Compared to its neighbours, Ghana gets good press. It’s widely praised for its solid economic growth, stable democracy and rapidly developing infrastructure. As Barack Obama said on his recent visit, ‘Ghana continues to be a good-news story’.
Living in the capital, and sticking mainly to the well-polished tourist trails, it’s easy to get an overwhelmingly positive view of this friendly country. But delve a little deeper and the familiar African themes of poverty, injustice and inequality persist.
Land acquisitions in Africa have rightly attracted considerable controversy. In many countries, land is taken away from local people and sold or leased to investors from rich countries who speculate on it on global markets; or to foreign companies who use African land to grow food for their own populations, or even biofuels for their cars.
|Prairie Volta Rice Ltd.|
I travelled to Mafi Dove district, on the south side of the Volta River, to research an article about a large land acquisition project for rice production. Quaysie, a friend who comes from the Volta region, offered to drive and translate from Ewe, the local language.
Prairie Volta Rice Ltd, the US-backed company behind the project, leases around 3,000 hectares near the river, which is used to irrigate the rice. But I had read that the crop is not for exporting; rather, it is for sale on the local market, in an effort to reduce the country’s massive dependence on imports (which cost around $450million a year). This sounds more positive than schemes; I tried to keep an open mind as we arrived at their office and processing plant in Aveyime.
Richard, the manager showed us around and openly talked about the controversial start to the project. The company rents the land from the Ghanaian government, who ‘acquired’ the land in the 1970s without paying local landowners any compensation – still a source of much anger in the villages surrounding the rice farm.
The company’s position is that compensation is not their responsibility; Richard was keen to talk instead about how they were donating computers and equipment to nearby schools and hospitals. And how they were employing local people and providing farming machinery for local use at reduced rates. Maybe this land scheme was being done differently; it was hard not to be impressed.
|Quaysie with the rice farmers|
Until we met the rice farmers who work for the company: they told a very different story. No pay for two months. No fuel to power the shiny tractors that stood idle in the fields. I asked them about the donations made to local schools and hospitals: “That is a lie. It is not happening.”
They suggested we went to meet the land-owning villagers, so we drove along the dirt road to the village of Bakpa-Kebenu. As we pulled up, I was surprised to see the villagers all sat in a circle on plastic chairs.
“Do they always sit about like this?” I asked Quaysie.
“No, the farmers called ahead that we were coming,” he replied. “They have called a village meeting.”
Mobile phones really do reach every corner of the continent; I blushed at my patronising ignorance.
With Quaysie translating, the village chief told me the catalogue of woes his people have endured. There has been government corruption – only those who voted for the incumbent party got compensation for their land; the rest got nothing. Many subsistence farmers from his village have had their crops damaged by the chemicals the company sprays by plane on the rice fields. And they have little way of fighting back. “When the government is involved, who do we complain to?”
We spent half an hour in the village, listening to their stories and the way they had been treated. The circle of faces all focused on me, unsmiling, almost accusing. And as I got up to say goodbye, the chief asked: what would I do to help? I apologetically promised to deliver copies of the magazine when the article was published, knowing it would have little if any impact.
But as we left, the stern expressions gave way instantly to warm smiles, waves and an insistence on photos with the chief and the elders. Despite the hardships faced and my nosing about, looking for a story rather than a way to help, the people were as friendly as Ghanaians always are to strangers.
|Meeting the chief|
Having chased some stray chickens out from under the car, we set off along the road once more. We passed the rice farmers again, still sat with nothing to do. Alongside them sat the armed soldier who spends each day with there, chatting and smoking. He’s there to make sure no one steals the rice from the fields – a clear example of the warped priorities of the rice company. As one of the farmers said: “They pay him to guard the rice; why can’t they just pay us for our land?”