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German official blames China for Somalia’s famine

With east Africa in the grip of famine after its worst drought in 60 years, Germany's Africa policy coordinator has fingered an unlikely culprit: China. Agence France-Presse reports:

Guenter Nooke told the daily Frankfurter Rundschau it was clear that "this catastrophe is also man-made".

"In the case of Ethiopia there is a suspicion that the large-scale land purchases by foreign companies, or states such as China which want to carry out industrial agriculture there, are very attractive for a small (African) elite," he said.

"It would be of more use to the broader population if the government focused its efforts on building up its own farming system."

He said that the Chinese investments were focused on farming for export which he said can lead to "major social conflicts in Africa when small farmers have their land und thus their livelihoods taken away."

Today, a written statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry vehemently denied the allegations. "China has never had plans to buy land overseas, and China has never purchased land in Africa," the statement said, adding that Nooke's claims stemmed from "ulterior motives." The Foreign Ministry also announced today that it would provide $14 million in emergency food assistance to the Horn of Africa.

Beijing's protestations aside, Chinese investment in African farmland has ratcheted up significantly in recent years, as the government seeks to quell concerns about long-term food security. One estimate puts the number of Chinese farm workers in Africa at 1 million. Meanwhile, the Atlantic quotes a June 2009 report in the Chinese weekly Economic Observer that describes how Beijing "was planning to rent and buy land abroad" to deal with "increasing pressure on food security."

That said, it's worth noting that China is far from the only foreign investor with major land holdings in Africa today. Private and public investors from India, the United States, and the petrostates of the Middle East, to name a few, have taken their piece of the African land grab, which brought 15 to 20 million hectares of the continent under foreign investment between 2006 and mid-2009. By way of comparison, that's equal to the size of all the farmland in France. If Nooke is right about the connection between foreign investment and famine, seems like there's plenty of blame to go around.

Oli Scarff/Getty Images

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