The Hungry Dragon – The Zambezi Valley: China’s First Agricultural Colony?” Fiction or Fact?

Via China In Africa, an interesting report on China’s involvement in Mozambique and a careful review of what is real – and not real – about claims related to land grabbing.  As the article notes:

More than four years ago, Loro Horta, then a Ph.D. candidate at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, posted a series of stories including “The Zambezi Valley: China’s First Agricultural Colony?” (1) on the website of the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), repeated in “Food Security in Africa: China’s New Rice Bowl,” at the Jamestown Foundation China Brief (2) making strong claims about Chinese interests in Mozambique agriculture: “China” wanted to grow rice in Mozambique to ship back to China, use Chinese farmers to do it, and had pledged $800 million toward this goal.

I read that commentary, as did many other people. It is regularly cited as a key example of Chinese interest in “land grabbing”. It appears in an oft-cited review of land-grabbing published by the International Food Policy Research Institute (3) and was cited by an authoritative study of land-grabbing in Africa by a joint FAO-IFAD-IIED (4) team and a new study by two Standard Bank researchers (5). It is a major contributor to the belief that “China” wants to grow food in Africa to ship back home.

The problem: very little of what was written in this sensational commentary appears to be real.

Intrigued by the story, I made sure to include Mozambique in my field research for The Dragon’s Gift. I went to Mozambique in the summer of 2009. Apparently, Horta did no fieldwork for this research (and mentions none in his references). None of the Mozambique experts I interviewed had been contacted by him. Horta provided no references to interviews in Mozambique or any news stories supporting these claims. I later wrote to Horta and asked him if he could provide any actual evidence for his claims. He replied that he couldn’t find his source material or notes.

After I returned from Mozambique, I wrote about the lack of evidence for Horta’s claims in a 2009 article for China Quarterly, and in The Dragon’s Gift (6) Sigrid Ekman, a Norwegian researcher, later went to Mozambique to research this story for her master’s thesis (7). She came up with the same conclusions: a lot of this story appears to have been fabricated — or to put it more kindly, woven together out of rumors, mistakes, and a grain of interest.

Yet myths created in the internet age have a life of their own. Today, I received peer review comments on a small piece I wrote for IFPRI on China’s agricultural engagement in Africa. One reviewer wanted me to be sure to take account of “Horta’s research” in my piece. I only wish I had enough space to do so adequately in an IFPRI publication.

It’s embarassing to take apart a student’s paper in public. Usually we have the chance to do peer review in a more professional and discrete way before something makes its way to print. CSIS never had the Horta paper peer-reviewed. Nevertheless, this blog posting is way overdue.

First, Horta comments on China’s “growing demand for food stuffs from Africa,” providing as evidence China’s increased general consumption of “seafood, rice, soybeans, sugar, cereals and other crops.” However, between 2000 and 2009, no African country exported rice, soybeans, sugar or cereals to China (some did export seafood and sesame seeds). This doesn’t seem to be very robust evidence of China’s demand for food from Africa.

“China’s search for new land has led Beijing to aggressively seek large land leases in Mozambique over the past two years, particularly in its most fertile areas, such as the Zambezi valley in the north and the Limpopo valley in the south.”

Did this really happen? Sigrid Ekman’s study, summarized in a recent Mozambique political bulletin by Joseph Hanlon (8), “notes that the now abolished Zambeze valley office (Gabinete de Promoção do Vale de Zambêze, GPZ) tried hard to get Chinese investment and failed.” So rather than China aggressively seeking large land, the Zambeze valley investment promotion office was aggressively courting Chinese investment.

“Chinese interest in the Zambezi valley started in mid-2006, when the Chinese state owned Exibank [sic] granted $2 billion in soft loans to the Mozambican government to build the Mpanda Nkua mega-dam on the stretch of the Zambezi in Tete province.”

In fact, although discussions were underway on Chinese financing (China Eximbank) for the Mpanda Nkua dam, this project did not go forward. No Chinese bank has ever granted a loan for Mpanda Nkua.

“Since then, China has been requesting large land leases to establish Chinese-run mega-farms and cattle ranches. A memorandum of understanding was reported to have been signed in June 2007, allowing an initial 3,000 Chinese settlers to move to Zambezia and Tete provinces to run farms along the valley. A Mozambican official said the number could eventually grow to up to 10,000. However, the reports of this deal caused such an uproar that the Mozambique government was forced to dismiss the whole story as false.”

Maybe it was false. I tried to find out more about this in Mozambique. However, no one I interviewed in Mozambique recalled such an uproar. I could find no reports on the alleged memorandum of understanding or an “uproar” in the press (I hired a university student to go through four years of newspapers looking for any stories on Chinese engagement in land or agriculture) or in the memories of the dozens of people I interviewed across civil society, think tanks, journalists, the donors, and academia. The whole story began to sound fishy to me.

If Chinese investors wanted large land leases, they clearly could have signed some. After all, as a 2012 Oakland Institute study (9) showed, “Mozambique granted concessions to investors for more than 2.5 million hectares (ha) of land between 2004 and the end of 2009” almost entirely to European and South African investors — there were no Chinese investors in their list.

“One thing seems to be certain: China is committed to transforming Mozambique into one of its main food suppliers, particularly for rice, the basic element of Chinese diet. An analysis of China’s activities in the valley in the past two years provides some strong indication of China’s long term intentions.

Following this statement, Horta has put together real facts about China’s aid program and interest in building dams, roads, and modernizing harbors, and surmises that this interest “is clearly designed to maximize production and facilitate the rapid export of foodstuffs to China”.

That’s quite a leap. Chinese are interested in building infrastructure all around the continent, but I don’t think one can conclude that this is evidence of a masterplan to feed the China!

Horta then makes what I believe to be his most egregious claim:

“In early 2008, the Chinese government pledged to invest $800 million in modernizing Mozambican agriculture …”

I have seen no evidence, anywhere, in Mozambique or outside, of this pledge. People were baffled when I asked about it. No one knew anything about it, even as a rumor. While I can often find the source of big mistakes, I haven’t been able to track this down (11). The trail starts with Horta.

“…with the goal of boosting rice production from 100 000 tons to 500 000 tons a year in the next five years.”

The goal of boosting rice production was Mozambique’s goal, not China’s. The amount mentioned here represents the gap between local demand and local production, at the time filled by imports. Which makes Horta’s next statement all the more surprising:

“Mozambique’s increased rice production is clearly destined for export to the Chinese market, since the staple accounts for just a tiny fraction of the Mozambican diet.”

Clearly, Horta didn’t look up consumption and import statistics for rice in Mozambique (12).

With this objective in mind, China is funding the establishment of an Advanced Crop Research Institute and several other small agricultural schools throughout the country.

Horta here uses as “evidence” for Chinese plans to make Mozambique into its rice bowl a real project — the Umbeluzi/Boane agro-technology research and demonstration center, one of 20 China is building across Africa as part of its aid program.

“Over 100 Chinese agricultural specialists are currently in Mozambique, including teams from the Hunan Hybrid Rice Institute, China’s top institution in the field.”

There is no evidence that I could find that China ever sent 100 agricultural specialists to Mozambique. I suspect Horta was mixing up China’s pledge to send 100 agricultural specialists to Africa. It’s true that the Hunan Hybrid Rice Institute did send a team to Mozambique (13). They later decided to bid to run China’s foreign-aid funded agro-technology demonstration center in Liberia, not Mozambique (14). I suspect their visit was connected to a decision about which project to bid on.

“Other major projects include the construction of numerous irrigation and canal networks in the valley.”

I’m not sure what Horta was referring to here, but possibly it is the modest project in Gaza province operated by Hubei province (15), which also provided the company associated with China’s foreign aid-funded agro-technology demonstration center (see below). Hubei province has a twinning arrangement with Gaza province to develop 300 hectares to demonstrate the potential of irrigated rice to Mozambicans. As of 2009/2010 they had developed 35-40 hectares, and in 2010 they applied for more land (16).

“The lifting by the Chinese government of import tariffs for 400 Mozambican agricultural products, including rice, will further facilitate food exports to China.”

China has lifted import tariffs on 400 products not for Mozambique alone but for all of Africa’s low income countries. Rice is not on the list (17).

“The idea of moving thousands of Chinese settlers into the valley has caused great outrage locally, with many fearing the repetition of the dias negros (black days of oppression).”

Again, my research assistance and I could not find any Mozambican news reports on this “great outrage” nor did people I interviewed during my fieldwork recall any.

“The Chinese are now linking the implementation of major projects such as dam construction and the funding for the Catembe Bridge – an important project that will link the capital, Maputo, to the district of Catembe across the bay – to concessions on the land lease issue … Instead of thousands of Chinese settlers, it’s now more probable that a few hundred or perhaps 1,000 Chinese will move into the valley in coming years. The Chinese will manage the large farms, operate and maintain the advanced agricultural equipment, and maintain the canals, while Mozambican labor will do most of the manual work.”

These appear to be pure conjecture. No evidence is provided or references to interviews or new stories that would support these claims. And so on.

My point in writing this is not to argue that there has been no Chinese interest in Mozambican agricultural investment. There has been. In March 2006 a delegation from China did tour agricultural areas of Mozambique, although it’s not clear whether this was to look for investment or to find a suitable site for a promised agro-technology demonstration center (18). Maybe both.

The authors of the 2009 FAO/IIED/IFAD report (4) interviewed Chinese state-owned grain and oilseed trading company, COFCO, who told them they were “involved in discussions for a major land concession to grow rice and soybeans in Mozambique, though at present this deal has not progressed.” This interest was real, if far more modest and ordinary than it appears in Horta’s writings. Another Mozambican researcher, Sergio Chichava, showed that between 2000 and 2009, five Chinese agricultural investment projects received approval from the Mozambique authorities (19). Among these was the aborted COFCO project, approved in 2005 at $6 million. The average size of the other four approved projects was only $615,000, and one of these was Hubei Lianfeng’s approved project, for just over $1 million (20).

None of this, however, supports the idea that “China” was intending to create an agricultural colony in Mozambique, or make the Zambezi Valley into China’s rice bowl. My take on this is that Horta, who was then a student, wove his paper out of bits of real things on the internet, spiced up by rumors. But if anyone has another take on this, or evidence (either way), please post. I’m interested in seeing it.

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Seeds Of A Revolution is committed to defining the disruptive geopolitics of the global Farms Race.  Due to the convergence of a growing world population, increased water scarcity, and a decrease in arable land & nutrient-rich soil, a spike of international investment interest in agricultural is inevitable and apt to bring a heretofore domestic industry into a truly global realm.  Whether this transition involves global land leases or acquisitions, the fundamental need for food & the protectionist feelings this need can give rise to is highly likely to cause such transactions to move quickly into the geopolitical realm.  It is this disruptive change, and the potential for a global farms race, that Seeds Of A Revolution tracks, analyzes, and forecasts.

Educated at Yale University (Bachelor of Arts - History) and Harvard (Master in Public Policy - International Development), Monty Simus has long held a keen interest in natural resource policy and the geopolitical implications of anticipated stresses in the areas of freshwater scarcity, biodiversity reserves & parks, and farm land.  Monty has lived, worked, and traveled in more than forty countries spanning Africa, China, western Europe, the Middle East, South America, and Southeast & Central Asia, and his personal interests comprise economic development, policy, investment, technology, natural resources, and the environment, with a particular focus on globalization’s impact upon these subject areas.  Monty writes about freshwater scarcity issues at and frontier investment markets at