Off the land: How the World Bank is facilitating rural dispossession
Through its Enabling the Business of Agriculture programme, the World Bank is paving the way for increased commodification and concentration of land for large-scale industrial farming at the expense of smallholders, pastoralists and Indigenous Peoples. The following is an extract from an Oakland Institute report which examines the potentially ruinous impacts of this land privatization agenda on rural livelihoods and food security.
Through its Enabling the Business of Agriculture programme, the World Bank is paving the way for increased commodification and concentration of land for large-scale industrial farming at the expense of smallholders, pastoralists and Indigenous Peoples. The following is an extract from an Oakland Institute report which examines the potentially ruinous impacts of this land privatization agenda on rural livelihoods and food security
Some 3.1 billion people worldwide rely on land for their livelihoods, mostly as farmers. Eighty percent of the food consumed in the world is produced by family farmers. Despite the essential role they play, farmers and pastoralists have come increasingly under threat over the past 10 years with mounting pressures over their land and natural resources by corporate interests.
Around the Global South, land grabs have led to dispossession and forced displacements, while posing threats to local and national food security. This trend intensified with the food and financial crises of 2008, when the high volatility of food prices led to a surge of interest in large-scale agriculture and land acquisitions. In 2009, less than a year after the food price spike, 56 million hectares’ worth of large-scale farmland deals had been announced, more than 70% of which were in Africa. By 2016, an estimated 42.4 million hectares of land had come under contract, one-third of which involved land formerly used by smallholder farmers.
The World Bank has played a pivotal role in promoting these large-scale land deals. For years, through different mechanisms including technical assistance and advisory services to governments, aid conditionality and business rankings, the Bank has encouraged regulatory reforms aimed at attracting foreign private investment for economic growth and development. By 2014, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) – the World Bank’s private-sector arm – was managing 156 projects worth $260 million for advisory services to promote private-sector development in 34 African countries.
Around the world, the expansion of large-scale farming has been the cause of dispossession and loss of livelihoods for millions, while failing to bring promised economic development and food security. It has led to massive environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity while worsening climate change through deforestation and industrial agriculture, as seen for instance with oil palm in Indonesia.
But the past 10 years have also seen countless stories of resistance by farmers, pastoralists and Indigenous Peoples opposing the takeover of their land and the destruction of their environment. Often mislabelled as “land disputes,” many of these struggles challenge the takeover by foreign firms of land that is either legally public or state land and/or land on which local communities have customary rights. While some of these struggles have resulted in violent repression and forced displacement, many have been successful in delaying, disrupting or stopping the establishment of plantations.
This is recognized by the World Bank, which has reached the conclusion that “undocumented [land] rights pose challenges and risks to investors,” and that, in the case of Africa, the continent is “held back by land ownership confusion.” This may explain why the Bank, supported by the US and UK governments and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – all strong proponents of corporate industrial agriculture – has embarked on a new, unprecedented effort to tackle the land issue in the developing world, particularly Africa.
The introduction of a land indicator in the Bank’s Enabling the Business of Agriculture (EBA) project is a significant move given that the EBA is intended as an instrument that prescribes policy reforms that developing countries’ governments must undertake to favour agribusiness and foreign investment. Like with the Bank’s Doing Business Index, the EBA scores obtained by countries are intended to condition aid and investment money.
The EBA – a “doing business in agriculture” ranking
The EBA was commissioned by the G8 leading industrial countries in 2012 as one of the so-called “enabling actions” for the then newly formed New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. Initially bankrolled by five Western donors including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the US, UK, Danish and Dutch governments, the project was officially launched by the World Bank in 2013.
The EBA’s goal is to help create “policies that facilitate doing business in agriculture and increase the investment attractiveness and competitiveness of countries.” To achieve this, it benchmarks areas including seeds, fertilizers, markets, transport, machinery, finance, and now land, to determine whether countries’ laws do or do not facilitate doing business in agriculture. The Bank recommends pro-business reforms and scores countries on their performance in applying these recommendations. The scores obtained then condition the provision of international aid and are intended to influence foreign investment in these countries. The EBA exemplifies a growing trend in international aid programmes which have become instruments to enforce market-based and pro-private-sector industrial agriculture.
In 2014, a multi-continental campaign, Our Land Our Business, was launched with over 280 organizations, including farmers’ groups, trade unions and civil society organizations, joining hands to denounce the top-down imposition of policies detrimental to farmers and food security by the EBA and the Doing Business projects. Pressured by the campaign, the Dutch and Danish governments terminated their funding of the EBA in 2016.