If World Bank loans, equity investments and guarantees ($53bn in FY 2012) have provided countless opportunities for developing countries to express their gratitude over the years the largesse has done little to reverse the recent trend of farmers being evicted from their land by foreign investors
With the third global food price spike in four years now in full swing, the Bank finds itself under renewed pressure from organisations such as Oxfam and the International Land Coalition to use its political clout to address this ongoing scandal.
International Land Coalition, which monitors land-related projects, says that from 2000-10 an estimated 261m of arable land, much of it situated in cash-poor African states, was acquired by foreign investors.
But as UK-based charity Oxfam notes in its recently published report ‘Our Land Our Lives’ two thirds of investors who’ve purchased land in developing countries plan to export everything they produce on it, thereby doing little to alleviate grinding local poverty caused by population displacement.
While the 2008 boom in food prices is widely credited with triggering the subsequent surge in investor interest in land the problem has been exacerbated by some investors taking tracts of land out of productive use in the hope of making a quick profit as capital values continue climb.
Yet even where land is being put to full use, food for export often plays second fiddle to the production of crops that can be used to make biofuels to power cars – prompted in part by the potential business opportunities seen following the EU’s insistence that 10 percent of all transport fuel must come from plant-based biofuels by 2015.
In Liberia alone, an estimated 30 percent of the land has been carved out in large-scale concessions in the past five years, often with disastrous results for local people, according to data from the Centre for International Conflict Resolution at America’s Columbia University.
Putting the issue in an even starker context Oxfam says that in the past decade an area of land eight times the size of the UK – or 1.44m sq km – has been sold off globally as sales have rapidly accelerated – land that could have potentially fed an estimated 1bn people.
In poor countries, this has equated to buying an area of land the size of London (1570 sq km) every six days.
With rich countries looking to secure their food and fuel supplies and investors viewing land as a good long-term bet Oxfam is calling on the World Bank to implement a number of measures including a six months freeze on all of the organisation’s projects involving or enabling agricultural large-scale land acquisitions.
It also calling for local communities to be informed about and be able to give or refuse consent to a project, and be compensated for any loss of land or livelihoods.
In addition, investors should be held accountable both to affected communities and to the government. Governments meanwhile will need improve land tenure governance, as well as increase local communities’ security of land tenure.
All very laudable of course. But the World Bank’s political influence only goes so far. Overcoming the vested interests that have bred this scandal will prove a tough nut to crack.