World Bank work on land supports “a new form of colonialism”

17 June 2010

A set of voluntary principles for agricultural investment in developing countries, launched by the World Bank and other institutions in April, veils the promotion of investors’ interests at the expense of host populations, warn civil society groups.

At a late April conference, the Bank and UN agencies released a discussion note, Principles for responsible agricultural investment that respects rights, livelihoods and resources. Based in part on the Bank’s ongoing study of large-scale land acquisitions, the principles will feed into a consultation that could generate guidelines or codes of practice. The principles include: respecting existing rights to land and natural resources; strengthening food security; transparency and accountability; full consultation; and generating positive social and environmental impacts.

Though recognising that enforcement of existing frameworks is “limited”, the principles document suggests that any guidelines or standards developed from these principles should be independently monitored, relying for implementation on investors’ concern for their reputation, and an undefined role for governments and civil society.

Bank's Principles "legitimise and promote land grabbing"

NGO Friends of the Earth International warned that the principles would “legitimise and promote land grabbing”, “a new form of colonialism”. An international civil society coalition including social movement La Via Campesina and NGO GRAIN cautioned that the principles would not improve food security, and instead “aim to distract from the fact that today’s global food crisis, marked by more than one billion people going hungry each day, will not be solved by large scale industrial agriculture, which virtually all of these land acquisitions aim to promote.”

The coalition also warns that ‘land grabbing’ violates the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Bank advice spurs ‘land grab’

A new report by US thinktank the Oakland Institute delves deeper into how the World Bank Group’s technical assistance and advisory services to investors and developing country governments facilitate foreign acquisition of land (see Update 68, 62).

The report argues that the Bank’s advice approaches foreign investment uncritically, prioritises returns for international investors over development concerns, and is “concerned with land markets only to the extent that they influence investment climates and ultimately, economic growth.” For example, the Bank’s Foreign Investment Advisory Service’s ‘investing across borders’ (IAB) project measures the ease of establishing and operating a foreign-owned business, but “nothing about the IAB indicators seeks to consider the extent to which local populations in these countries will be affected.”

Bank advice and services developed in response to investor complaints have promoted major legal changes in developing countries (see Update 52). In Southern Sudan, for example, vetting of potential investors has been removed and investment mobility increased; over a million hectares of land has been transferred to investors since 2008.

The report also collates evidence that land is often wrongly classified as unused and so available to investors, in contravention of customary land rights. This can lead to displacement and the loss of livelihoods. An indigenous Anuak from Gambella, Ethiopia, says that, “The foreign companies are arriving in large numbers, depriving people of land they have used for centuries.” The report calls for the International Finance Corporation, the Bank’s private sector arm, to be investigated and held accountable for its impacts.

Food security programme

At the Global Agriculture and Food Security Programme, a multi-donor trust fund managed by the Bank (see Update 70, 69), civil society groups welcomed stronger representation on the steering committee, and the decision not to use the Bank’s controversial Country Policy and Institutional Assessment (see Update 43) as an indicator of a conducive policy environment in recipient countries. However, Neil Watkins of NGO ActionAid USA said concerns remained over the lack of reference to gender and the inadequacy of safeguards in the IFC’s proposal for the programme’s private sector window.