World Bank Report on Land Grabbing: Beyond the Smoke and Mirrors

By GRAIN · 30 Sep 2010

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Picture: World Bank Photo Collection
Picture: World Bank Photo Collection

On 7 September 2010, the World Bank finally decided to publish its much anticipated report on the global farmland grab. After years of work, several months of political negotiation and who knows how much money spent, the report was casually released on the Bank's website -- in English only.

The report is both a disappointment and a failure. Everyone was expecting the Bank to provide new and solid on-the-ground data about these "large scale land acquisitions", to use their terminology, that have created so much controversy since 2008. After all, the Bank should have access to governments and corporations in a way that journalists and non government organisation (NGO) researchers never would. The Bank itself says this was its central ambition. But there is hardly anything new in the whole 160-plus page document. The Bank said it was going to look concretely at 30 countries, but it only looked at 14. As it turns out, companies refused to share information about their farmland investments, as did governments providing the lands. So the Bank turned instead to, a website run by GRAIN, made a database of all the deals that the media reported on there, and then sent out teams of consultants to see if they were real or not. Is this the best that the World Bank could do?

Ugly Findings

What its researchers and informants found corroborates what many have been saying for two years now. Yes, there is an "enormous" farmland grab going on around the world ever since the 2008 food and financial crises and it shows no signs of abating. The Bank says that the 463 projects it tallied from between October 2008 and June 2009 cover at least 46.6 million hectares of land and that the majority of these are in sub-Saharan Africa. Field reports validated that 21% of these projects are "in operation", more than half are under "initial development" and nearly 70% have been "approved". The Bank downplays these numbers, presenting them as evidence that the land grab deals are more hype than reality. We think, on the contrary, that they demonstrate that a lot of projects are moving forward, all the more so since the Bank's figures are out of date, with new deals happening all the time.

The Bank's findings also corroborate what others have been saying about the impacts of these land grabs. Its general conclusion is that investors are taking advantage of "weak governance" and the "absence of legal protection" for local communities to push people off their lands. Additionally, it finds that the investments are giving almost zero back to affected communities in terms of jobs or compensation, to say nothing of food security. The message we get is that virtually nowhere, among the countries and cases the Bank examined, is there much to celebrate.

Many investments (...) failed to live up to expectations and, instead of generating sustainable benefits, contributed to asset loss and left local people worse off than they would have been without the investment. In fact, even though an effort was made to cover a wide spectrum of situations, case studies confirm that in many cases benefits were lower than anticipated or did not materialize at all.

The Bank provides a table with some very brief summaries of foreign investments in farmland in seven countries. It is one of the only instances where the Bank goes into detail about how these investments are actually playing out on the ground. The table paints a horrific picture. Whole communities are getting thrown off their lands, workers are being exploited, violent conflicts are erupting (one senior company representative was killed), investors are breaking laws and promises and so on. What does the Bank say about these "immense risks" and "real dangers," as it calls them? That we should not get alarmed, for there are "equally large opportunities."

What the Report Doesn't Say

Most of the report is smoke and mirrors talk about potentials for agricultural production, not "the global land rush" as it was previously titled. It clouds the reader's mind with facts and figures about yield gaps and land usage, and how productivity can be increased with innovative research or technology. We are treated to a barrage of agro-ecological zoning maps and charts that do not say much except where the most potential to produce food is apparently located.

Anyone who looks beyond the smoke and mirrors effect can see that the report is more significant for what it doesn't say than what it does. Had the Bank really wanted to shed light on this new investment trend it would have at least peeled back the curtain on the investors. Who are they? What are they after? How much of the investment flows are private and how much are public? Without this kind of information, you cannot analyse much. For example, we have heard companies say on numerous occasions that their investments have nothing to do with "food security" -- that this is business, pure and simple. Weighing up exactly who is involved and for what purpose, without the fantasies attached, would have been most useful. In fact, at the beginning of this year, the Bank shared some data of this nature when it identified for the Global Donor Platform the top countries targetted by these land grab deals and the top countries of origin of the investors between 2008 and 2009. But in its final report, the Bank chose not to name names, forcing everyone to speculate why.

This is not all that the Bank left out of the report. "The veil of secrecy that often surrounds these land deals must be lifted so poor people don't ultimately pay the heavy price of losing their land,"  World Bank Managing Director, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, declared upon releasing the study. It's true. And she could have started by making available to the public all of the contracts and investor-state agreements that the Bank's study team was able to access in the course of this research. Communities need to have access to the actual terms of these deals in order to judge them for themselves. Government and corporate propaganda will not do. Yet these documents are very difficult to get hold of. If the Bank really wanted to lift the veil of secrecy it would start by putting these legal documents in the public domain. We would be glad to host them at and help ensure their translation into local languages.

Another matter that the report is silent about is the World Bank's own neck-deep involvement in these deals. For decades, the Bank has been actively promoting market-based approaches to land management through its lending practices and policy advocacy. This means privatisation of land rights, both through the conversion of customary rights into marketable titles as well as the disengagement of the state, and legal reforms necessary for Western style land markets to function. If the Bank now says that so many countries, especially in Africa, are "ill-equipped" to deal with the "sudden influx of interest" from farmland investors, then what good were the policy advisory services it performed over the last 30 years?

Even more directly, the Bank's commercial investment arm, the International Finance Corporation, is a major investor in numerous private equity firms that are buying up rights to farmland while its Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA) is providing land grab projects with political risk insurance. MIGA has put up US$50 million, for example, as cover for Chayton Capital's US$300 million business investments in Zambia and Botswana. For other firms, like British hedge fund SilverStreet Capital, MIGA's role in protecting farmland investments is crucial. If problems arise, "you'll have the World Bank on your side," Gary Vaughan-Smith, SilverStreet's chief investment officer, puts it. MIGA, like IFC, is a for-profit agency, with a mission to promote profitable agribusiness investments in developing countries for its shareholders. Given these multiple levels of vested interest in farmland deals, it should come as no surprise that the Bank promotes them despite dismal realities on the ground.

Bottom Line

The bottom line is that there is a huge disconnect between what the World Bank says, what is happening on the ground and what is truly needed. Right now, numerous governments and civil society organisations are calling to put a brake of one form or another on these deals. Australia, Argentina, Brazil, New Zealand and Uruguay are just some of the countries currently debating whether to introduce, at the highest policy levels, restrictions on foreigners getting farmland ownership. Egypt is one of those trying to get tougher to keeping new farmland investment programmes limited to domestic investors. Much of this, the non-xenophobic part, is or could be about establishing new forms or expressions of sovereignty over land, water and food at a time of tremendous pressure on all three. And many farmers' organisations, academics, human rights groups, NGO networks and social movements are clamouring for all sorts of moratoria and bans and halts to this land grabbing. In the meantime, the hunger of private investors for farmland deals is proliferating. A group of former Cargill traders, for instance, have just launched a US$1 billion fund that aims to buy into farmland in Australia, Brazil and Uruguay.

The World Bank has shown it is not a trusted arbiter or wellspring of good ideas on how to move forward. Too bad if it took the agencies that commissioned this report a very long wait, and a pile of taxpayers' money, to see that.

This article was originally published by GRAIN. For a more detailed version of the article, please visit GRAIN's website.

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Ernie Gay
15 Sep


Well, it looks as if Mugabe has started a fashion. He has been allowed to get away with stealing farmland that white farmers have deveopled for generation, so why shouldn't other robbers be allowed to?

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