By Kristina Lanz

How does a large-scale land acquisitions (LSLA) for agriculture affect the local food system (production, processing, distribution, consumption)? How are access to land and natural resources and related income-generating activities affected and re-distributed? Who are the winners and losers of large-scale land acquisitions and what strategies do the various local people adopt to cope with the changing land use system? These are some of the questions that I try to address in my ongoing research in Ghana.

Ghana provides an interesting country to study these questions. Local food systems are inherently gendered, with women being highly prevalent in food production, processing and selling food, as well as generally taking on the main responsibility for household food consumption. Despite shouldering much of the work though, women are discriminated by the prevailing institutional context.

Ghana has a plural legal system, whereby a decentralized state bureaucracy exists alongside hierarchically organized traditional areas. Approximately 80% of all land in Ghana is under customary land tenure and the Ghanaian Constitution proclaims that “All stool lands in Ghana shall vest in the appropriate stool on behalf of, and in trust for the subjects of the  stool in accordance with customary law and usage” (Art. 267). While customary land tenure varies according to the different regions in Ghana, most often decision-making is very male-dominated and women are heavily reliant on men for their access to land. The same holds true for the area in which the investment under scrutiny is located – the Fievie Traditional Area, located in the South Tongu District of Ghana’s Volta Region.

The case study area

The Fievie traditional area is headed by a Paramount Chief and his Stoolfather* together with the Paramount Queen Mother and the heads of the four clans that make up the State. These are the only people who can grant large-scale land leases, large developments or make any major land-related decisions. The sub-chiefs at the village level are in charge of settling minor land disputes between families, as well as village development.

Chiefs

Chieftaincy meeting. Photo by Divine Harrison

All land in the traditional area is however “owned” by families, who exercise most rights we usually associate with ownership of land, apart from selling it. The male family head allocates land to individual family members (both male and female) and settles intra-family disputes. When land is unused it reverts back to the family.

Once women get married, they get access to their husband’s land, often helping in the cultivation of the husbands’ fields. Most women however keep a small plot of their father’s land after marriage, which is used for subsistence crops. On land that women use individually, they have use and management rights, meaning: they can also allocate it for sharecropping. Any income derived from this land usually goes towards looking after children and buying food. Income generated from husband’s fields tends to be controlled by husbands.

Land is however inherited through the male line, meaning that women cannot pass on land to their children and once they stop using the land it reverts back to the male family members. In case of divorce or death of their husband, they often lose all access to their husband’s land.

Large tracts of land in the traditional area are also used communally. While this land belongs to individual families, the Paramountcy many decades ago allocated it to cattle rearers, who have established two settlements on the land. It is now used for cattle rearing, but also hosts many fishponds, which are important to local diets, since fish is eaten with every meal. Women use the land for the collection of fire wood, which apart of being a main source of energy is also one of the main income generating activities for many women.

Communal land

Communal land. Photo by Divine Harrison

In the Fievie Traditional Area food security is high, mainly due to the availability of land and the consequent ease of accessing new land. However, farmers are dependent on rainfall, which has been declining in the last few years. Livestock often acts as a buffer, i.e. can be sold during droughts or periods of stress.

The Investment

In 2011, GADCO** – a company made up of an international board of investor’s entered the scene. The company grows rice for the national market. A large part of the company’s funding comes from Acumen Fund, the German Development Bank and the World Bank, who increasingly place emphasis on companies’ adherence to social and environmental criteria. GADCO’s website therefore is highlighting the company’s sustainability policy and a whole page is dedicated to the crucial role women play in the local economy and the way the company aims to empower them through its outgrower scheme.

Furthermore, the company engaged in what they termed a CPP (community-private-partnership) agreement, whereby app. 2000 ha of land were leased from the customary authorities in exchange for 2.5% of the company’s sales money to be paid into a “community development fund”. As a result, various international news articles and a UNDP Report have portrayed the company as a best practice example of a large-scale land acquisition.

While these journalists usually spent only a few days in the case study area, a 5 month field visit conducted from March to July 2014 revealed a different picture.

While approximately $5000 were paid monthly into the community development fund, infrastructure development in the affected villages has been very limited and many still remain without running water. Most local people thus did not know what the money had been used for. As one respondent aptly put it: “It is like the Ashanti kingdom – you know that there is a lot of gold, but you never see it.”

Re-distribution of land and labour in the local food system

While some permanent farm plots were destroyed, the majority of land that had been converted into a plantation at the time of research (850 ha), was communally-used land. What does this mean for local livelihoods and the local food system?

While the loss of this land has many implications, only the most important ones will be outlined. Cattle herders have been most affected – not only is their livelihood slowly becoming unviable, but the two settlements are heavily affected by the aerial spraying of pesticides. One settlement has lost its main road access, as this has been converted into a canal. Furthermore, several water ponds used for drinking water were destroyed, as well as all fishponds.

Crucially, one of women’s main income-earning activities was destroyed, as most trees and bushes were uprooted. As a result, however, a group of women started to go onto the company’s fields after the first harvest to collect the left-over rice – a practice, which by now has been allowed by the company and attracts hundreds of women from all over the area. The collected rice is used to supplement their family’s food security and some is sold to traders or on the market. However, not all women are benefitting from this practice and the presence of many female rice-pickers means that individual output is often low.

One female rice picker summarizes: “When they destroyed all these things and we were picking the rice, we were ok with it. There are lots of risks in picking the rice like the sunshine scorching us so hard and sometimes we meet snakes whilst we were picking rice and all that but as they have destroyed everything that is our last resort we could turn to. We keep on picking the rice to compensate our losses.”

Rice picking

Rice-picker. Photo by Divine Harrison

While previously rice was hardly ever eaten, it now in some instances even starts to replace traditional food stuffs, such as Banku and Akple, creating an increased dependency on the company.

Compensation, outgrowing, employment

No compensation was paid by the company for the loss of common property resources. The loss of farmland, which affected both women and men, was only partially compensated, whereby decisions on compensation were left to local chiefs. Most people claimed not to have received any compensation and those that said to have received compensation were mostly chiefs themselves or well-connected to the chiefly elite.

At the time of research, the company was working with 45 outgrowers in the Traditional Area. Outgrowers were growing rice on 45 ha of land that had been appropriated by the company. While outgrowers were only on their second harvest and were mostly unclear about the concrete terms of their engagement, all interviewed were happy about the comparatively high amount of money that could be earned from outgrowing, as well as the irrigated nature of rice farming.

As with compensation, the selection of outgrowers however was left to the customary authorities. It was quite clear that positions were distributed mainly to close relatives and friends of chiefs, with most people coming from Fievie-Dugame, the seat of the chieftaincy, and many families having several positions. Also the women who benefitted were mostly better off, some even made it into a business and sent poor, landless women to work for them, while using the money for other businesses. However, a few old widows seem to have been chosen for their hardships (arguably however, these were also the ones with good connections to the chieftaincy). Many women also mentioned that their engagement as outgrowers had increased their time burden.

While on the list, about half of the outgrowers were male and the other female, more women were visible on the outgrower field. In some cases, men signed up for the scheme but sent their women to do the work.

Outgrowers

Outgrowers. Photo by Divine Harrison

General employment on the field and in the mill was also gendered. The large majority of the 150 employees were men, often hailing from outside the traditional area, and generally working without contracts and on very low wages. Women were employed only in casual, flexible labour positions, such as for the application of fertilizer to plants.

Conclusion

A close look at the GADCO investment reveals that it has created a lot of local conflicts, as some people (mainly those with good connections to the chieftaincy) are benefitting from the outgrower scheme, compensation payments and possibly also the funds from the “community development fund”, while others find their livelihoods threatened and have to grapple with increasing land scarcity.

While the company is advertising their role in women’s economic empowerment, this seems to be done mainly for image purposes. In reality their employment strategy enforces gender roles. So far, mainly wealthy and well-connected women were able to participate in the outgrower scheme that was much advertised for its ability to empower women. At the same time, the after-harvest rice picking helps women to guarantee their household’s food security (especially in the case of loss of farmland), as well as to generate an income after having lost another income-generating strategy. It however also increases their dependency on the company for household food security.

In order to truly empower women and minimize negative effects, the company would need to take a more hands-on approach. Several measures could be taken: The company could monitor what the money generated from the CPP agreement was used for, possibly even allocating parts of it to specific projects aimed at women’s empowerment. The company would also have to engage in consultations, be aware of who the outgrowers are and whether all affected were compensated.


*A Stoolfather acts as an advisor to the Paramount Chief and is also in charge of chiefly succession and enstoolment of new chiefs.

**It has to be added that GADCO actually went bankrupt shortly after the fieldwork was finalized in 2014. It has now been succeeded by WIENCO – a Ghanaian and Dutch investor.