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The World Bank in the Hot Seat Over Land Grabbing


Environmental impact assessments are rarely carried out, and people are routinely booted off their land, without consultation or compensation. The Bank even revealed that investors are deliberately targeting areas where there is "weak land governance". (photo by Flickr user afromusing)

A curious thing happened last week. A lot of
people were under the impression that the World Bank was going to
release its long-awaited study on global land grabs at its annual land
conference in Washington DC on 26 April 2010. This is what GRAIN was
told. It's what many journalists were told. And it's what those
involved in producing the study expected. But it didn't happen.

Instead, the Bank gave another powerpoint presentation summarising
what the study will show, reiterated its proposed seven principles for
"socially responsible" land grabs and unveiled its new
business-to-business website -- a kind of internet dating service to
match up corporate land grabbers and government land givers.

This is not the first time that this study has been delayed. Indeed,
ever since the Bank started compiling the data for it, tight political
reins have been put on any public sharing of the results. They
initially said the report would be out in December 2009. Then it was
supposed to be March 2010. Then, we were assured, it would be released
at the land conference last week. We do know that all of the research
and analysis was completed long ago. So what's holding the Bank back?

Bad news

The partial glimpse of the study presented in Washington last week
sheds some light on an answer. The Bank initially wanted to do a
comprehensive study of 30 countries, the hot spots for the land grabs.
But it had to cut back severely on its expectations because, as it
admits, the governments would not provide them with information. The
corporations wouldn't talk either, we were told by people writing the
country chapters. This in itself is a powerful statement that says
volumes about the hush-hush nature of these deals. If the World Bank
can't get access to the information, who can?

The Bank decided instead to base its study on the projects that have
been reported by the media and captured on the website. The Bank
identified nearly 400 projects in 80 countries in this way, nearly one
quarter (22%) of which are already being implemented. The study thus
makes it plain that the global land grab is very real and moving along
faster and further than many have assumed  (See box for a basic glimpse
of what the study is expected to say.)

BOX: What the World Bank study is expected to say

[NB: GRAIN has not seen the World Bank's report. The
following is drawn simply from publicly available documents, plus some
verification from World Bank staff and consultants.]

The World Bank study focuses on large-scale farmland
acquisitions of the last few years - what we all call land grabbing.
While it largely confirms many things we already know, people have been
awaiting the release of this report because the Bank was supposed to
get access to more information than anyone else up to now. After all,
most of these deals are shrouded in secrecy and controversy, and
attract accusations of neocolonialism, even genocide.

The Bank inventorised 389 land deals in 80 countries. The bulk
(37%) of the so-called investment projects are meant to produce food
(crops and livestock), while biofuels come in second place (35%).
Unsurprisingly, Africa is the target of half the land grab projects,
followed by Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

In terms of countries being approached for their land, the
Bank reveals that, in Africa, Sudan comes in first place, followed by
Ghana and Madagascar. In Asia-Pacific, Indonesia ranks first, followed
by the Philippines and Australia. In Latin America, Brazil is the
favoured destination, then Argentina and Paraguay. In terms of country
of origin of the land grabbers, China and the UK tie in the top slot,
followed by Saudi Arabia.

Finally, the Bank did statistical analysis of what draws land
grabbers to certain countries rather than others - the "probability"
factors. Three are particularly noteworthy: land availability, low
mechanisation and weak land governance. This means that investors will
prioritise places where: (a) it is relatively easy to get control over
people's land; (b) large-scale holdings are possible; and (c) bringing
in machinery will yield quick productivity gains.

The Bank's most significant findings, however, are about the impacts
of these projects on local communities. Its overwhelming conclusion,
shared at the land conference last week, is that these projects are not
providing benefits to local communities. Environmental impact
assessments are rarely carried out, and people are routinely booted off
their land, without consultation or compensation. The Bank even
revealed that investors are deliberately targeting areas where there is
"weak land governance".


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It is hard to see how, given these damning findings, the Bank could
come up with anything positive to say about this new wave of foreign
investment in farmland; this probably explains its reluctance to
release the report. The Bank, after all, embarked on the study "to
provide guidance to Bank clients (in government and the private sector)
and partners who may be faced with or interested in large scale land
acquisition so as to enable them to maximize the long-term benefits
from such investments." 1 And, while its study waits in limbo, the Bank is
becoming more and more committed to making the land grabs happen.
European investors, for instance, say that they will be using the
Bank's Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency to provide them with
political risk insurance for their farmland deals. Should anything
backfire, "You'll have the World Bank on your side," says Gary
Vaughan-Smith of London-based SilverStreet Capital LLP, which recently
launched a US$300-million fund to invest in farmland in Africa.
"They're going to have enormous clout if there are any difficulties." 2

Not winning anyone over

The problem for the Bank and the other land grab promoters, however,
is that hardly anyone is fooled by talk of "win-win" guidelines or
codes or principles to make it all work for everyone's benefit. No
matter how hard they try, they can't shake the "land grab" label or
stigma off these transactions.

"Here's what I'm sure of", weighs in Howard Buffet, son of Warren
Buffet, in an Oakland Institute report released in time for the Bank's
conference last week. "These deals will make the rich richer and the
poor poorer, creating clear winners who benefit while the losers are
denied their livelihoods." 3

If the Bank and its friends at partner UN agencies hoped that last
week's events in Washington would finally give them some control over
the land grab discussion, they were mistaken. More than 100 groups from
more than 100 countries crashed their party by releasing a common
declaration a few days before, which denounced their "seven principles"
for socially responsible land grabbing. They didn't beat about the
bush. As they see it, on the ground, this land grab is nothing but a
massive transfer of lands from small food producers to foreign
corporations, from sustainable farms to industrial plantations, and
these groups were making it crystal clear that they are committed to
throwing this trend into reverse. Against this, the Bank's "win-win",
or responsible investment initiative, looks hollower than ever.

Going further

The World Bank conference materials are being posted online here:

Reports and statements reflecting the social movement against the
World Bank's proposals for "socially responsible" land grabbing are
available at

Anyone can join or respond to the collective statement against
win-win land grabbing drawn up by La Vía Campesina and allies at
(Spanish) and

1 World Bank, "Large scale acquisition of
land rights for agricultural or natural resource-based use, Concept
note", 18 February 2009.

2 Drew Carter, "Fertile ground for investment," Pensions
& Investments
, 19 April 2010:

3 Oakland Institute, "(Mis)investment in
agriculture: The role of the International Finance Corporation in the
global land grab," 26 April 2010:


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