Almarai, the Saudi dairy giant, purchased the land in Vicksburg last year for $47.5 million after the Middle Eastern kingdom began phasing out domestic grain production which had drained the country’s own ancient aquifer.
Saudi companies are on a buying spree, purchasing land worldwide to feed cows back home as population growth makes the desert kingdom increasingly reliant on food imports.
The land in question had previously been planted with corn, cotton and other crops, including smaller amounts of alfalfa for hay, investigative reporter Nathan Halverson found out. His sources told him that the farm is now consuming significantly more water, since alfalfa is a particularly thirsty crop.
At a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Addis Ababa in 2012, Saudi Agriculture Minister Fahd Balghunaim revealed the shift to purchasing lands in Africa and other countries and farming these.
“Africa is the region that represents the biggest opportunity to increase food production,” he said, “with vast tracts of land and a big difference between existing potential and current productivity.”
The Saudi farmland purchases, however, are worrying advocacy groups such as the Barcelona-based nonprofit GRAIN. In Ethiopia, the group charged, African farmland was threatened by export farming and the eventual loss of groundwater. Farmers were being dispossessed. They urged Ethiopia not to rent land cheaply when about 13 percent of 80 million Ethiopians still rely on food aid.
The Canadian Center for Research on Globalization has called the sale of African land to “water barons” a new form of colonialism. Their modus operandi is to lease huge stretches of agricultural land not only to farm but to control water resources, the group said.
Mali is a dramatic example. The country signed a 50 year lease with Libya for 100,000 hectares of land free of charge, water rights included. Promised irrigation systems were never built and the area is now hit by drought.
Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan and Egypt have also leased large tracts of agricultural land.
As a way to reverse the imbalance created by this unsustainable situation, urged an editorial in the South African publication, The New Age, African governments must revoke lease agreements with these foreign companies and empower their citizens by funding locally controlled projects that will employ locals and exploit the resources for their benefit.