Thursday, January 12, 2012

"The Zambezi Valley: China's First Agricultural Colony?" Fiction or Fact?

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 leases, 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. In a 2007 story, Horta put the figure at 20,000. 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 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 assistant 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 and gossip. But if anyone has another take on this, or evidence (either way), please post. I'm interested in seeing it.

update: This blog post has been translated into Flemish on the website and appears also at the Flemish site Mondiaal Nieuws.  H/T to Frank Willems.

Horta has published a response to this story at the same CSIS website. For a deconstruction and critique of that response, see this posting by Sigrid Ekman, a Norwegian researcher who did months of fieldwork in Mozambique for her master's thesis.

Rather than respond point by point to Horta, I'll just note one thing. Horto begins by saying that he was not the first to circulate a report that "China" wanted to acquire land in the Zambezi Valley, but rather that a Chinese paper made this claim in May 2008. In fact, as I wrote above, it was Horta who first made this claim, writing in August 2007:  "In 2006, Beijing and Maputo signed a memorandum of understanding concerning the creation of a massive agricultural project in the Zambezi river valley area. Under this agreement, as many as 20,000 Chinese settlers may move into the valley to run large- to medium-scale farms destined to supply the ever more affluent Chinese market."

Horta promised to elaborate on his rebuttal of this critique in a longer article to be published by the South African Institute of International Affairs. No article has yet appeared, as of October 2014. Sigrid Ekman and I published a more elaborate version of our findings in May 2012 in African Affairs: Rumours and Realities of Chinese Agricultural Engagement in Mozambique.


(1) May 2008. Horta first made some of these claims in 2007: Then, he said that "up to 20,000 Chinese" might move to the Zambezi Valley.

(2) May 2009.

(3) April 2009.

(4) 2009.

(5) November 2010.

(6) December 2009.

(7) Sigrid-Marianella Stensrud Ekman, “Leasing Land Overseas: A Viable Strategy for Chinese Food Security?” unpublished master’s thesis, Department of Economics, Fudan University, Shanghai, 2010.

(8) February 11, 2011.

(9) December 2011.

(10) I’ve often seen a figure of $55 million associated with the Chinese agrotechnology demonstration center in Mozambique. According to a copy of the contract given to me by the Ministry of Agriculture in Mozambique in June 2009, China's agricultural center in Mozambique would cost 55 million RMB (about US$6 - 9 million depending on the exchange rate), not dollars. Such a typical mistake, but an important one. China is building 20 centers around Africa, all at the request of local governments that will be using them for their own agricultural purposes. Mozambique’s was the first built. All the centers I've seen have a big agricultural training component (labs and dormitories, for example). All the centers appear to have been budgeted at around 40-55 million RMB. They follow in the footsteps of China’s failed projects in the past. See December 2009.

(11) Could it be related to a request the Mozambicans made for China to help fund the Moambe Science and Technology Park, a pet project of the Minister of Science and Technology? Together with the agricultural research center in Umbeluzi/Boane, the two projects would have cost $700 million (the Chinese agricultural center itself was projected to cost 55 million RMB, about US$9 million) (10). The Chinese did say they would help out with Moambe, but not fund the entire thing. Mozambique later received a mixed grant/credit of $15.8 million from China to support distance education and "science and technology" See: secao=social_development&id=22558&tipo=one



(14) December 2009.






(20) I haven’t been to Mozambique since 2009, but in 2010, I interviewed a Chinese agricultural specialist who knew about Chinese engagement in Mozambique. She told me that Hubei Liangfeng, the company from Hubei province that is managing China's foreign aid research station in Umbeluzi, Boane, Mozambique experimented with growing hybrid rice and soybeans for profit. "They experimented first on a small scale, but found many problems. The land was too dry. They needed to water two or three times a day. It was very costly. Also, mice destroyed the plants."


Tomsolna said...

Great article. I wish there were more digging into the "real" facts.

André said...

second that, a great article

Piers Pigou said...

Many thanks for very useful piece that exhorts us all to be rigorous in our research. This is particularly important when dealing with subject matter around which there is much emotion and hyperbole. One hopes that a more rigorous and robust approach will result in a deeper appreciation of how Chinese interests manifest on the continent.

Carlos Oya said...

Thanks for this Deborah. My worry is whether this is just the tip of the iceberg. How many of these stories about China in Africa are simply fabricated by corrupt 'researchers'? There is so much opportunism in this field that one is sometimes tempted to ignore much of what is circulated on the topic. I will certainly circulate this particular story to many of my students eager to write dissertations on China and land grabs in Africa.

Anonymous said...

This young guy has just publish another article in Euraisa Review today, reviewing China's approach in Mozambique:

China’s Economic Engagement In Africa: Changing Approach In Mozambique – Analysis


Anonymous said...

It's fascinating how these relationships are being described by whites as "colonial". Nervous much? The Chinese came in contact with those in Africa prior to the Europeans did but unlike those with European descent who still carry the lust for blood the Chinese greeted Africans, exchanged gifts and went home. It's a fascinating mindset and helps to highlight how mentally disturbed whites are. Any relationship they can't seem to understand must be defined by their own experience. I certainly nope they would leave Africans and China alone. How about not reporting about Africans?

JPM said...

Prof. Brautigam has provided a very useful research-supported denunciation of Horta's allegation of large acquisition of arable land in Mozambique by the government of China. It raises a question: to what extent are the numerous annuncements of other Chinese acquisition of land in Africa also fabrication? JPM

Maya said...

This is horrible. Does RSIS know about this?

I always knew there was some kind of media war against China, but when it comes from non-media scholars as well it just feels extraordinarily bad.

I'd say if China is very much Westernised there would be no war on them...

Anonymous said...

Hi Professor Brautigam,

Have you read Horta's reply to your critique yet?

Deborah Brautigam said...

Thanks @Anonymous. I hadn't seen it.

Anonymous said...

Africa was colonization of over centuries and these colonizing people
still assumes that africa still belongs to them and no other country has
right to enter into their territories for any economical activities.
President Obama was brought to solidify this thought.A little acess to China in Libya mean a massaker to Ghaddafi and his leadership. That is the reality of today. Who can change it? The lies and scare in Africa
will keep on going to prevent the African countries to associate with
China in any form.

Anonymous said...

I must say you hadn't missed much by not reading it. I was nonplussed as to whether Mr.Horta was offering a rebuttal to your critique or actually confirming your pointed deconstruction of his pseudo-research (he actually candidly admits that he was mostly retweeting stories he read in the press, etc, etc). Frankly his so-called "study" is actually a patronizing innuendo-cum-hit-job masqueraded as scientific "red-alert" that is in vogue lately. If he lived in Mozambique for 23 yrs as he claims to have, he would at least get the name of the Minister and Ministry of Planing and Development right (there's no Ministry for State Planing in Mozambique). Maybe he sees red on anything Zambezi related on account of his near-dead experience in the river (i know it's a cheap shot).

I reckon his u-turn analysis "China's Economic Engagement in Africa: Changing Approach in Mozambique" confirms him as a natural flip-flopper.

Keep up the non-biased vigilance Professor said...

Deborah Horta has entered a rather lame and selective defense recently

Your take?

Deborah Brautigam said...

@Lloyd, for a reply, please see the reaction by Sigrid Ekman to this second CSIS posting: (posted March 12, 2012).

Sigrid said...

To Anonomous who posted on January 20th, that "whites" thinking that China's relationship with Africa is colonial:
you do realise you are on a blog written by an American (who happens to be white) arguing against that very thing? In fact she is arguing against a paper written by someone who happens to be Asian.

So please refrain from making racist comments about what "whites" supposedly think about China in Africa. I'm pretty sure there are divided opinions regarding China's emerging role in Africa on all continents (and I doubt they are predetermined by people's skin colour).

Unknown said...

Dear Prof. Brautigam

I'd like to know your source of the argument: "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."

I'm writing an academic essay about China's 'land grab', and this statement could be very supportive for my thesis. I've looked up all the relevant websites and databases, but I failed to find one.
can you help me out?

Deborah Brautigam said...

@Kim Dohoon: Here's trade data on a continent-wide basis:

Or here: (thanks Yoon for posting)

The country by country data can be found on COMTRADE, the UN's trade database, or here: You have to create a username and password to use this data.