Rising Powers and Interdependent Futures

By Henry Tugendhat

Image by Gualberto107, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

If you think that the biggest story about Brazilian and Chinese agricultural engagements in Africa is land grabs, you’d be wrong. In fact, the big stories consist of almost everything else. From migration, to technology transfers, to development assistance programmes, Brazil and China have been having an impact on agricultural development in different ways across sub-Saharan Africa.

For the past three years, a team of 25 researchers has been looking at these engagements in great detail. We come from institutions across Brazil, China, Ghana, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and the UK, and often found that what was most interesting was not what we’d originally set out to observe.

This was particularly so with our ambition to map out all of the Brazilian and Chinese development cooperation engagements in the agricultural sectors of our four African case study countries. The data were simply not available, and when they were they were almost invariably incomplete or plain wrong. Agricultural engagements are still nascent in most of Africa, so initiatives were just unfolding as we did our research. Furthermore, we came up against the perennial problem of what constitutes aid and what constitutes trade, investment or public relations in relation to Chinese and Brazilian engagements. ‘Development cooperation’ is a mix of all of these, and we wanted to get to grips with this hybrid mix.

So rather than get more confused by the official statistics, we instead launched ourselves into some detailed case study research, using a mix of ethnographic methods. In the end we studied 16 different cases across the case study countries, as well as the domestic political economy in Brazil and China framing these interventions. Our aim was to understand both day-to-day practices, but also situate these within the broader political-economic drivers. As a team of anthropologists, economists, political-economists, agronomists, and international relations experts, we have therefore combined our expertise to pick out what we think are some of the most important insights from these engagements to date.

In Mozambique we looked at Brazil’s Prosavana project and the rise of civil society contestations; in Zimbabwe we looked at tractor deals coming in from both Brazil and China; and in Ghana and Ethiopia we looked at the migration patterns of Chinese farmers and their impacts on the local economies – to name but a few examples. Some of these papers look at the drivers for Brazil and China to engage in these cooperation projects in the first place, others analyse what is already happening as these projects hit the ground and how local African farmers, communities and officials engage with them. In total, we now have a series of over 20 Working Papers, alongside an earlier IDS Bulletin and a special issue of a journal which is under review. We had our UK launch event in London last month, and public events are also taking place across the six other countries involved to engage policy makers, businesses, development practitioners, civil society groups and researchers.

The papers are free to download from the Future Agricultures Consortium website, and together they present an original take – and much new empirical information – on the nature of Brazilian and Chinese engagements in African agriculture.