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Why Poverty? documentary series: Land Rush

In the stampede on Africa for oil, diamonds, minerals and natural resources, Mali has a lower-octane but equally valuable asset; agricultural land. In a new documentary, entitled Land Rush, directors Hugo Berkeley and Osvalde Lewat explore how it is possible that despite this tangible wealth the country and its farmers still live in poverty.

Since the economic crash of 2008 led to food shortages across the developing world, huge chunks of Africa have been carved up and sold or leased to the highest bidders, including China and Saudi Arabia. As seventy-five per cent of Malians are farmers, this kind of foreign investment is set to have a huge impact on the population.

More an observational documentary than current affairs piece, Land Rush is part of Why Poverty?, a global innitiative, supported by the BBC and other broadcasters worldwide, to draw attention to issues surrounding poverty and inequality. The directors, Hugo Berkeley and Osvalde Lewat, present differing points of view, while attempting to stay away from what Hugo describes as the “polemical” stance that many people approach the situation with.

A landleasing scheme, Sosumar, is the pet project of American sugar developer Mima Nedelcovych. He aims to bring change to local communities by involving them in the project, although his enthusiasm is met with resistant locals, reluctant officials and seemingly insurmountable bureaucracy. The land-leasing scheme would take land from rural farmers and develop it using irrigation and industrial farming techniques, recompensing the farmers with alternative land, cash and other benefits.

The problem is, no one can agree on who actually owns the land – the people or the state? There is a clear disconnect between the rural farmers and the government, with no sense that the state is owned by and accountable to the people. At one point, Ibrahima, a Malian who is campaigning for the farmers’ rights to their own land, describes how most government officials “hate farmers”, as they were educated in colonial schools and see the Western and European model as the only acceptable way forward.

While it is easy to look at big corporations coming to Africa as largely exploitative and destructive to local cultures, this documentary shows that the truth is rarely that simple. Much time was spent with the locals and throughout the film, we are shown that many are in support of the Sosumar project while others are strongly against.

Talk of free hospitals and schools is tantalizing in this dry, arid land, where people rarely get more than one meal a day. The hope for change and a better life is tempered with a deep love of the land and a desire to continue in the traditional way of life without asking for outside help. However, a military coup in March 2012 leads to salvation for those opposing Sosumar, an unforeseen consequence of the political upheaval.

Although there was a concerted effort on the part of the directors not to get too involved in the debate, I felt it would have added to the viewer’s understanding to have asked both sides tougher questions to clear up some of the contradictions that surfaced from the opposing sides. At the end of the film, there is a sense of loose ends and unanswered questions, perhaps a suitable reflection of the myriad complexities of the situation.

The Why Poverty? series including Land Rush will be screened over a period of two weeks on the BBC4 and BBC1, with the first one being broadcasted on 19 November.

If you live outside the UK then please check the Why Poverty website to see on which local channel you can watch the documentaries.

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Hazel is a freelance journalist from Dublin. Although reality TV is really not her thing, she feels it has done a certain amount to open people’s minds to the power of social observation, and therefore the wonder of documentaries. She has contributed to a number of magazines, including Monocle, IMAGE and The Irish Independent Life magazine. Guilty pleasure: old-school musicals.

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