The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Disappearing Land. Is World Bank’s Head In the Sand? “Invisible Hand”

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Oxfam calls on the World Bank to temporarily freeze its agricultural investments in land.

Two campesinos (farmers) in northern Guatemala (2012). Pablo Tosco/Intermón Oxfam

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paul O’Brien is the vice president, policy and campaigns, for Oxfam America.

Washingtonians: I regret to inform you that we need your home. Please remove yourself and your belongings by the end of the month, or we will have our armed goons do it for you. Unfortunately, we are not going to talk about this, and there is no money for your troubles. We need your land. It is for the greater good. Thank you for understanding.

Sound crazy? Somewhere in the developing world, that speech, or something like it, will probably happen today. Over the last decade, in developing countries, a land area larger than Washington, D.C. has been sold from under the feet of poor communities every day. 500 million acres—enough to feed a billion people—have been traded, mostly to cash-rich countries, foreign agribusiness and equity investors over the past 10 years. Think about California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Texas being sold off in a mad, unregulated, land rush without any real transparency on who is doing the buying, under what terms, or what they plan to do with the spoils. All those Southwesterners wondering what the hell happened to their land and their lives?

Why am I writing about this now? Honestly, because we are launching a report today laying out these facts, Our Land, Our Lives, and I want you to read it and join our new campaign. We may have an opportunity to meaningfully address this madness in the next few months.

The World Bank is about to gather the mighty in Tokyo for their Annual Meeting. It’s the coming out party for the new Bank president, Jim Kim—and we are going to hear what he cares about. If he makes stopping bad land grabs a priority, the Bank could play a massive role in fixing this Achilles heel in the global food system.

Early signs are discouraging. Today, the World Bank rejected our report recommendations, claiming “[the Bank] 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.”

Having watched the Presidential debates last night, I’m acutely sensitive to spin, and that feels like spin to me. Of course the Bank doesn’t actively “support” bad acquisitions or investments in land. But here is the thing—they don’t even know if their land investments are good or bad for affected communities. When we asked them to show us good large scale land investments where communities weren’t kicked off their land and were adequately compensated, they couldn’t find one.

That’s why we are asking the World Bank Group to take a breath! We want them to temporarily stop funding new large scale agricultural land acquisitions until they can be sure these deals aren’t going to violate human rights or harm communities. We want the Bank Group to put solid guidance in place, particularly because we want the 100+ major investing institutions that follow the IFC’s Performance Standards to take basic, reasonable precautions when doing a land deal.

Personally, I still have hope that Jim Kim will commit to doing this in Tokyo. My gut says he is “one of us”—a development activist who wants the poor to know what his institution is doing across the board. He can be proud in other areas: A new aid transparency index rated the Bank second of all major donors on aid transparency this week. Human Rights Watch (notoriously hard to please) recently applauded the Bank for using transparency to fight corruption.

The Bank knows that information is power. It is time to acknowledge that fact in the global land free-for-all. Our report suggests precisely how the Bank can lead an honest public effort to grapple with this issue.

And let’s not spin this proposal as an investment-killing idea. Oxfam has called for greater investment in poor countries for decades. We want communities to benefit from sound investments in agriculture. The Bank can leave its head in the sand and ask communities to trust the market’s invisible hand, or sort this mess out before we see even more community-used land disappear.

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