The Zambezi Valley: China’s First Agricultural Colony?

NOTE: Deborah Brautigam, professor at American University's International Development Program in the School of International Service, recently posted a critique of this article, which was published on the CSIS Africa Policy Forum blog in May 2008. Although the Policy Forum blog is now defunct, we wished to give author Lora Horta an opportunity to reply.

As with all CSIS publications, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in the policy blog should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

Original Publication May 20 2008

While quite a lot of ink has been spilled over China’s scramble for African oil and mineral resources, little notice has been taken of its growing demand for food stuffs from Africa and for new agricultural land. As China grows wealthier, the eating habits of millions of its citizens have become far more demanding. In 1985, the Chinese consumed an average of 25 kilos of meat per person per year – today consumption has doubled to 50 kilos. The consumption of other food stuffs such as seafood, rice, soybeans, sugar, cereals and other crops has risen by 30 to 40 percent in the past decade. China’s growing demand for food and the rapid shrinking of available arable land in China itself due to environmental degradation and urbanization have made finding new agricultural lands an urgent priority for the Chinese government.

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. The Zambezi valley is the richest region of Mozambique with an area of 230,000 kilometers (88,800 square miles) spread between Tete and Zambezia provinces. The valley possesses some of the most fertile land in the world, as well as substantial resources below ground, such as coal, gold, and precious stones.

Chinese interest in the Zambezi valley started in mid-2006, when the Chinese state owned Exibank 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. 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.

The government’s most recent denial came on May 15, 2008 when the minister for planning and development insisted that “It’s not true because the land in Mozambique is the property of the state and cannot be sold or rented.”

This line of argument seems rather disingenuous, since it is well known that hundreds of white South African farmers have been leasing land in Niassa since 1997, while since 2002 white farmers exiled from Zimbabwe have been given land in Manica province, in some instances with leases valid for 50 years. In any event, an official, perhaps speaking carelessly, has acknowledged that some sort of agreement has been reached concerning land leases and the movement of Chinese settlers to the valley.

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.

In addition to the Mpanda Nkua dam, China has offered to finance three other dams along the Zambezi and two more along the Limpopo river, while also building new roads and modernizing the Guelimane and Nacala harbors in Zambezia and Nampula provinces respectively. This investment in infrastructure is clearly designed to maximize production and facilitate the rapid export of foodstuffs to China while also giving lucrative contracts to Chinese companies.

In tandem with dam building and transportation infrastructure, China has put significant resources into improving agricultural production, with rice as the main priority. In early 2008, the Chinese government pledged to invest $800 million in modernizing Mozambican agriculture, with the goal of boosting rice production from 100 000 tons to 500 000 tons a year in the next five years. 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. Over 100 Chinese agricultural specialists are currently in Mozambique, including teams from the Hunan Hybrid Rice Institute, China’s top institution in the field. Other major projects include the construction of numerous irrigation and canal networks in the valley.

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 and is primarily consumed in the big cities by the wealthy. Over 90 percent of the country’s population relies on mandioca (cassava) and shima (cassava flower), maize, and peanuts for its diet. Mozambique expects to receive hard currency from rice exports that will allow it in turn to buy Chinese made goods and other commodities in the world market. The lifting by the Chinese government of import tariffs for 400 Mozambican agricultural products, including rice, will further facilitate food exports to China.

However, Mozambican’s remember their country’s unhappy colonial experience under Portugal, and this has made the settlement of thousands of Chinese settlers a very contentious and emotional issue. During Portuguese rule, due to the richness of its land, the Zambezi valley was the most oppressed and exploited part of the country; and also the site of the greatest anti-colonial rebellions. 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). This has led both the Mozambican government and the Chinese to be more discrete about their attentions, but not to abandon the idea.

China seems eager to go ahead with its farms along the Zambezi and has begun to apply pressure on the Mozambicans to approve the project. 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. An inside source told the author that China has even hinted at the possibility of withholding loans for the mega- dam at Mpanda Nkua.

Due to the sensitivities aroused by the possible settlement of large numbers of Chinese agricultural workers in the valley, it’s most likely that a more modest arrangement will be worked out. 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. On the land lease issue, the most likely compromise will be an arrangement by which a joint venture is created with nominal Mozambican participation, but very little doubt about who really runs the show.

While the Zambezi valley may offer China productive farmland and other opportunities, Beijing must be sensitive to local concerns lest its dreams for the valley turn into a public relations debacle that would damage China’s image on the continent. The history of Mozambique shows that the peoples of the Zambezi valley will not bow easily to the will of foreigners or to officials a thousand kilometers away in the capital. Their attachment to their land involves a great deal of spirituality as well as ancestral rights. Instead of trying to induce officials in Maputo to allow them entry into the valley, China would be better advised to listen to and negotiate with the people actually living there, since it is their land that China is banking on for its future food security.

If implemented with sensitivity, China’s agricultural plans could bring tremendous benefits for both sides, in the same way that white South African farmers have contributed to the development of Niassa despite the initial controversy over bringing in allegedly racist Boers who would exploit the local Mozambicans.

How successful China’s first agricultural investments in Africa will be remains to be seen. For the peoples of the Zambezi valley, land is extremely important and means more than just material benefits for those who own it. Through the centuries of Portuguese rule the fierce peoples of the valley showed that they don’t take it kindly being pushed off their land – something both Beijing and Maputo should keep in mind. _______________________________________________________________

Loro Horta is a research associate fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He lived and worked in Africa for several years and has written extensively on Portuguese Africa. He spent seven years of his childhood in Zambezia province, and wishes dedicate this article to the memory Gonsalves, who saved him from drowning in the Zambezi when he was six years old.

The Online Africa Policy Forum is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

Loro Horto replies to critique of “The Zambezi Valley: China’s first African Colony?”

In May 2008 I wrote an article for the CSIS Online Africa Policy Forum entitled “The Zambezi Valley: China s First African Colony?”1 Since its publication, the article has been criticized numerous times by Deborah Brautigam. Her most recent critique was posted on her blog on January 12, 2012. 2 I want to make it clear that it is with extreme reluctance and upon request from the CSIS Africa Program that I reply to her accusations. I shall make a brief response here. In a longer article to be published by the South African Institute of International Affairs I shall elaborate more on the matter.

Brautigam’s first accusation is that China never had any interest in establishing an agriculture enterprise in the Zambezi Valley and that the Mozambican government has denied that report. It was not I who first circulated the report, but rather one of China’s leading business magazines, 21st Century Business Herald (二十一世纪经济报道 Er Shi Yi Shi Ji Jing Ji Bao Dao), which in May 2008claimed that Chinese business interests were negotiating with the government to buy large land tracts for farming in Mozambique,3 citing Li Zhengdong, the Ministry of Agriculture’s director for international co-operation The story was then covered in LUSA, the Portuguese News Agency. LUSA publishes in Portuguese as well as English for those who happen not to be literate in Mandarin or Portuguese. The story was also covered by Portugal’s national television station, RTP. I met renowned Mozambican activist Daniel Ribeiro in Beijing in mid-2006 who told me that there were quiet negotiations between China and the local government concerning land leases. Ribeiro mentioned that a Mozambican official told him that such negotiations were taking place.4

A month after the Business Herald report, in April 2008, Abuda Cuerenela, Mozambican minister for state planning, denied that any such negotiations had taken place, saying: “In Mozambique the land is state property and cannot be sold.” 5 While accurate from a legal point of view, the minister’s answer failed to put an end to speculation—after all, white South African, Zimbabwean, and Portuguese-owned farms throughout the country were examples of land being leased to foreign nationals for several decades.

Despite the denials, during an investment seminar in Shanghai organised by the Mozambican government in July 2010, the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce reported in its website that the Mozambican authorities were offering agricultural land for lease at the price of $5 per year for eight hectares. The story about land leases did not originate with me, but with Chinese sources.

Brautigam fails to mention the several reports concerning the interest of Macau tycoon Stanley Ho and his associate, the former speaker of the House in Portugal, in leasing large tracts of land in the Zambezi Valley, reported in LUSA. 6 This may be due to the fact that the reports were in Portuguese. Also ignored is the fact that China is now renting over 10,000 hectares of land in Gaza Province in the Limpopo Valley, another area of interest that I mentioned. 7 Once more, the fact that the source is in Mandarin maybe the reason Brautigam is unfamiliar with the story.
Brautigam then goes on to claim that when she conducted her field work in Mozambique she saw no evidence on the ground of this investment. I did not claim in the article that those investments were already taking place. Indeed the title of my article was “The Zambezi Valley: China s First Agricultural Colony?” Question mark. What is the meaning of a question mark? As I say in the last paragraph of the article: “How successful China’s first agricultural investment in Africa remains to be seen.”

The most personal attack is Brautigan’s claim that I did not want to share my sources and that I had not conducted any field research, but that I limited myself to bits and pieces of rumor from the internet. In fact, when Brautigam contacted me in late 2009 requesting sources, I was on protracted medical leave and not in a position to give her a detailed reply.

A number of my primary sources, considering the sensitive nature of the issue, asked not to be mentioned by name. However, I can say that I have extensive contacts in Africa and regularly visit the continent on official business, many are family friends. When I wrote the article in question and conducted my other researches on Sino-African issues, I have talked to these friends including senior officials in the Ministry of Agriculture, representatives of the Zambezi Valley Development Office, parliamentarians. I have met and spoken with every single Chinese Ambassador to Mozambique since 2000. 8 Brautigam spent less than two weeks in the country and doesn’t speak the language. I have lived in Mozambique for 23 years and regularly visited the continent since I moved out. My last visit to China was in October 2011.

Brautigam suggests that there has been no Chinese quest for land in Mozambique. In a recent report, the African Development Bank argues that China is one of the most aggressive countries pursuing land acquisitions on the continent and that Mozambique is, after Ethiopia, Africa’s biggest leaser of land. I did not invent China’s state goal of leasing land in Africa. In fact, it has been stated by the Chinese themselves. In 2008 the Chinese ministry of agriculture drafted a plan to encourage the acquisition of overseas land by Chinese business interests in order to ensure China’s growing food demand. Chinese state-owned banks and other government institutions were encouraged to support the initiative, although as a Chinese official noted: 8 “There should be no problem for this policy to be approved. The problem might come from foreign governments who are unwilling to give up large areas of land.10

The issue of land lease remains very sensitive in Mozambique with several nations such as China, India, Brazil, and Singapore interested in land deals. A recent report by a Mozambique-based scholar illustrates well the complexity of the matter.11

In late 2010 Premier Wen Jiabao announced a $1 billion fund to assist the least develop countries of the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries with agriculture as a priority area Angola, Cape Verdi, Guinean Bissau and Timor-Leste. Since Angola is reported to already have gotten a separate loan of the same amount for agriculture; Cape Verde is a very dry nation without much agricultural potential; and Timor-Leste has negotiated separate funds.13 The fund announced at the Macau Forum is most likely to be primarily used by Mozambique and Guinea Bissau. Mozambique has been witnessing remarkable economic growth for over a decade and the Maputo government has declared agriculture a national priority. Guinea Bissau still faces chronic instability and has sadly won the distinction of becoming Africa’s first narco-state.

In late January 2011 the Mozambican government announced a $200 million fund to develop the Zambezi Valley, and China’s ExImbank is to provide an unspecified amount of that figure. The head of ExImbank recently visited the country.14 The story of China in Africa’s agricultural sector is still been written. As noted by a Chinese official:
“Joint-venture farms that have China's financial and technical support are the future of China-Africa agriculture cooperation. Agricultural investment requires more patience and long-term view than other industries.”15

In her blog, modestly titled China in Africa: The Real Story?, Brautigam has questioned the credibility of the Economist, the BBC, the New York Times, Japan Times, the Washington Post, Al Jazeera, and many others in relation to their coverage of China in Africa. Could all of these people, many of them based in Africa, be wrong? Possibly. I have lived in Africa for 23 years and been in Asia for over a decade. I humbly confess that I do not know the “real story of China in Africa”. Modesty and respect for different opinions are important in helping us understand this emotional issue. In the end I strongly believe that the real story of China in Africa will be written by Africans and Chinese.

Loro Horta is a graduate of senior officers course of the People’s Liberation Army National Defense University and the Chinese Ministry of Commerce Central School and officers course of the Mozambican Central Security School (Escola Central). He is also a graduate of the United States National Defense University and is currently pursuing further studies at the U.S. Naval Post Graduate School. His articles have been published by Military Review, Australian Defense Journal, The Journal of Defense and Security Analysis, Australian Army Journal, Strategic Analysis, Yale Global Magazine and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. He has written for some of Asia’s main newspapers such as the Japan Times, Australian Financial Review, China Post Straits Times, Jakarta Post, South China Morning Post, Asia Times and the Bangkok Post. He was born and brought up in Africa where he lived for 23 years. Until January 2011 he was the United Nations National Project Manager for Security Sector Reform in Timor-Leste. He has also been interviewed by several international media outlets.

1 Loro Horta, “The Zambezi Valley: China s First Agricultural Colony?” May 2008, CSIS Africa Policy Forum.

3 《21世纪经济报道》 (Er Shi Yi Shi Ji Jing Ji Bao Dao): “海外买租地种粮政策建议方案上报国务院” (2008-5-8) <21st Century Business Herald>: “The Policy Proposal to Rent Agriculture Land Overseas submitted to the State Council,” May 8, 2008.

4 The author has known Daniel Ribeiro for more than 20 years. International Rivers, “A new colonial power in Mozambique,” September 17, 2007. Available at

5 Radio e Televisao Portuguesa (RTP), May 13, 2008.

6 LUSA, “Geocapital aposta no desenvolvimento do Vale do Zambeze em Moçambique,” December 10, 2005.

7 《瞭望东方周刊》:“中国农垦海外拓荒” (2008-6-12) <Orient Outlook Weekly>. “China Agriculture Settlement Pioneering Overseas”, June 12, 2008. And, author’s personal visit to Hubei province in 2007, 2008, and 2009, and interviews with several company officials and provincial authorities. See also Freeman, D., et al., “China’s foreign farming policy: Can land provide security?” Asia Paper, Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies, Vol 3 (9) 2008

8 The author would like to express his deepest gratitude to former President Chissano, President Guebuza, Tiotato Onguana, Marcelino Dos Santos, Sergio Vieira, and the Mozambican people for the hospitality shown to me and my family during our 23 years of exile in Mozambique and thank them for continuing to welcome us regularly. My sister and step-father, a director at the ministry of agriculture, still live in Maputo and own land in Zambezi.

9 “中国企业在赞比亚:兴建经济贸易合作区” - 《国际商报》) <International Business Daily>, “Chinese enterprises in Zambia: build economic trade cooperation zone,” January 30, 2008.

10 Ibid.

11 Mozambique 184 News Reports and Clippings, September 5, 2011:

12 The author has attended several meetings of the Macau Forum including the last one hosted in 2010 : Zambezia Online +Para Mocambique e Outros Membros da CPLP” 15 de Novembro 2010 at

13 The author visited Cape Verde in October 2010 where he met several ministers and other senior officials the visit was reported widely on the local media. The author was involved in some of the negotiations between the Timorese government and China. The Timorese request for a loan was made at the last Macau Forum

14 AIM, “200 Milhoes de Dolares para Desenvolver Vale do Zambeze,” January 25, 2011.

15 Peoples Daily “China, Africa Forge Farming Ties,” August 12 2010 at

Loro Horta