From IPS, writer Paul Virgo looks into the debate that started last week.
The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the summit's host, said it is estimated that up to 20 million hectares of African land have been acquired by foreign interests in the last three years.
States such as Saudi Arabia and China started to look for farmland abroad after a spike in the price of staples such as wheat and rice in 2007-08, prompting fears that smallholder farmers may be displaced from their territories, worsening the situation in countries already suffering grave food insecurity.
The rise in food prices and the financial crisis have driven more than 100 million people into the ranks of the hungry this year, to take their number beyond the one-billion mark for the first time, the FAO says. So it is perhaps understandable that hostility to foreign land purchases in Africa remains high.
"Our leaders (in Africa) are selling all our land," Huguette Akplogan Dossa, coordinator of the African Network on the Right to Food, told IPS. "Selling national land is not a good thing. They have to think about what is good for the people. If they come to buy our lands for production, take it to their countries, transform it and sell it back to us very expensively, it is another form of colonialism. We have to ban it."
However, the FAO and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) are reluctant to stigmatise a possible source of capital, given that a long-running decline in agricultural investment is perhaps the main reason why so many people in rural areas of developing countries struggle to feed themselves.
"It is the wrong language to call them land grabs. They are investments in farmland like investments in oil exploration," Kanayo Nwanze, head of IFAD, told a news conference. "The fact there are distortions does not suggest this should be banned."
FAO and IFAD admit that the acquisitions, which continued to be called 'land grabs' in summit papers despite Nwanze's objections, have had negative impacts in some cases. But they insist foreign investment can also help smallholders gain access to the resources they need to haul themselves out of poverty. So they are holding consultations on an international code of conduct to encourage positive forms of foreign agricultural investment and discourage bad practices.
"What strikes me is the heterogeneity of these situations. It appears superficially that all of these so-called land grabs are similar; it's big foreign companies pushing smallholders off the land, and indeed some of them do look like that," IFAD Assistant President Kevin Cleaver told IPS.
"But others are much more similar to old private investments in sugar, rubber and tea that actually put money into a country, developed an area that was underdeveloped, and helped smallholders," Cleaver said. "My point is not to give a message about whether it is good or bad. I know for certain that the situation is highly heterogeneous. My suspicion is that there are horrible cases of grotesque exploitation and there are other cases of useful private investment."