As the scale and pace of large-scale land acquisitions increases globally, evidence is mounting that the land rush is out of control and that the price being paid by affected communities is unacceptably high.
A huge amount of land has been sold off or leased out globally in the past decade.
According to the Oxfam report, Our Land, Our Lives which was released earlier this month (October 4), an area equivalent to the size of Kenya has been sold off in Africa to international investors over the past decade in order to facilitate the growing of bio fuel and other commercial crops.
Oxfam says the land grab is accelerating and that “foreign investors have been buying an area of land the size of London every six days.”
The report also says the land already sold “could feed a billion people, equivalent to the number of people who go to bed hungry each night.”
With food prices spiking for the third time in four years, interest in land could accelerate again as rich countries try to secure their food supplies and investors see land as a good long-term bet.
While some land deals are negotiated with local people, Oxfam say that “all too often, forced evictions of poor farmers are a consequence of these rapidly increasing land deals in developing countries.”
Oxfam says the World Bank itself is partly to blame for the crisis. “As the world’s leading standard-setter and a big investor itself, the World Bank should freeze its own land investments and review its policy and practice to prevent land-grabbing.
“In the past the Bank has chosen to freeze lending when poor standards have caused dispossession and suffering. It needs to do so again, in order to play a key role in stopping the global land rush.”
The World Bank’s investments in agriculture have tripled in the last decade, from $2.5bn in 2002 to $6–8bn in 2012. Oxfam argues that although such an increase is welcome, it also heightens risks which must be addressed.
“Investment should be good news for developing countries – not lead to greater poverty, hunger and hardship,” says Oxfam chief executive Dame Barbara Stocking.
“We would argue, based on the evidence, that in too many cases, the application of safeguards for affected communities has not been sufficiently stringent.”
The activists say that since 2008 alone, 21 formal complaints have been brought by communities affected by Bank investments that they say have violated their land rights.
However the World Bank hit back over the Oxfam report, saying that although it “shares the concerns Oxfam raised in their report” regarding the potential risks that can be associated with large-scale land acquisitions, it “disagrees” with Oxfam’s call for a moratorium on World Bank Group investments in land intensive large-scale agricultural enterprises, especially during a time of rapidly rising global food prices.
“A moratorium focused on the Bank Group targets precisely those stakeholders doing the most to improve practices — progressive governments, investors, and us,” a statement said.
“Taking such a step would do nothing to help reduce the instances of abusive practices and would likely deter responsible investors willing to apply our high standards.”
New Forests Company
The Independent on Sunday newspaper cited one example of well intentioned land projects that can go wrong, highlighting the case of the New Forests Company (NFC) tree plantation programme in central Uganda.
The report acknowledges that the project “has clearly brought much good to an impoverished region, planting more than 14 million pine and eucalyptus trees over the past seven years on three plantations that employ more than 1,400 people.”
But, the report continues, “not everybody is happy. Some communities around the plantations in the central Ugandan districts of Mubende, Luwunga and Kiboga claim they have been forcefully evicted in campaigns that some allege included arson. The communities also say they were not properly consulted and have been offered no adequate compensation or alternative land.”
Tanzania, too, has become increasingly jittery about land leases to foreign agriculture companies.
In July, Tanzanian and international civil society groups began to lobby the government to revoke an $100million, 800,000 acre land lease to a US agribusiness corporation, AgriSol Energy LLC in Tanzania’s western Rukwa region, a deal which could see the eviction of 160,000 households —mainly former refugees from Burundi — who have been living on the land for over 40 years.
According to Land Portal, an online public database on international land deals, Tanzania has leased more than 1.4 million hectares to foreign companies from Europe and Asia, including 100,000 hectares to Norwegian company Green Resources AS for the planting of trees, and 45,000 hectares to British company, Cams Group, for the cultivation of sorghum.
Kenya has leased about 555,000 hectares, including 160,000 hectares to Canadian company Bedford Biofuels and 93,000 hectares to Swiss-based Bioenergy International, both for the growing of jatropha — a plant used for the manufacturing of biofuels.
Uganda, on the other hand, has leased 121,000 hectares, mainly to companies from the Netherlands and UK for the cultivation of oil palm and eucalyptus pine.
The Oxfam report says that while disputes over land ownership in the developing world “are nothing new, what appears to makes this case stand out is that the World Bank is an indirect backer of NFC through a $7m (£4.3m) loan it made to AgriVie, an agricultural investment firm that is a key shareholder in the London-based group.”
In the case of NFC’s activities in Uganda, the government’s National Forestry Authority “claims responsibility for the evictions,” The Independent says, and the World Bank has “commenced a dispute resolution process” with the support of all parties involved.
“NFC said it could not comment while the resolution process was ongoing, although the group has told the World Bank’s ombudsman it does not assume any direct responsibility for the evictions, was not involved in carrying them out and was explicitly excluded from the process by the Ugandan government.”
But the World Bank argues that by 2050, there will be two billion more people in the world and a 70% increase in global food production will be needed to feed them.
It adds that food prices are rising, pushing many people back into poverty. “Addressing this challenge will require major new investment in agriculture to improve the productivity of large and small farmers while protecting the environment and existing users’ rights.”
ALSO READ: A billion go hungry as food prices rise
While acknowledging that “instances of abuse do exist, particularly in countries where governance is weak,” and that there need to be “more transparent and inclusive participation in cases of land transfers,” the World Bank says it “does not support speculative land investments or acquisitions which take advantage of weak institutions in developing countries or which disregard principles of responsible agricultural investment.”
But Oxfam says the problem remains that property laws are weak or non-existent in many developing countries, and governments are hungry for the revenues and jobs that land deals can yield.
In many cases, families may have farmed a plot for generations but have no legal title, making it relatively easy for governments to sell the land.
The UK based NGO adds that poor people’s right to land and natural resources must be protected and that there must be transparency in any land deals which is “publicly accessible for both affected communities and governments.”
Additional reporting by Christine Mungai