Globally connected: Is the World Bank aware of what is happening in terms of “land grabs”?

Globally connected: Is the World Bank aware of what is happening in terms of “land grabs”?

By , and
22 December 2010

Just before our previous issue was distributed, the World Bank published the results of its “multi-country study on large scale agricultural land acquisition and investment”. This study responded to a “lack of reliable information”, and to “the need for good empirical evidence to inform decision makers”. What is the evidence they provide? Is this report complete? We asked different network members for their opinion.

This study responded to a “lack of reliable information”, and to “the need for good empirical evidence to inform decision makers”. What is the evidence they provide? Is this report complete? We asked different network members for their opinion.


Teobaldo Pinzas: “we’re going back in time”

The World Bank’s “Rising global interest in farmland” report talks of more than 400 projects with a median size of 40,000 hectares, of which only 21 percent are found in Latin America. Perhaps as a result of the report’s global perspective, or because of the far greater number of transactions in other continents, the specific situation in Latin America is not shown in detail: in particular, that what is happening now seems to have happened before.

According to Teobaldo Pinzas, director of ETC Andes, in Peru, it is important to look at the social processes which most Latin American countries went through after the 1960s to understand the dangers behind the investments and acquisitions we see today. “Greedy grabbers, neoliberal dummies and short-sighted or venal governments are turning their backs on the bloody history of the struggle for the right to land in Latin America, and by so doing are planting the seeds of political instability in a not too distant future.”

Investments are not only focusing on agricultural land, but also on areas which should receive special protection status. Huge tracts of the Peruvian Amazon are earmarked for forestry exploitation, gas and oil drilling and large scale agriculture, and the “land grabbers” do not only come from far away countries – in fact most of them are Peruvians.

KVS Prasad: “These are short term ‘solutions’” According

KVS Prasad, executive director of the AME Foundation in Bangalore, studies like the one just finished by the World Bank should pay more attention to what is taking place in a context of industrial and economic growth. In countries like India, this is important: there seems to be a general acceptance of the fact that industries take agricultural land, as one of the necessary requisites for the country’s high rates of economic growth. State governments are lifting restrictions on the purchase of farmland, often presenting these as “wastelands” in the hope of attracting investors. The impacts on food production are serious.

But, as Prasad points out, it is also naïve to think that the millions of farmers who lose their land will be absorbed by the mainstream development processes and that they will be provided alternative livelihood opportunities. “Our authorities are only looking for short-term solutions, not for long-term development priorities, and this creates a very challenging scenario”.

The authorities also seem to ignore the fact that the majority of those losing their lands farm in fragile ecosystems. Drawing on the words of the Indian food policy analyst and journalist, Devinder Sharma, Prasad says that “rather than jobs and a share of the produce, they will be left with the environmental tab of industries and intensive farming: devastated soils, dry aquifers and an ecological system damaged by chemical infestation”. It is ironic that, at the same time, many Indian companies are looking for farmlands outside the country so as to invest there.

Bara Gueye: “Local investors follow national governments”

The political crisis that followed the lease of 1.3 million hectares to DAEWOO Logistics in Madagascar in 2008 sent a signal to other African countries about the need for more transparency and inclusion in land transactions. But despite this signal, land acquisitions still continue, and it is not only companies like DAEWOO but, as the World Bank’s report shows, also local investors.

Bara Gueye, director of IED Afrique, in Senegal, finds it important to know who these investors are and what role are they playing. “In Francophone West Africa we call them les nouveaux acteurs as most of them, albeit originating from rural areas, are living in cities, are high-level civil servants or from the private sector, and all want to reinvest money earned from business or political rent into agriculture”. Some of them invest in livestock or grow crops or vegetables, while many are engaged in bio-fuel production, a sector that is strongly supported by the government. Senegal plans to put 320,000 hectares of land under cultivation to produce more than 1.1 million litres of jathropa refined oil by 2012.

The government has put forward the potential positive impact of bio-fuels on the country’s balance of payments and the reduction of vulnerability and dependence on the world’s volatile oil prices. “But nothing is said of the negative impacts in terms of the exclusion of poor farmers from the most productive lands, or the risk of jeopardising our country’s food security”. And most transactions are still not open and transparent, which makes it impossible to get an accurate figure on the total number of land acquisitions.