WB land reform: “land for whoever can buy it”

8 May 2002

In the early 1990s, under increasingly severe criticism of neo-liberal structural adjustment policy, the World Bank announced the need to reinforce its anti-poverty programs. Land reform became a priority as part of this shift, but the World Bank has been criticised by rural social movements for emphasising market-based approaches to land redistribution. They argue that “land for whoever works it” has become “land for whoever can buy it” and say that existing land reform programmes should have been continued and improved.

Around fifty representatives of social movements, as well as academics and researchers in this field, gathered in Washington mid-April to discuss the impacts of the market-assisted land reform policies designed, supported and financed by the World Bank. Case studies were drawn from Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, South Africa and Thailand. Most countries studied show that the model promoted by the Bank cannot properly address the issue of landlessness. “The Bank and the Brazilian government are selling the poor a cruel illusion – that they can get land without a struggle,” says Adalberto Martins of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST). “It isn’t working. People who had nothing before now still have nothing – and are in debt for it.” High interest rates, combined with poor quality land sold by land owners, have driven many families into poverty and increased indebtedness, forcing them to abandon the land they acquired to repay the loans. Among the other concerns raised are the privatisation of public or common land, exclusion of the poorest people, especially indigenous communities and rural women, as well as the Bank pushing farmers to join ‘strategic alliances’ by which land is distributed to them under the condition that they sell their production to one multinational company.

Bank officials who debated with participants in the seminar argue that market-assisted land reform had not been designed as a substitute to existing programmes, which are often based on government expropriation with compensation. Klaus Deininger, a Senior Economist in the Bank’s Development Economics Group, agrees that land reform has to be a wealth transfer and that not only does the land transferred have to be of good quality but people must have the means to work it. But the Bank and participants in the seminar disagree on the capacity of market-assisted land reform to achieve these objectives. While, for instance, the Bank considers Colombia a success story, Hector Mondragon of the Consejo Nacional Campesino para la Accion Rural says: “six years of World Bank efforts have only resulted in distracting people’s attention from the necessity of a real land reform”. He argues that only a minute percentage of families who need land in Colombia actually got some.

More generally, participants condemned the policies promoted by the World Bank and IMF in their countries, which they say “have fixed the rules of the game to favour larger players such as big corporations”. They demand that the World Bank ceases its current land policies and replaces them with policies based on the right to land and food, and that governments take responsibility for implementing programs of land redistribution by means of expropriation with or without compensation.

Seminar info

Press release

Final declaration of the Washington land reform seminar

World Bank Market Based Land Reform Fact Sheet, Environmental Defense

The Evolution of the World Bank’s Land Policy: Principles, Experience, and Future Challenges, by Klaus Deininger and Hans Binswanger

Other links

Landless Workers’ Movement

Food, Land and Freedom report on World Bank Land Policies