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Korea hungry for a slice of Madagascar

November 24, 2008

South Korean firm Daewoo Logistics is trying to buy a million hectares of land in Madagascar to grow corn on. It plans to grow 5 million tonnes of corn annually by 2023 and produce palm oil from a further third of a million acres. The workforce would be largely South African and the produce would mainly be sold in Korea.

So who benefits? Probably not the Malagasy. The land in question is in the West of the island state – a semi-arid zone, which in comparison to other parts of the country receives a more predictable rainfall that is sufficient for crops like maize. It means the area is a big draw for other farmers from the poverty-stricken deserts of the south. But ‘more predictable’ rainfall is still far from ideal: Ivan Scales, a livelihoods and deforestation researcher at the University of Cambridge, who I chatted to yesterday at Explore, told me that rainfall in the west of Madagascar could be as little as 300mm per year (resulting in drought) or as much as 1300mm a year. In drought years, crops die and there is conflict over the meagre resources between the local farmers and the migratory southerners. And there is starvation.

As the climate changes, the world’s freshwater will become still more precious and that which is diverted for agriculture must be carefully allocated. It makes a great deal of sense for regions with plentiful and predictable rainfall to produce the world’s food – ‘virtual water’ can then be exported around the globe in this way. But there is a very real danger that the poorest countries with water and food supply problems of their own will be exploited by rich, land-poor ones.

The Madagascan government has a responsibility to feed its own electorate adequately before it considers growing rich from the round bellies of Korea.

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