Africa: World Bank Dispossessing Rural Poor

18 April 2019
opinion

Kuala Lumpur and Sydney — This is a corrected version of the story first published on April 16.

The World Bank’s Enabling the Business of Agriculture (EBA) project, launched in 2013, has sought agricultural reforms favouring the corporate sector. EBA was initially established to support the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, initiated by the G8 to promote private agricultural development in Africa.

The New Alliance has been touted as “a new model of partnership” for agricultural transformation in Africa. The Bank has used the EBA to address the land issue in developing countries, particularly in Africa. The US and UK governments as well as the Gates Foundation are among its strong supporters in line with their broader support for corporate agriculture.

Emulating the influential annual World Bank Doing Business report, the EBA scores countries on the ease of doing business in agriculture. It purports to measure ‘legal barriers’ to agribusiness and to prescribe reforms in twelve areas, including seeds, fertilizers, trade and machinery.

It advocates reforms in favour of agribusiness by weakening regulations over seeds, fertilizers and pesticides and strengthening foreign agribusiness power and influence. Missing from the partnership are peasants and indigenous peoples whose livelihoods depend on traditional land uses.

Dangerous new indicator
The 2017 EBA report proposed a new indicator on land, initially piloted in 38 countries, to be extended to more in the 2019 report. The Bank claims to be seeking to better protect land rights and to ensure more equity in land access. It is biased towards industrial agriculture and agribusiness, and the intent of the new indicator makes it even more urgent to challenge the EBA initiative.

As Frédéric Mousseau of the Oakland Institute emphasised, EBA best practices seek to promote large-scale ‘industrial’ or plantation agriculture, at the expense of family farmers and communities using the land in other ways, including pastoralists and those currently categorized as indigenous peoples including swidden cultivators, hunters and gatherers.

The EBA advocates certain reforms and policy measures, raising concerns about its likely impact, if implemented by governments. The Bank advocates formalizing (private) property rights, enabling greater commercial sale and lease of land, claiming that productivity will thus be enhanced.

UNCTAD’s 2009 World Investment Report cautioned that “Greater involvement by TNCs will not automatically lead to greater productivity in agriculture, rural development or the alleviation of poverty and hunger”.

Even joint research by World Bank and IFPRI staff is circumspect about the claimed benefits of large scale commercial farming in light of likely environmental, social and productivity impacts. Large scale commercial farming has often involved environmental degradation, forced evictions and human rights violations, worsening food insecurity and livelihood destruction.

Legal land grabbing
Since the turn of the century, large-scale land acquisitions by transnational corporations in developing countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, have accelerated. Such land targeted by ‘investors’ has often long been used by local people who may not have property titles, often deemed unnecessary.

Land use practices have often evolved with changing demography, ecology, knowledge, technology, political systems, commercial considerations and legal traditions. Such land may be legally deemed either public or state land, and/or land to which local communities claim customary rights, but many other hybrid permutations have also evolved.

Unsurprisingly, ‘land grabs’ by new elites have encountered resistance from many of those opposing expropriation of what they see as their land. Success in delaying, disrupting or blocking new plantations, large farms and ranches has been varied and contingent on a variety of factors.

Enabling land privatization
Much public or state land in developing countries allows usufructuary rights in line with contemporary interpretations of customary practices. Natural resources, including land used in varied ways, are generally recognized as essential for sustaining the livelihoods of hundreds of millions, and subject to either state or community management.

In many societies, land is still valued as a communal resource, often with deep social and cultural significance. Ignoring customary practices, the Bank is urging governments to privatize public land with ‘potential economic value’, to be put to its ‘best commercial use’.

The Bank has been promoting the formalization of private land ownership to encourage agribusiness investments in capital-intensive agriculture, to increase productivity. Commodifying land will enable more capital-intensive agricultural production as the Bank believes that “undocumented [land] rights pose challenges and risks to investors”.

By scoring countries in terms of ease of accessing land for agribusiness, the new EBA land indicator seeks to accelerate land privatization and to facilitate corporate access to land in developing countries. By enhancing property rights and making land a ‘transferable asset’, its use as collateral for credit is also enhanced.

Marginalizing rural poor
The Bank strategy either ignores or seeks to take advantage of the considerable vulnerability of many family farmers, worsened as the land they depend on for their livelihoods becomes a tradable asset.

The development of land markets increases commercial pressure on land, destroying the livelihoods of many depending on land and the commons—grazing and fishing grounds, and forests.

By promoting land as a marketable commodity, the land indicator inevitably enables greater concentration of land ownership. In economies with ‘formal’ land tenure systems, farmers often lose their land to creditors.

Extending such proprietary rights legally enables and thus accelerates land dispossession, concentration and grabbing. While jobs may be created for some locals, many more may be marginalized without much hope for alternative livelihoods elsewhere.

Thus, facilitating corporate agriculture by concentrating control over land use is likely to exacerbate rural poverty and overall inequality. Land titling, purportedly to protect land users from eviction, thus accelerates dispossession of current land users. Hence, the EBA should be ditched.

Instead, governments should be helped to design food and agriculture policies that empower family farmers, pastoralists and indigenous peoples to address the major challenges of poverty, hunger, malnutrition, environmental degradation, resource depletion and climate change.

[To learn about the World Bank’s land indicator, read the Oakland Institute’s detailed report on the issue.]

Jomo Kwame Sundaram, a former economics professor who was Assistant Director-General for Economic and Social Development at the Food and Agriculture Organization, received the Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought in 2007. Anis Chowdhury, Adjunct Professor at Western Sydney University & University of New South Wales (Australia), held senior United Nations positions in New York and Bangkok.

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