during their gathering in Tirana, Albania from May 24-26 May 2011 defined land grab as the “ acquisitions or concessions that are one or more of the following: i) In violation of human rights, particularly the equal rights of women; (ii) not based on Free, Prior and Informed Consent of the affected land-users; (iii) not based on a thorough assessment, or are in disregard of social, economic and environmental impacts, including the way they are gendered; (iv) not based on transparent contracts that specify clear and binding commitments about activities, employment and benefits sharing, and; (v) not based on effective democratic planning, independent oversight and meaningful participation”

During our the two weeks stay in Ghana and in partnership with local chiefs and St. Theresa Catholic Church in Nkwanta, we conducted the first ever community town hall meetings to discuss land grabbing in general, how to stop it and prevent it from happening. The people were enlightened and the word spread quickly and more chiefs wanted us to come and speak. Unable to respond to all the invitations because of time constraints we co-sponsored awareness gatherings in five communities with the aim of empowering local communities to deal with land grabbing and welcoming honest and responsible investors. Reports from the groups we spoke with indicate high appreciation of the information we conveyed. And they want more. They want to save their homes and communities. Through these meetings we also learned that there are many foreign companies which have come to the area to ask for land.   

How did the people of Brewaniase get hooked to Herakles Farms? It is through Mr. Nicholas Fato, a local experienced farmer who introduced Herakles Farms to the Chief of Asukwawkwaw  and Tamale traditional territory, Nana Dente Kofi Kuhan. The latter believed that him and his family had enough land to lease to Herakles Farm, but it turned out that their land was not enough. Then they asked those they shared boundaries with to join in the venture. Once Herakles Farms secured a total of 3.715 Hectares, the equivalent of 14.122 acres, the representatives of about eighty families, also known as the landowners committee, agreed to lease their land and were invited to a local hotel called Gateway Hotel in Nkanta. They were shown the lease agreement for the first time and were asked to sign it. So they did after assurance of an upfront payment of $24,000 token to be divided among landowners for just agreeing to the deal.  The lease agreement was and still is under the new management for 50 years, renewable for 25 years, and at only $5 per hectare per year. In addition, like all the land grab deals, Herakles Farms promised jobs, scholarships for children, a school library, computers, water wells and a clinic. Only five wells were dug, and 2 desktop computers and some books were given to a local school.  

The Landowners’ committee was promised 15 copies of the lease and after a long fight Herakles Farms gave them one. As of September 2014, nearly a year after Volta Red, the British company that bought the property from Herakles Farms, they still had not issued the remaining copies of the lease. 

Since Volta Red took over, the landowners have been renegotiating some parts of the lease and this process is expected to continue. The negotiators with Volta Red seem to be happy with the response and attention given to landowners’ grievances. The negotiators told AFJN that the new agreements will be added as addendum to the original lease signed with Herakles Farms. 

Currently, the landowners have a trusted lawyer helping them negotiate. Previously, Herakles Farms hired its own lawyer and another for the landowners. The two were both from the same law firm, Hesse & Hesse, based in Accra in Ghana. The list of Hesse & Hesse’s  clients shown on its website as of October 6, 2014 include the US Securities and Exchange Commission, The World Bank and many other foreign organizations.   

One of the reasons why countries and companies, mostly from developed countries, have been rushing to acquire cheap land in Africa is for speculation purposes. Herakles Farms did not make any money off the sales because it was forced to sell the land, due in part to growing pressure and protest from landowners in Brewaniae who subsequently filed a legal suit against Herakles Farms citing lack of Free, Prior and Informed Consent. Herakles Farms did not, among other things, honor its promises to pay workers’ salaries, hire family members of the landowners into permanent positions, allocate a portion of the land to those whose entire farm land fell within the concession, and payment delays of the $5 land lease per Hectare per year and much more.  

For six years the landowners struggled with Herakles Farms’ managers whose only answer was a threat that any grievances had to be settled in Paris, France in accordance with the terms of the lease. Some of these landowners can hardly send their children to school.   How can they afford a ticket to travel to France to fight for money which is not even close to the ticket price?   This is one of many land grabbing stories. We at AFJN will continue to highlight such injustices and we hope we will continue to find allied in the Catholic community here in the United States.