Is the World Bank enabling agribusiness land grabs?

Jul 18, 2014

Experts and government officials from around the world have gathered at the World Bank in Washington, DC to chart a course to help lift the billion people who live on less than $1.25 a day out of extreme poverty within 15 years.

A tall order – but one made nearly impossible by the Bank’s own practices. The organisation’s approach to land rights in the developing world undermines its very mandate to fight poverty – by putting the interests of foreign investors and corporations before those of locals.

That must change. The World Bank and its rich-country funders must stop facilitating the theft of land and resources that belong to poor farmers, herders, and Indigenous Peoples. Such exploitation deprives millions of the ability to provide for their families, leads to environmental degradation, and undermines food security for the world’s most vulnerable people.

One of the World Bank’s most destructive weapons may seem mundane – the so-called “Doing Business” rankings, which aim to measure the “ease of doing business” in different countries. The rankings champion countries with minimal regulation, such as those that have commoditised their land – thereby make it easier for foreign investors to acquire it.

Foreign investors, lenders, and aid donors decide where to deploy their money according to the rankings. So if developing countries are to attract foreign investment, they must follow the bank’s dictates. That creates a “race to the bottom,” with countries competing to out-deregulate one another.

Liberia, for instance, implemented 39 recommended reforms between 2008 and 2011, including a reduction in corporate taxes and relaxed rules on environmental impact assessments. Within this period, foreign direct investment increased four-fold. But what the World Bank considers good for business is disastrous for the developing world’s residents.

Again, consider Liberia. Following the reforms, British, Malaysian, and Indonesian palm-oil giants secured long-term land leases, which, according to Friends of Earth International, have reached over 1.5 million acres of land formerly held by local communities. Should the World Bank really help foreign investors seize locals’ resources – and build plantations instead?

The Bank also has a tenuous relationship with property rights. Last year, it actually praised land grabs by foreign companies, saying in a report, “while a smallholder model has a proven track record in promoting equitable development, in some situations access to significant tracts of land must accompany agribusiness investments.” So property rights matter – as long as they’re exercised by corporate interests.

Writ large, land deals struck with foreigners have disastrous consequences. According to the International Land Coalition some large land deals between 2000 and 2010 amounted to 203 million hectares (500 million acres). This number is expected to be much higher by now. That’s a problem, given that family farmers account for 80 percent of all land holdings in Africa and Asia and provide about 80 percent of the developing world’s food. If they become dispossessed because their governments are trying to curry favour with the World Bank, they may lose their livelihoods and their ability to provide food for the globe.

Thanks to reforms guided by the Bank, Sierra Leone has taken 20 percent  of its arable land from rural populations and leased it to foreign sugar cane and oil palm producers. Across the world, land is turning from an ancestral asset with cultural significance into a commodity available to those with the most money and lawyers. The terms of many of these leases – which can run as low as $1 a hectare for 99 years – amount to contractual robbery.

The land-grab problem is about to get worse. With support from rich countries and nonprofit behemoths like the Gates Foundation, the Bank is doubling down on its rankings fetish by introducing a new programme called “Benchmarking the Business of Agriculture” (BBA). The BBA’s goal is to promote “the emergence of a stronger commercial agriculture sector”. Its rankings will prize deregulation of agriculture. For small-scale farmers, such an “emergence” is tantamount to foreign land grabs.

In 2013, World Bank president Dr Jim Yong Kim said, “The World Bank Group shares these concerns about the risks associated with large-scale land acquisitions.”

Since then, the organisation he leads has worked even harder to deprive the developing world of its agricultural assets and heritage for the benefit of foreign agribusiness. The April 11-13 meeting is as good a time as any to end these practices.

Anuradha Mittal is the Executive Director of the Oakland Institute (

This story was first published by Al Jazeera here.