Malian farmer Balima Coulibaly and his fellow villagers could do nothing but watch as Libyan investors, under a deal known as Malibya, took the fertile land that they had farmed for generations. The agreement had moved forward without any discussion of what impact the transfer would have on the impoverished communities living on the land.
"We don't know what will happen to us," said Coulibaly, an aging local leader, sitting on the floor of a sweltering mud house. He lives in Sangha, a village with a population of a few hundred. There, children tie plastic bags to their feet in place of shoes, and everyone lives in mud and straw houses amid the sprawling millet fields. It is one of several communities located inside the Malibya concession.
In 2008, oil-rich Libya, under the leadership of the late Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi, signed a 50-year, renewable lease for the land with Mali's government. In his heyday, Qaddafi invested hundreds of millions across Africa. The main government office complex in Bamako was built entirely with Libyan funds, and Qaddafi’s government once controlled the finest hotels in Mali. But Malibya was one of Africa's largest and most secretive foreign agricultural investment deals.
Thomson Reuters obtained an undated copy of the contract and found that Mali had offered the entire 100,000 hectares to Libya free of charge, water rights included, on the condition that it would invest in irrigation systems and other agricultural infrastructure to grow rice and cultivate cattle. According to poster ads seen around the area, developers were to receive only 25,000 hectares.
The land in question is located in the Office du Niger, the agricultural heart of the West African country and responsible for much of the country’s food. With its comparatively lush trees and healthy herds of cattle, it seems worlds away from Mali's desert north. It is irrigated by a dam built by French colonialists in the 1930s and operates as a separate administrative unit from other parts of Mali's government.
But seven years on, the project has stalled: Libya fell into chaos following Qaddafi's ouster and subsequent death, and a drought hit Mali as it grappled with a violent separatist movement in the north. There is now growing concern about whether the country will ever see the benefits of Qaddafi’s “investment.”
In this part of south-central Mali, the only visible signs of the land deal are the fading billboards advertising the Malibya project and an irrigation canal. Villages in the area remain without paved roads, phone lines, or water pipes.
Tens of thousands of poor families living and growing crops on the land say they remain uncertain of what their future holds. If Libyan investors do indeed proceed in developing the land, these small-hold farmers will most likely be displaced to make way for large-scale agricultural projects.
Backers of the deal say that Malibya brings much-needed investment to Africa and can provide jobs and improve the productivity of the land. But rights activists say local people are rarely well compensated for their losses, and handing over land could exacerbate local food shortages.
That is a problem that Coulibaly knows well. "We have a big hunger problem,” he said. “At the moment, we are just trying to survive." In fact, more than half of the country's 15 million people live below the official poverty line, and nearly two million are hungry, according to the UN's World Food Program. Few in Mali, the world's sixth-poorest country, dispute the need for investment in agriculture. But many large-scale foreign land investment deals in Africa are designed to shore up food security in the country acquiring the land or on international markets, not in local ones.
"Some communities have been on that land for 800 years," said Chantal Jacovetti, a researcher with Mali's Coordination of National Farmers' Organizations, a rights group. "[But now] they are totally precarious." Residents of Sangha and Finn, a neighboring village, do not have formal title to the land they farm, although Malian law recognizes customary tenure. They say they were not consulted ahead of the Libyan deal.
Plans for the land deal were reportedly hatched in direct negotiations between two leaders who have since been deposed—exiled Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré and Libya's Qaddafi. "It's like two guys tried to decide the fate of the Office du Niger without knowing anything about it," said Jacovetti. Moussa Djire, a University of Bamako legal scholar who analyzed the Malibya investment, said secrecy over the agreement led some to suspect shady dealings, but personality politics probably played a bigger role in creating the project than illicit cash.
Either way, the agreement was bad news for Mali. The Malibya contract showed that despite the three droughts that had parched Mali in the past decade, investors were granted water "without restrictions" from June to December, with some limits in drier months. For that, Libya had contracted with a Chinese firm to build a 25-mile canal to irrigate rice fields on the land, which cuts through Sangha's ancestral territory, but the local people aren't allowed to use the water, said Sidiki Coulibaly, a chieftain from Finn village. Authorities have ignored their requests for water access and pipes, he said.
This is all the more troubling given that no one from Libya has even visited the site since civil war erupted in 2011, according to Sinaly Thiero, deputy director of the Office du Niger. Thiero coordinated the Malibya project on the government side. His government could revoke the concession if food production and infrastructure investment do not go ahead, he said, but he refused to give a deadline. Meanwhile, the Libyan Investment Authority, which financed the Malibya project, declined to comment on its African land deals through its London-based public relations firm, Consulum.
The project's fate highlights a clash across Africa between international investors buying large tracts of agricultural land as a strategic asset and small-scale farmers who have cultivated the earth for decades. Farmers' rights advocates said several similar large land deals from Mali to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Pakistan have not met the desired results for anyone involved.
A study by Sweden's Lund University found that more than 32 million hectares of land globally—an area larger than Poland—have changed hands in similar land deals up to 2012, but often the bankers, speculators, and sovereign wealth funds behind these deals don't have much expertise in farming.
"We invested a lot in these lands, planting trees and building things,” said Balima Coulibaly. “But one day they could come and take it all away."