New claims of rights abuses in World Bank-funded ‘land grabs’

3 July 2012

As the World Bank held its Annual Conference on Land and Poverty in April, campaigners accused it once again of facilitating and legitimising ‘land grabs’ that harm local communities. The Bank’s conference was held in late April in Washington DC to "provide a forum to discuss innovative approaches to dealing with different aspects of land governance in the context of structural change and economic transformation, climate change, increased demand for key natural resources, urban expansion and (post) conflict in a pro-poor and gender-sensitive perspective." A few days earlier, on 17 April – the International Day of Peasant’s Struggle, when hundreds of protests against so-called land grabs (see Update 79, 78, 77) were staged around the world – a statement was issued by 11 civil society groups, including Focus on the Global South and La Via Campesina. Noting that the responsible agricultural investment (RAI) principles, a set of voluntary guidelines for international land deals co-authored by the Bank (see Update 71), were "at the heart of the [conference’s] discussions", they described them as "an attempt to cover up power imbalances so that the land grabbers and state authorities who make the deals can get what they want".

Their statement said land grabbing undermines international human rights law, including people’s rights to food and livelihood security, water, information and participation in decisions that affect their lives. The groups claimed the Bank promotes RAI under the assumption that having a set of guidelines can result in "win-win land grabbing". But "even if done ‘transparently’", land grabs will still have "disastrous consequences to peoples, communities, ecosystems and the climate", they said. Moreover, they called on the United Nations (UN) Committee on World Food Security to drop the RAI principles and adopt the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s guidelines on the governance of land and natural resources, "which are strongly rooted in human rights law".

Uganda palm oil accusations

Also at the time of the Bank conference, NGO Friends of the Earth International (FOEI) released a report investigating land grabs in Uganda, in particular a palm oil project launched in 1998 that received $10 million from the Bank’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC). The project transformed 10,000 hectares of land on Bugala Island, in the Kalangala district in Lake Victoria, into a palm oil plantation, most of it "at the expense of members of the community who did not hold formal land rights", according to the report. Of the total area, 3,500 hectares were designated for small holder farmers, but the report said some of them "were effectively forced to sell land they owned after planting oil palm because they were not able to pay for the fertilizer and other inputs needed".

It found that the project led to local people "being displaced and losing access to vital natural resources", "local traditions … being lost", and forests and wetlands being destroyed. It also increased food insecurity, since the "reduction in local food supply has meant more food has to be imported to the island, leading to increased food prices", and "the plantation only offers low paid casual work". The report called on the Ugandan government to hold the Bank to account "for funding projects that increase poverty", and on all governments to reject the "weak" RAI principles.

Reacting to the report in a blog post, Klaus Deininger, of the Bank’s Development Research Group, denied that the Bank Group and the IFC were involved in the project. FOEI clarified that the Bank only withdrew from the project after it was up and running for fears that it did not comply with the Bank’s own forestry safeguards, although these risks had been raised earlier in initial environmental impact assessments. FOEI added that the Bank "was also involved in technical appraisals" and claimed that another supporter of the project, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, has confirmed that the "World Bank was strongly involved in the design of the project [and] played a key role in facilitating negotiations between the government and the private investor". One of the investors, global palm oil giant Wilmar International, has already been the subject of several cases filed with the IFC’s complaint mechanism, the Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman, for violating local communities’ rights in land disputes (see Update 79).

Cambodians continue fighting Boeung Kak land grab

The Cambodian government has been under a Bank lending freeze over a controversial land-titling project, financed by the Bank, that resulted in the evictions of the Boeung Kak lake community in Phnom Penh (see Update 75). Following the violent repression of protests and the arrest of local activists in May, 127 Cambodian and international civil society groups sent a letter to then Bank president Robert Zoellick and president-elect Jim Yong Kim, urging the Bank to "ensure a fair resolution for the displaced and excluded families before the Bank provides any further financing to the [Cambodian government]". Natalie Bugalski and David Pred, of NGO Inclusive Development International, argued in June that the "Bank is in a rare position to push that agenda forward by making it clear that it will maintain the lending freeze until … a comprehensive agreement is reached with the majority of Boeung Kak households who are still awaiting a remedy."

Bugalski also wrote a discussion paper, launched by NGO Equitable Cambodia and German political foundation Heinrich Boell in late May. Eang Vuthy of Equitable Cambodia explained that the paper "was written against a backdrop of increasing forced evictions, displacement and landlessness in Cambodia, and the regular granting of dubious economic land concessions that are now estimated to cover a total land mass equivalent to over half of the country’s arable land". In it, Bugalski proposes a framework for a human rights approach "to development interventions in the land sector [in Cambodia], in which processes and tools that elevate rights, transparency and accountability are incorporated throughout the project cycle and broader country strategy."