YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Land is a contentious issue in Africa, and the problem of international firms, governments and sometimes even individuals acquiring large areas of land has been causing controversy across the continent, especially since the worldwide spike in food prices in 2008.

This acquisition – called “land grabbing” – was the focus of a special two-day Annual Learning and Review Meeting on Land Grabbing at the National Catholic Secretariat in Accra, Ghana, on Dec. 19–20.

The meeting brought together religious leaders, government ministers, traditional rulers, civil society organizations, and members of communities most affected by land grabbing.

Caritas Ghana, the charitable wing of the Ghana Catholic Bishops’ Conference, has called on the government of President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo to immediately take measures to stop the spate of land grabbing in the country.

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In an e-mail interview with Crux, the executive Secretary of Caritas Ghana, Samuel Zan Akologo said land grabbing in Ghana had reached “alarming proportions.”

He blamed the practice on “multinationals looking for land to cultivate biofuels and export crops. We have also noted large scale acquisitions for estate development around peri-urban areas. Speculative land banking cannot also be ruled out.”

Peri-urban areas are where urban and rural zones meet and often mix, sometimes causing conflicts over land use. Land banking is when a large parcel of land is acquired for its potential use in the future, as opposed to a specific project.

In 2016, the bishops of Ghana requested that development partners pay attention to land grabbing so that the livelihoods of rural communities are not undermined.

Proponents of the land transfers claim it helps development, with those acquiring the land creating jobs, promoting the use of new technology, and creating much needed export earnings.

Critics point out that the tenuous land tenure of poor farmers often leads to them being driven from their land, the jobs created are often low-paying and short-term, promises of new technology are often empty, and tax exemptions mean that African governments often make little money off the deals.

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Akologo told Crux that “politicians and traditional rulers are all complicit. Greed and profit are the principal drivers.”

He said that while the multinationals make huge profits, “the livelihoods of peasant farmers are seriously undermined.”

“It has caused community conflicts as families of those deprived of their land attempt to fight back,” the Caritas head said.

“Most youths from seriously affected communities are compelled to migrate to urban centers adding on to urban unemployment and vices. Some sacred grooves and family graves have been desecrated causing cultural shocks,” Akologo said.

Last year, Caritas – in partnership with the Center for Indigenous Knowledge on Development and the Africa Faith and Justice Network and with financial support from local and international partners – carried out a study on the phenomenon titled “Unmasking Land Grabbing in Ghana; Restoring Livelihoods; Paving Way for Sustainable Development Goals.”

Based on six months of research, the report revealed the inadequacies in land management and utilization policies in Ghana, as well as case studies which demonstrated how land grabbing threatens the livelihoods of people, most of whom are already in the fringes of society and whose only means of sustenance is their land.

Noting that the exact scale of the problem is not yet known in Ghana, the study said that it has reached “cancerous” proportions.

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According to a 2010 report by the Ghanaian news site, modernghana.com, a total of 3,000 square miles has been acquired by foreign companies based in Italy, Israel, Britain, Norway, and Canada.

The CIA World Fact Book estimates that Ghana has 15,000 square miles of arable land. This means that more than a third of Ghana’s cropland has been “grabbed.”

“While that process has taken on significantly greater dimensions due to rapid urbanization and rural-urban migration, new forms of it have emerged with the oil and gas activities and the biofuel energy activities through Jatropha plantations,” the Caritas study states.

The oil from the Jatropha plant is widely used in the developing world to create biodiesel for diesel engines, with the rest of the plant used as animal feed.

The Caritas study said women bear the greatest brunt of the land grab problem, because they are mostly responsible for the production of the food for their households.

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The report cites several cases of such deprivation, including the Okumaning community in the eastern part of Ghana where a Belgian firm acquired nearly 50 square miles of land that was historically used by the community to cultivate their crops.

With little compensation, community members lost their lands, and with that, their livelihoods.

Akologo said the Church cannot stay indifferent in the face of such “evil.”

He told Crux Caritas Ghana is not only demanding policy accountability from the government, “but also doing policy education that will allow citizens, especially communities, to understand what avenues are available to them when their interest is under threat.”

Akologo said Caritas was bringing “civic pressure on policy actors for attention.”

“We are also building the capacities of both Catholic actors – Caritas groups, justice & peace organizations, women’s associations – and affected community leaders to be able to negotiate strongly for their interests, if it becomes necessary to allow other users on their land,” he told Crux.

But the ultimate solution, he emphasized, rests with the government that must “immediately halt all large scale land acquisitions; undertake a review of all large scale land acquisitions with the view to mitigate the suffering of affected communities; ensure that a comprehensive and consolidated law on land is passed as soon as possible; publicize the current guidelines on large scale land acquisitions; and, if possible, make them a part of the regulations for the new law on land that would be passed.”

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A 2015 statement by Caritas Africa said guidance and sustenance for the campaign against land grabbing comes from Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’.

“For [indigenous communities], land is not a commodity, but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best. Nevertheless, in various parts of the world, pressure is being put on them to abandon their homelands to make room for [industrial] agricultural or mining projects which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture,” Francis wrote in the document.

John Peter Amewu, Ghana’s Minister for Land Natural Resources, said President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo will tackle the issue of land grabbing.

“Indeed, I share with Caritas the view that land plays a critical and fundamental role in the social-economic development of any country, hence our heavy dependency on it for our livelihood,” Amewu told the meeting.

The government minister also said the issue was tied to “galamsey” – illegal mining which is also causing problems in Ghana – which he said is using what used to be arable land, and threatening the food security of the country.

Amewu said the government would work with religious leaders to ensure the efficient, equitable, and sustainable use of land resources within Ghana and across the African content.