Friday, September 25, 2009

Corean the Barbarian

And I see it took only four days for this to reach The Hole. Had it been R. Elgin (the Marmot's Hole post author) who had written the comment below instead of The Marmot Himself, I'd have appreciated a hat tip. It is curious, Marmot, that you didn't do a post on this yourself, especially given your ties and insight to Tanzania and the rest of East Africa.

This past spring, many pundits and bloggers alike were falling over themselves trying to be biggest critic of South Korea's grand bargain (before there was a Grand Bargain™) with Madagascar. The deal would have had a South Korean proxy controlling, through a 99-year lease, a chunk of that island nation equal to the size of Belgium (which, no coincidence, is the Korea or Europe™).

Like many geopolitical things involving Korea, it ignited into violence, turmoil, and civil war. The new guy who took over said he would cancel the deal, which was reported by the British press as the catalyst for the overthrow of the previous government. The British press also inveighed against the deal, led by Daewoo Logistics, calling it exploitative colonization of Africa.

And if there's one thing the British know, it's exploitative colonization of Africa.

Although Daewoo Logistics had promised the development of infrastructure — roads, hospitals, schools, farming equipment, etc. — the deal was tainted because it was seen as favoring the old president, and thus it was canceled.

Food security is a growing issue for many countries whose populations exceed the arable land on which they sit. South Korea, Taiwan, China, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and others have been quietly making deals to take over (or at least lease) large tracts of land to be used for farming.

Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing can depend a lot on what the the food-seeking countries can offer the people of the land-granting country. Here in Hawaii, I've met a number of international students from Africa, who have said not so pleasant things about what they refer to as exploitation by the Chinese.

By contrast, I have heard far more positive things about the South Koreans in their countries, but this may be an apples-and-oranges comparison: the Chinese are exploiting the land, while the South Koreans are largely NGO workers and missionaries setting up hospitals and other do-gooder services. Would South Korean companies operating under a major land-leasing deal be any different from the Chinese?

This is a pertinent question because, as I reported earlier, South Korea has penned a similar (but considerably less ambitious) deal in Tanzania. This would have the state-run Korea Rural Community Corporation (KRCC), a division of the Agriculture Ministry, developing a thousand square kilometers (a little under 400 square miles) of land. Half of it will be for local farmers, and the other half will be used to produce processed goods for Korea.

[above: Tanzanian farmland (source)]

Korean officials say 1,000 sq km (386 sq miles) will be developed - half for local farmers, half to produce processed goods for South Korea. To put this in perspective, imagine a square-shaped area of land about 30 kilometers or 20 miles to a side, in a country 9.5 times larger than South Korea with slightly less than the same population. This planned arrangement is only 100,000 hectares, just 1/13 the size of the Madagascar deal. (Joongang Daily report on the deal found here, Reuters story here.)

Now just what does "develop" mean? From the BBC article:
[The KRCC] says it will produce processed foods like cooking oil, wine and starch on the land.

Lee Ki-Churl, a corporation official, said he expected Tanzanians to benefit from the deal.

"Some African countries export fruit and import fruit juice, or export olives and import olive oil, simply because their past colonialists did not teach them how to process food," he told the AFP news agency.

"We plan to set up an education centre for Tanzanian farmers in the food-processing zone in order to transfer agricultural know-how and irrigation expertise to them."

He said about 100bn won ($83m) would be spent to develop an initial 100 sq km of land over the next few years.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported that the corporation hoped to exploit deposits of iron ore, gold and copper in other parts of the Tanzania to help fund its project.
So the idea is to behave differently from "their past colonialists"? While their "present colonialists" be any different? The last paragraph there suggests a potential for gold fever to ruin things.

The KRCC themselves ought to face some scrutiny. Here's the kind of project they work on, according to their website:
The Large-scale Comprehensive Agricultural Development Project carries out general projects such as the development of water resources, the farmland consolidation, and the reclamation of tidelands for specific areas centered upon river basin to effectively develop the foundation for agricultural production and to promote the establishment of a welfare rural community through the improvement in the farming environment and in agricultural productivity.
That's right, these are the folks who, among other things, help dig up mudflats and wetlands to make farmland in South Korea, as in the project shown in the picture below.

From what I've heard of them before, they do a reasonable job of improving opportunity for the farmers in those areas, but at what environmental cost? A good question would be whether their expertise at building irrigation systems will be more suitable for bringing water to dry parts of Africa than it is for drying out wet parts of Korea to grow more rice. Maybe, then, this type of project is a good thing.

Operative word: Maybe. The KRCC should be watched like a hawk. Any Korean corporate group who works with them should be watched like a hawk. Moreover, if part of the aim is to truly improve the lives of the people who are doing the farming, have some legitimate Korean NGOs go in there and help the local Tanzanians with what they need (schools, hospitals, roads, etc.). There are already South Korean NGOs doing do-gooder stuff in the area, including a branch of the Saemaul Corporation which was largely responsible for improving the lives of rural South Koreans. Get them involved, particularly in a capacity that allows for checks-and-balances.

The goal should be twofold: Treat the Tanzanians as if they were South Koreans (well, better, I suppose) and be better than your competitors. In the 1960s and beyond, there were clear goals set for the improvement of the lives of the farmers in South Korea, and a similar standard should be set.

All South Koreans should understand that they and their country will be judged on the outcome of such deals. You have been warned.

I suppose I should translate this into Korean, eh?

[Side note: The same BBC article talks as if the Madagascar cancellation may not be written in stone. Specifically, it says the deal "has been thrown into uncertainty." In my book, that doesn't mean an end-all, beat-all cancellation. Is something going on behind the scenes we don't know about? Is Daewoo trying to renegotiate their original deal on terms more favorable to the new government? An interesting prospect.]


  1. Tanzanians are denying the deal:

  2. Interesting. Thanks for the update.

    Robert, are you Robert as in The Marmot? If so, would you care to give your take, as a former resident of East Africa, on what the denial may mean? Is the denier someone who is not in the loop? Is it an attempt to keep it quiet? Is it an attempt to make the South Korean side nervous so they'll offer more? Is this all a big ploy to squeeze more out of the Chinese?

    So many possibilities.

  3. Yes, like in Robert the Marmot.

    Well, as a former resident of East Africa --- and, in fact, the nation in question, Tanzania --- my expert opinion is that the denial could mean two things:

    1) the Tanzanian government doesn't want to admit to the deal for some undisclosed reason, or

    2) There really is no deal.

    How's that for punditry?

  4. Robert the Marmot wrote:
    Yes, like in Robert the Marmot.

    I assumed so, but hesitated to say so. For some reason I was thinking you'd had a "The Marmot" userid for Blogger, and Robert is a common enough name.

    For quite some time King Baeksu was commenting here, telling me I can't fully appreciate a sunset unless I'm high, but he was doing so as "Scott" and I had no idea it was him.

    Not that I'm complaining about you (or him) doing that, since Robert and Scott are your respective names and it's not like people don't know that.


    Well, as a former resident of East Africa --- and, in fact, the nation in question, Tanzania

    I correctly remembered it being Tanzania, but I'm always confusing Tanzania and Kenya for some reason, including with one of the aforementioned African students. For a whole semester I had misremembered that this neighbor and classmate was actually from Tanzania, not Kenya. He was good natured about the mistake, saying, "And you live in North Korea, right?"

    --- my expert opinion is that the denial could mean two things:

    1) the Tanzanian government doesn't want to admit to the deal for some undisclosed reason, or

    2) There really is no deal.

    How's that for punditry?

    Reminds me of a recent headline that said experts are sure that Osama bin Laden is either alive or dead.

  5. "Treat the Tanzanians as if they were South Koreans"

    A beautiful farming valley on the outskirts of town will be torn up as soon as the rice harvest is over to put in a new 9-hole golf course. This might be great for the golfers in the area, but the farmers there are more than a little upset.

    Also, makes me think that certain South Koreans have their priorities way out of whack while the older generation goes out of their way to plant cabbage or peppers in any soil that they can find anywhere.

    "at what environmental cost?"
    There is a lot of worry that the large reservior there will be contaminated by all the chemicals needed to keep those greens green. It's not in the greatest shape from the fertilizers being used and the small cattle enclosures in the area as it is.

  6. John, when I read your comment, I mistook you as speculating that the Koreans would eventually start digging up farmland in Tanzania to build golf courses.

    But I see you're talking about something "here" in South Korea.

    I'm not a big fan of golf course construction in Korea, for many of the reasons you state. We need arable land, the water resources are depleted and those left in tact are often polluted with chemicals, etc.

    Alas, I don't know if this will change. I see the same types of problems in Hawaii, and especially Orange County and Clark County, Nevada, where a close relative is a golf pro. The golfers feel they are a privileged lot who deserve to see green greens.

    But in Las Vegas, where the population boom has seen an uncomfortable depletion of water reserves, they are actually letting some of the greens go brown. A positive sign for the future? I hope so.

    If they don't want to go that route, they may have to adopt Orange County's "icky" water sewage reuse system, though that still wouldn't resolve the problems of manure and pesticides.

  7. Golfing is a big drain on our natural resources, but the elite control most countries, so I doubt we will see much done to curb its excess use of water, land, and fertilizers. Maybe climate change, or overpopulation in terms of rain--Las Vegas, will eventualy change the way people use and view water soon, but it's rather doubtful as Atlanta nearly went dry a couple of years ago and they have yet to get behind building a water desalinization plant along the nearby coastline in Georgia or installing a new water pipe system to upgrade their current leaky one.

    Likewise, it blows me away that everyone back home plants crap trees like oak instead of fruit and nut trees in their front and back yards. And the amount of money that home owners spend on their grass (which is actually a weed) is outrageous when they could easily put in a vegetable garden which would help put a decent dent in their food budgets.

    I don't know if it's laziness or just plain stupidity.


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