The "town" chief of the village seemed to be in a state of shock.
Sitting on the front porch of his mud and thatch home in Pujehun District in southern Sierra Leone, he struggled to find words that could explain how he had signed away the land that sustained his family and his community.
He said he was coerced by his Paramount Chief, told that whether he agreed, or not, his land would still be taken and his small oil palm stand destroyed. He didn't know the name of the foreign investor nor did he know that it planned to lease up to 35,000 hectares of farmland in the area to establish massive oil palm and rubber plantations.
Haltingly, he said that without his land, he might as well take his leave of the village. By that he meant that he was as good as dead.
This is a ground-level view of a large land deal in Africa, where in recent years foreign investors have acquired tens of millions of hectares of farmland. In 2009 alone, the World Bank estimates that around the world foreign investors acquired about 56 million hectares of farmland - an area about the size of France - by long-term lease or by purchase. Farmland has become a favorite "new asset" class for private investors; "like gold, only better" according to Capital & Crisis.
The World Bank has its own term for the new global land rush. It calls it "agro-investment" and has developed seven voluntary principles to make the land deals "responsible".
Critics of the phenomenon - farmers' movements, human rights, civil society, women's and environmental organizations, and many scientists - call it "land grabbing". They say there is no way that the taking over vast areas of smallholder farmland and transforming it into giant industrial plantations and agribusiness operations can ever be "responsible".
They argue that land grabs are throwing millions of farming families and indigenous peoples off their land. They say that it's not just land that's being grabbed, but also precious water resources.
The investors are hedge funds, private equity funds (that are attracting even prestigious American universities with their promises of high returns), pension funds, banks, multinational corporations, and sovereign wealth funds seeking to sow capital and grow profits. They are also Middle Eastern and Asian nations anxious to secure their own future food security in the face of climate change, with dwindling water resources and arable land.
An estimated 70 per cent of the demand for farmland is in Africa, where land is cheap and traditional communal ownership makes people particularly vulnerable. Sometimes this can be done for the cost of a few gifts to traditional chiefs and grandiose promises of bringing "development".
Since 2009, in the wake of the food, fuel and financial crises of 2007-2008, the rush for farmland has only accelerated. But it's impossible to know just how much more of Africa's fertile land has now been taken by investors.
Corruption and profit
Recent in-depth research by the US-based Oakland Institute of land deals in seven African countries found that most of the land deals lack transparency, making it almost impossible to calculate their total area. Lack of transparency is a great enabler of corruption.
Yet "transparency, good governance, and a proper enabling environment" is one of the seven principles laid out by the World Bank for "responsible agro-investment". The Oakland Institute found that most of the land deals do not respect any of these principles.
This is ironic, to say the least.
More than any other institution or agency, the World Bank Group has been promoting direct foreign investment in Africa, and enabling the farmland rush. Its private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), with its Foreign Investment Advisory Service and its program to Remove Administrative Barriers to Investment, has been working - often behind the scenes - to ensure that African countries reform their land laws and fiscal regimes to make them attractive to foreign investors.