Japan, Brazil sow seeds of hope in Mozambique

Project to transform savanna into arable farmland and help country feed itself


Prime Minister Taro Aso’s list of diplomatic accomplishments may be short but Japan’s latest aid project in southeastern Africa could eventually become a key resource to support the nation’s food security.

Kenzo Oshima, senior vice president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the world’s largest aid agency, believes the joint venture with Brazil in Mozambique could also reduce poverty in Africa.

“This is a program that will take 10 years, 20 years to bear fruit,” Oshima said during an interview with The Japan Times earlier this month, adding that it epitomizes the future model of Japan’s overseas development assistance.

Japan and Brazil have agreed to join hands in turning arid Mozambican savanna into farmland, based on past efforts to jointly develop central Brazil’s cerrado region, a vast tropical savanna, into a global harvest center.

“We are hoping the best will come out from this new model of collaboration,” the former Japanese ambassador to the United Nations said.

The triangular agricultural assistance to poverty-stricken Mozambique was agreed during bilateral talks between Aso and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on the sidelines of July’s Group of Eight summit at L’Aquila, Italy.

Officials from both nations will meet in Mozambique next month and start negotiating details on developing the country’s arid savanna, the first program Japan and Brazil will undertake in Africa.

While a meeting on overseas assistance under Aso acknowledged the program as one of the cornerstones of Japan’s agricultural aid to Africa, JICA also considers it an answer to the global food shortage.

“There are various reasons that caused the food crisis, including climate change, droughts and even financial speculators,” Oshima said. “But with the growing demand for food from emerging economies, this crisis should not be considered transient but rather one that requires a fundamental countermeasure.”

Oshima explained that the collaboration with Brazil and the choice of Mozambique for the mission provides a win-win situation for all parties.

According to JICA, about 70 percent of Mozambique’s roughly 800,000 sq. km is located in the Guinea Savanna area, which is believed to have the potential to cultivate crops, including soybeans, rice, wheat, corn and cotton.

While the end of a 17-year civil war in 1992 helped the country’s production of grain double in the last decade, Mozambique still suffers a lack of strategic farming capabilities. The country has not been able to feed itself, and has to import over two-thirds of the 600,000 tons of rice it consumes annually.

Experts also say Mozambique’s progress was hampered by lack of overseas aid, with Portugal, the country’s former colonial ruler, unable to play the role Britain did in supporting its former colonies, including Nigeria and South Africa.

Japan aims to offer financial aid to Mozambique, as well as its expertise obtained in assisting agricultural advancement in developing countries.

Providing the knowhow for farming in a savanna is where Brazil comes in.

Brazil, which boasts the world’s largest production of soybeans, accomplished the feat by turning its savanna into a grain belt that runs across the country.

The feat was recognized with the 2006 World Food Prize, often referred as the Nobel Prize for agricultural accomplishments, and Brazilian technicians are known to possess world-leading knowledge in tropical agriculture.

The state-owned Brazilian Agricultural Research Corp., known as EMBRAPA, was responsible for creating soybean plants adaptable to the region’s acidic soil — which is also believed to cover the savanna in Mozambique.

JICA’s Oshima said Japan played a key role in transforming the vast cerrado savanna in Brazil, after the two countries agreed in 1979 to collaborate in agricultural research. The joint effort aims to transplant the knowhow gained to Mozambican land, first to feed the country and then to provide food for the continent. The venture aims to transform Mozambique into a food exporter in a matter of decades.

Brazil’s emergence as an agricultural power is crucial to global food security, which has been unilaterally dependent on the United States for grain production.

JICA officials believe developing Africa as the world’s third major agricultural producer will stabilize the food supply, ultimately working in favor of major food importers like Japan.

Brazil will also benefit from assisting Mozambique, exemplifying the emerging economy’s shift from an aid-seeker to a donor nation.

Oshima acknowledged that Mozambique will not become fertile overnight, considering its shortage of research capabilities and arable land. Leftover land mines from its civil war may also threaten the safety of technicians dispatched to the country.

But with the relevance of the G8 being challenged by emerging powers, Tokyo must seek new means to fulfill its responsibility to the world, he said.

“We must continue seeking our own measures to assist global development,” he said.