By Sarah Blanchard, Syracuse University public diplomacy student
China leases land to grow palm oil for biofuel on 2.8 million hectares (7 million acres) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. China wanted to grow biofuels on 2 million hectares in Zambia. Saudi Arabia leases $100 million worth of land in Ethiopia, almost the same amount that the World Food Program spends on food aid for Ethiopia. South Korea rents 690,000 hectares in Sudan for wheat and the United Arab Emirates rents 400,000 hectares there. It isn’t just rich countries exploiting Africa’s largest resource either, as Libya leases 100,000 hectares in Mali for rice. 
Critics claim this “landgrabbing” as it’s known, is neocolonialism. Governments are leasing the land to interested richer governments, often with little say by the people who already use that land. Proponents discuss the improvements to the local farming infrastructure, including new seeds, new irrigation techniques, and general investment in sectors and countries that are chronically under-invested.
This is not just about securing food and water sources for nations that happen to have unlucky geography and a lack of natural resources. Saudi Arabia created large wheat farms in the middle of the desert, and the country is rich enough to continue to operate them if it decided to. The public diplomacy implications of this emerging practice are very interesting.
The reputation and perceived images of a country are important in the global competition for tourism dollars and investment capital, known as nation branding. (See an earlier post about nation branding here.) States often take matters into their own hands and promote their own distinctive qualities to improve and influence the competition.
The lenders and leasers of African and South Asian farmland are participating in nation branding, even if indirectly. Let’s examine first the countries that are leasing land outside of their own borders, including many of the Gulf States, South Korea and China. Ideally, a Sudanese man working on the farmland leased by South Korea is aware that the government of South Korea will be using the food he is harvesting. The farm worker may or may not have known about South Korea as a country, although South Korea is becoming a bigger player in the world stage. Next time the worker goes to buy something, this may influence his decisions, as he could buy a product from South Korea that he wouldn’t have considered otherwise since his job is now affected by South Korea’s land use. Not only are the local workers exposed to South Korea as a country, but also no doubt the local media are too and maybe even Sudan’s neighbors. Compared to countries that are not leasing land in Sudan, any attention on South Korea’s ability to participate in such a practice heightens global awareness about the country from a region overshadowed by China.
On the other side of the equation, lenders are increasing their status in the world as well. Mali is experiencing problems with terrorists in the region, but its ability to offer land for lease demonstrates its desire to capitalize on the benefits of foreign investment. Sudan has traditionally been known as the “breadbasket of the Arab world,” but South Korean investors, media, and government officials are paying more attention to Sudan, a country that probably was not high on South Korea’s radar before this. Pakistan is trying to find Gulf region investors to farm up to 500,000 hectares (1.2 million acres), no doubt in attempts to influence Gulf investors to get involved in Pakistan in other ways.
There are discussions in the scholarship about diplomacy no longer being government-to-government. This is a new form a diplomacy and it remains as government-to-government. Time will tell the outcomes of these agreements, and hopefully it does not end with one party benefiting more than the other.