World Bank on Land Grabs: It’s All Good Unless You’re African, a Woman, Disempowered, or Poor

The World Bank’s long-awaited report on land grabs is out. I’ve not had time to study it – I only found out an hour ago – but here are some first impressions.

First, the Bank doesn’t call them land-grabs. Unable to come up with a suitably technical alternative to describe the process whereby the poor are kicked off the land when the rich buy up the ground beneath their feet, the Bank refers instead to ‘global interest in farm land’. It’s a neat euphemism. When you say, “thou shalt not be interested in your neighbour’s ox”, it doesn’t sound nearly as bad does it?

The Bank report is entitled “Rising Global Interest in Farmland: Can It Yield Sustainable and Equitable Benefits?. The titular question is also a bit of a stretch. Can it yield sustainable and equitable benefits? Well, almost anything can have good if unintended benefits:book burning might encourage people to go to bookshops more and, while they’re looking for kindling, develop an interest in literature; bombing Iraq might propagate curiosity about Mesopotamian scholarship, and so on. It’s unlikely, but it might happen. A more telling question is Has Land Grabbing In Fact Yielded Sustainable and Equitable Benefits? To that question, the Bank provides answers. But you’d never know from reading the Bank’s own spin.

If you look at the press release, you’ll see quotes from Klaus Deininger – the Bank’s resident free-market-in-land fundamentalist. He says things like “A consistent finding across regions is that better-defined land rights helped in many instances to improve efficiency and equity.” If, in other words, everyone knew what was going on when there were land grabs, there tended to be more equity. Goodness. Deininger also offers this rather cryptic quote: “Figure out a country’s niche and competitive advantage, then investors can help you achieve your goal. They know technology and other things, but you can often get a much better bargain – and investments will be sustainable only if everybody benefits.” I’m not really sure what he’s saying here, but it sounds informed and technical.

The one thing Deininger can’t really say is that the land grabs have been a good thing. Even the press release admits that things haven’t quite gone according to plan – “Some African countries are now trying to reverse previous land acquisitions. Mozambique, for example, is trying to take back some of the land sold to investors because the government is concerned that half of that land is sitting idle, not growing sugar cane or other crops, as promised by those investors,” the press release notes.

The report itself is far more scathing still. It’s a bit watered down from the version leaked earlier this year. The leaked version mentioned that “investors failed to follow through on their investments plans, in some cases after inflicting serious damage on the local resource base”. In this version, the investors have become victims: “sometimes investors encroach on local lands to make ends meet”. Aw, poor starving investors scrambling on other people’s land just to get ROI above the S&P 500.

I’m pasting some key quotes below, but there’s one paragraph that’s worth taking on right now. The Bank addresses the question of whether land grabs are a new kind of colonialism, as my friend Franca Roiatti argues in her fine but sadly only available in Italian book Il Nuovo Colonialismo.

“Contrary to the image of a neocolonial foreign scramble for land that often emerges from media reports, acquisitions recorded by official inventories are dominated by local individuals or companies. Domestic investors account for more than 90 percent of the area allocated in Nigeria and half or more in Cambodia, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Sudan…. Also contrary to media reports, Sudan is the only country where the majority of foreign projects are from the Middle East. The share of investors of domestic origin is much higher, reflecting the smaller size of domestic projects. But as local businesses may act as fronts for foreigners, the share of land acquired by foreigners may be larger than reported.” [p45]

Hmm. So it’s not colonialism because local firms are involved, but then again, if a foreign company owns the local company, it might be colonialism. In a fine expose from earlier this year, FIAN looked at a agrofuel project in Mozambique and found that:

The British company BioEnergy Africa bought 94% of the project from other investors in 2008 and 2009. The lands affected are the main source of livelihood of the Massingir communities and used for livestock raising, charcoal production, and subsistence farming. [p6]

So, er, yes – foreign companies are indeed buying local ones. This isn’t to under-sell the idea that local elites are perfectly capable of scalping their own poor – there’s plenty of evidence that this is happening too. But it’s to suggest that the media might have, you know, done a bit of homework, both noting that local company names appear on the title deeds, and then followed the money to find more overseas investors than revealed by official records. Just a thought.

Finally, who loses out? In perhaps the most candid and straightforward paragraph, we learn that:

Many of the projects studied had strong negative gender effects, either by directly affecting women’s land-based livelihoods or, where common property resources were involved, by increasing the time required of women to gather water or firewood and take care of household food security. In many cases, it was presumed that land rights were in the name of men only, and consultations were limited to males in the community, leaving women without a voice. Bargaining power within the household was affected in unpredictable ways. In some cases, negative distributional and gender impacts arose because consultation, if conducted at all, had very narrow outreach. Vulnerable groups, such as pastoralists and internally displaced people, were excluded from consultations in an effort to override or negate their claims. Without proper safeguards, they then became aware of pending land use changes too late to be able to voice concerns. Females and other vulnerable groups are also less likely to obtain employment from investors or be included in decisionmaking processes surrounding the investment. Even if land was fairly abundant, reduced access to land and associated natural resources was a frequent concern. Potential distributional impacts on food security were also raised as some people lost control over food production and acquisition. [p50]

More to come, but for now, here are some choice quotes about Mozambique, which I’ll be talking about on tomorrow morning’s DemocracyNow!

Choice quotes:

More than 70% of such demand has been in Africa, and countries such as Ethiopia, Mozambique and Sudan have transferred millions of hectares to investors in recent years. [p vi]

A conservative estimate is that, in developing countries, 6 million ha of additional land will be brought into production each year to 2030.[p xi]

In Indonesia, planted area more than doubled from about 2.9 million ha in 1997 to 6.3 million ha in 2007, with significant smallholder participation and creation of an estimated 1.7 to 3 million jobs. In response to policies that aimed to foster development of the industry by giving away land (and the trees on it) for free, large areas with high biodiversity value have been deforested without ever having been planted with oil palm. [p xi]

In fact, none of the Sub-Saharan African countries (e.g. Mozambique, Zambia, Sudan, or Madagascar) that recently attracted investor interest achieved more than 25% of potential yields, and area cultivated per rural inhabitant remains well below 1 ha. [p xii]

In Tanzania, where land rights are firmly vested with villages, less than 50,000 ha were transferred to investors between January 2004 and June 2009. By contrast, over the same period in Mozambique, 2.7 million were transferred. But a 2009 land audit found that some 50 percent of this transferred land was unused or not fully used. [p xiv]

Case studies confirm widespread concern about the risks associated with large-scale investments, including (i) weak land governance and a failure to recognize, protect, or -if a voluntary transfer can be agreed upon- properly compensate local communities’ land rights; (ii) lack of country capacity to process and manage large scale investments, including inclusive and participatory consultations that result in clear and enforceable agreements; (iii) investor proposals that were insufficiently elaborated, non-viable technically, or inconsistent with local visions and national plans for development, in some cases leading investors to encroach on local lands to make ends meet; and (iv) resource conflict with negative distributional and gender effects. In many of the case studies, progress with implementation was well behind schedule. As a result, local people had often suffered asset losses but received few or none of the promised benefits. Yet field visits by local collaborators also found that investments can provide benefits through four channels: (i) supporting social infrastructure, often through community development funds using land compensation; (ii) generating employment; (iii) providing access to markets and technology for local producers; and (iv) higher local or national tax revenue. If investments generated profits, social impacts depended not only on the magnitude of benefits, but also on the mix of different types of benefits. For example, entrepreneurial and skilled people could gain from jobs created by an investment, while vulnerable groups or women lost access to livelihood resources without being compensated. This illustrates the importance of clearly addressing distributional issues up front. [p xv]

In contrast to the clearly demarcated rights and representative structures that govern ejido lands in Mexico, community lands in Mozambique can legally be transferred to investors by a quorum of
just three to nine community members. This creates a risk that rights by less vocal groups, especially women, pastoralists, and internally displaced people, may be neglected. In one case study, communities in Gaza Province ceded to outside investors access to forest and water resources critical to the livelihoods of ex-combatants and women. Without having their rights documented or safeguards to ensure inclusive decisionmaking, these groups could not make their concerns heard and, as a result, lost part or all of their traditional livelihoods. [p 74]

In Mozambique, one forestry project involved simultaneous submission of six land applications for a total of 28,000 ha to avoid the need for authorization by the Council of Ministers. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, there have been reports of multiple land allocations of up to 1,000 ha each so as to meet the requirements of a single investor without obtaining the requisite approvals. [p 83]