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New Report Shows How World Bank Enables Corporate Land Grabs

A new report underscores the need for public institutions focused on regenerative development, not agribusiness.

World Bank President David Malpass speaks at a press conference during the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank spring meetings at IMF headquarters in Washington, D.C., on April 11, 2019.

At the World Bank’s annual meeting this month, the Bank’s new president and former Trump adviser, David Malpass, ignored research that concludes the Bank’s policies are driving large-scale corporate land grabs across the Global South, with devastating consequences for the poor.

A new report by the land rights think tank the Oakland Institute demonstrates how the World Bank’s Enabling the Business of Agriculture project — funded by the U.S. and U.K. governments, as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — pushes countries to remove “barriers” to big agribusiness, including laws that protect commons like land and seeds.

As part of the project, the World Bank has developed a contentious new land indicator. Initiated as a pilot program in 38 countries in 2017, the indicator is expected to be expanded to 80 countries this year. The purpose of the indicator is to get countries to transform customary land tenure arrangements into formal titles, so as to render land a “transferrable asset” and therefore make it easier for corporations to acquire it from small-scale farmers.

Countries are under enormous pressure to align with this objective, as doing so grants them preferential access to aid and foreign investment.

Frédéric Mousseau, the policy director at the Oakland Institute and co-author of the report, said, “The Bank claims that this indicator will protect land rights and bring more freedom and equity in terms of access to land, but it is actually an unprecedented push to privatize public land and facilitate private interests’ access to the commons, to the detriment of millions around the world.”

This project has met with fierce resistance. Ibrahima Coulibaly, president of ROPPA [the West Africa network of farmers’ and producers’ organizations] and president of the National Coordination of Peasant Organizations in Mali, says that the new indicator “risks opening the way to more land concentration and land grabbing, degradation of natural resources, and deforestation.”

Coulibaly is part of a growing movement of civil society organizations that have united under the rubric of Our Land Our Business. With over 280 organizations coming together in this coalition, they argue that small-holder farmers hold the key to their country’s prosperity, food sovereignty and their ability to mitigate climate change.

Although there has been widespread and peer-reviewed research showing that small-holder farmers are still providing about 70 percent of the world’s food using only 25 percent of the world’s agricultural resources, the World Bank and other pro-corporate institutions are ignoring the potential of small-holder farmers to create strong, local, resilient economies. This is in the face of the Bank’s own research that has shown the devastating effects of large corporate agriculture on the health of the land and topsoil, as well as the quality of life for farmers.

Moreover, recent research from the UN trade body UNCTAD, the U.S. agricultural think tank the Rodale Institute, and the Center for Food Safety, shows that regenerative agriculture — using practices such as, no-till farming and agroforestry – can not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by sequestering carbon, but has the potential to help reverse climate change. This would require a shift in policy from supporting big corporate agribusinesses to supporting small-holder farmers to transition to fully regenerative practices.

The Oakland Institute report concludes with a clear solution: “Governments have to be urged and helped to design food and agricultural policies that put family farmers, pastoralists, and Indigenous Peoples at the center to address the major challenges of hunger, environmental degradation, and climate change. Instead, with its new land indicator, the World Bank is launching an unprecedented attack on their land rights and their future.”

Given Malpass’s political affiliations, it’s unlikely the Bank’s new president will acknowledge (much less move away from) its destructive, pro-corporate development model. With this new context and amidst the growing controversies about the World Bank’s policies, including the mass displacement and relocation of over 3 million people to make room for Bank recommended projects such as oil pipelines, it is time we question the very mandate of the World Bank.

Now, more than ever, we need public institutions that are focused on regenerative development and are contextually relevant for the most pressing issues of our time, such as ecological collapse and rapidly increasing inequality. We must challenge the mantra of highest bidder takes all with the rallying cry, “Our world is not for sale.”

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