Huge swaths of land acquired by foreign investors in Africa’s Nile River Basin export profits, displace communities

Principal investigators and editors: Fredrick Mugira and Annika McGinnis 

Alice Nyamihanda was only a toddler beginning to walk and talk when she was forced away from her home. At just three years old, the child was evicted from the land where she, her family and her people had lived for centuries.

To the Ugandan public and the international community, this was an act of environmental conservation of some of East Africa’s most biodiverse natural forests that host half the population of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas.

But to the Batwa pygmies, a forest-dwelling group of hunter-gatherers who are accepted as the first inhabitants of these montane forests, the act turned the peaceful tribe into so-called environmental refugees. 

Alice’s family of five and hundreds of other Batwa pygmies, a forest-dwelling group of hunter-gatherers, were evicted from their ancestral forestland in Mgahinga, Bwindi and Echuya in southwestern Uganda by the government of Uganda with no compensation when it turned the forests into conservation areas in 1991.

Since then, life has not been easy for her. Her father died in 1996. Her mother, a single parent, struggled to raise her and four other siblings. In order to survive, Alice’s mother had to offer hard labor for a number of years in exchange for a small piece of land where the family is staying now in Gatera village, Busanja Sub County in Kisoro, just on the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Unlike many others in her situation, Alice has been lucky: At 31, Alice is now pursuing a bachelor’s degree in social works and administration after completing a diploma in 2010. “If God wishes, I will graduate next year,” Alice says, hoping to use the skills gained to advocate for land rights of her landless tribemates. 

“Up to 10.3 million hectares of land have been acquired by investors in 11 countries that form the countries of Africa’s Nile River basin since 2000”Angela Harding, data coordinator at Land Matrix Africa

The Land Matrix is an independent global land monitoring initiative that compiles data on land grabs from governments, companies, NGOs, the media and citizen contributions. These are, “just concluded deals,” says Angela, and there are many other land deals underway.

The Nile River basin covers an area of 3.18 million square kilometers, almost 10 percent of the African continent, and includes 11 countries from the river’s source in Uganda up to Egypt. For the diverse peoples that live and sustain upon the Nile, the mighty life-bearing river is not only a source of livelihood, but also a cultural icon that flows with thousands of years of history, beliefs and tradition in its waters.

It is widely believed that River Nile, the longest river in the world, starts in Jinja, Uganda.

But in recent decades, the ancient river has been drastically manipulated as the world undergoes rapid change. Dozens of new dams have calmed millennia-old rapids and diverted the river’s natural flow. Worldwide land, water and other resource shortages, along with a globalizing economy, climate change and rapidly increasing populations, have driven countries everywhere from the Global North to the Gulf countries to search out new lands – to feed their populations, offset their carbon emissions, or simply search for new economic opportunities as the world moves toward a potential global recession.

Land Matrix data shows that 16.9 million hectares of land, or 169,000 square kilometers, from 445 individual deals have been concluded in the 11 Nile Basin countries, though some of these are outside of the river basin’s borders. There are 6.1 hectares of deals still in negotiations. Most are in agriculture, with others in forestry, renewable energy, and mining.

A Flourish data visualisation

In the Nile basin, for every land deal, at least someone in local communities suffers. From Uganda to South Sudan, Sudan, Ethiopia and eventually Egypt, the Nile meanders through an intricate patchwork of landscapes: flat, ragged, mountainous, green and fertile, desert.  The region attracts a huge number of investors each year from within and outside the region. Many of these investors remain congested close to the Nile.

Companies from countries across the world have acquired fertile Nile-irrigated land for growing food crops, non-food agricultural commodities such as alfalfa, flowers, tobacco, and biofuels, rearing livestock and logging trees. Investor countries include Austria, Belgium, Brazil, China, Ethiopia, India, Israel, Norway, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the UK, and the USA, among many others. 

Although there are a few new land acquisitions being signed now – 68 are still in negotiations – others are being abandoned in countries such as Ethiopia, and now “more of the older deals are being brought under implementation,” according to Harding, the Land Matrix data coordinator.PlayPlaySeek00:00Current time00:00Toggle MuteVolumeToggle Fullscreen

Land deals concluded in the Nile Basin.

Generally most deals are agricultural leases and forest concessions, and very few are outright purchases. Data from the Land Matrix initiative shows South Sudan as the target of land grabbing in the basin. 

It is a story told again and again. Though some deals have brought positive benefits to local economies and peoples – with models worth replicating – in most cases, it is the people in the investor countries oceans miles away from the Nile that reap the vast majority of the profits, while the host countries are exploited of valuable resources and the local people suffer. Their stories, of livelihoods lost, cultural icons destroyed, families torn apart – all in the name of globalization – are rarely told, or little valued.