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World Bank Overseeing Global Land Grab

WASHINGTON, Apr 23 2012 (IPS) - The World Bank continues to facilitate land-grabbing in poor and developing countries around the world, according to new research released here on Monday.

There are fears that a "land rush" in the developing world is leading to hunger, conflict and human rights abuses. Credit: Isaiah Esipisu/IPS

There are fears that a "land rush" in the developing world is leading to hunger, conflict and human rights abuses. Credit: Isaiah Esipisu/IPS

The report by Friends of the Earth, an international watchdog, is part of a host of initiatives taking place ahead of the start of the Annual World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty, which runs for the next four days.

Friends of the Earth says that anywhere from 80 to 227 million hectares of rural, often agrarian land, typically in poorer countries hungry for foreign investment, have been taken over by private and corporate interests in recent years.

Programmes and policies pushed by the World Bank, the organisation suggests, have been both directly and indirectly responsible for this trend, with examples reportedly coming from more than 60 countries.

“Some of these are countries which struggle to feed their own populations – but which have enough fertile land to attract foreign investors,” the report states.

Such figures are on the rise, driven by increased human demand for vegetable oils and the evolving global market for biofuels. According to some, these developments have been further exacerbated by certain international efforts to combat global climate change, such as the U.N.-sponsored Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) programme.

According to activists and farmers speaking ahead of the World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty here in Washington, part of the blame also needs to be placed on the Bank’s own technical assistance, past and present. The issue formed a core message during more than 250 protests worldwide on Apr. 17, marked as the International Day of Peasant Struggle.

“Decades of World Bank policies have created the basis for what is happening today,” Giulia Franchi, a campaigner with the Italian Campagna per la Riforma della Banca Mondiale, said on Monday.

Franchi and others express particular frustration with a Bank-led initiative known as the Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment that Respects Rights, Livelihoods and Resources (commonly referred to as RAI), which came into existence in January 2010.

The RAI, Franchi says, constitutes “an attempt to support transnational corporations to acquire land worldwide. While it looks like it’s standing with local communities, there is no way that the expropriation of people’s lands can be considered responsible.”

According to the Bank’s explanation of the motivations behind the RAI, recent years have seen “a sharp increase in investment involving significant use of agricultural land, water, grassland, and forested areas in developing and emerging countries … some countries have been confronted with informal requests amounting to more than half their cultivable land area, and other countries are actively seeking major investments.”

The code of conduct inherent in the RAI is thus aimed at trying to “better spread the benefits and balance opportunities with risks in major investment programs”.

Some warn that such an approach is wrongheaded from the start. The RAI “creates an illusion that by following a set of standards, large- scale land acquisitions can proceed without disastrous consequences,” Friends of the Earth’s Kirtana Chandrasekaran told IPS.

“RAI may seek ‘transparency’ from land deals, but even if done ‘transparently’, the transfer of large tracts of land … to investors is still going to deprive smallholder farmers and local communities from crucial, life-sustaining resources for generations to come.”

Chandrasekaran points instead to a recently created set of principles, the Voluntary Guidelines on the Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests.

A final draft of the Voluntary Guidelines was released in March following three years of negotiations between 96 governments and civil society organisations, under the auspices of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). The guidelines are to be formally endorsed in May.

Most important, Chandrasekaran says, the Voluntary Guidelines “anchors the land-grabbing issue to the existing obligations of states under international law, explicitly mentioning the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

There is also a potentially more direct feedback loop under the Voluntary Guidelines. According to the FAO, the Guidelines “allow government authorities, the private sector, civil society and citizens to judge whether their proposed actions and the actions of others constitute acceptable practices.”

Still, others caution that the Voluntary Guidelines might be too open with regards to investment safeguards.

According to Devlin Kuyek, a Montreal-based staff member for GRAIN, an international NGO focused on sustainable agriculture, “an investment chapter was inserted into the Voluntary Guidelines at the last minute, over the objections of civil society organisations, that is very similar to what the Bank has been promoting with regards to private investment … to try to make it appear that land acquisition can be done responsibly.”

Kuyek notes that there are several similar guidelines in the works that will attempt to impose some regulation – or the appearance of regulation – on the surging market for foreign investment in fertile land. While each of these will offer some competition to the RAI, observers suggest that the World Bank appears to be little inclined towards changing its stance on the issue.

“I’ve seen absolutely no sign whatsoever that the World Bank Group has made any meaningful moves at all to genuinely respond to the criticisms that its policies lead to land-grabbing,” Joan Baxter, a researcher with the Oakland Institute, an environment-focused think tank, told IPS.

Baxter points to the roster of presentations at the current World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty. “How can (the Bank) invite hedge-fund manager Susan Payne and land-grabbers such as Addax Bioenergy to speak at this conference?” she asks.

“Instead, why doesn’t it invite some rural women to talk about how the loss of their land to rich investors has robbed them of their livelihoods?”

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