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Africa/Global: World Bank Ramps Up Attack on Small Farmers

AfricaFocus Bulletin
May 27, 2019 (190527)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

“Enabling the Business of Agriculture,” promoted by the World Bank, and now enhanced with a new sub-indicator on land policy, is presented as a way to advance agricultural development, particularly in Africa. In reality, notes a new report from the Oakland Institute, it gives an additional push to a “land rush” by mostly foreign corporate interests. This trend, notes Harvard land tenure scholar Pauline Peters, “marks the most radical shift in the distribution and tenure status of land since colonial times.”

Peters reviews the literature on “the politics of the land rush across Africa” in a November 2018 article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Both Peters and the Oakland Institute highlight the fact that land appropriation, although not new, has accelerated rapidly in the decade since the financial crisis of 2008.

The Oakland Institute, which has conducted a wide range of case studies on the topic in recent years, focuses in its latest report on the impact of World Bank indicators that in effect privilege large corporate interests and well-connected political elites, while disregarding the interests of small farmers and other land users whose title to land is under customary rules. In particular, the World Bank is pushing the titling of land, followed by a free-market frenzy, as the path to agricultural development. In this, it is allied with other key donors, particularly USAID, DFID, and the Gates Foundation, who share this vision of corporate-dominated agriculture.

The World Bank´s annual land and poverty conference (, which most recently gathered some 1,500 participants in March 2019, provided little or no space for dissent or debate on this dominant model. The conference agenda was filled with sessions on big data and drone mapping of land tenure. But farmers´ organizations, advocacy groups, or critical scholars were conspicuously absent, and the issue of displacement of small farmers entirely missing or very well-hidden.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains six short talking points extracted from the summary of the article by Dr. Peters. This is followed by excerpts from the Oakland Institute report: “The Highest Bidder Takes It All”.

For an archive of 56 previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on agriculture and related issues, beginning in 2003, visit

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Land Grabs: The Politics of the Land Rush Across Africa

by Pauline Peters

Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics, November 2018.

[The summary from which these talking points is taken is openly available at the link above, with a link to the full report, which is available only to subscribers of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Politics. To contact the author, write to]

  • The search for land, always watered land, by foreign agents is driven by concerns about rising food and oil prices, and most of the acquired land is put under food crops, biofuels, and flex crops [crops with multiple uses]. The promises of profits from the exceedingly low price of land across Africa, as well as the rising demand for the mentioned crops, have also attracted speculation by private equity funds.
  • The increase in acquisition of land by international agents, not only for cultivation but for minerals, oil, timber, and so forth, exacerbates the accelerating demand for land within African countries by nationals such as salaried, middle-class people and politicians acquiring land for cultivation and for an investment fast increasing in value.
  • The millions of small-scale users of largely “customary” land, which is denied the legal status of property, struggle to derive a livelihood from their smallholdings and access to dwindling and increasingly enclosed common land, including grazing and watering areas.
  • Both macro-data and field studies show that most of the foreign acquired land is used for large-scale plantations, some of which include contract farming and outgrower schemes.
  • Research on these large-scale projects has shown, however, that most fail to attain the projected aims of providing benefits to the countries and people from which they acquired the land.
  • The failure to benefit the millions of small- to medium-scale users of land, despite the rhetoric of land investors, major donors such as the finance arms of the World Bank Group, and governments facilitating the deals, has emerged as a key problem in light of deepening poverty, and a dearth of sufficient employment to absorb the young population, let alone people “exiting” from the land.

The Highest Bidder Takes It All : The World Bank’s Scheme to Privatize the Commons

The Oakland Institute – direct URL:

This report was authored by Frédéric Mousseau with research assistance provided by Flora Sonkin and editorial support by Anuradha Mittal and Elizabeth Fraser.

Executive Summary

In 2013, the World Bank launched the Enabling the Business of Agriculture (EBA) project, aimed at guiding pro-business reforms in the agriculture sector. It was initially commissioned to support the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, an initiative launched by the G8 to promote private sector-led agricultural development in Africa. The EBA scores countries on the ease of doing business in agriculture. It measures the “legal barriers” for agribusinesses and prescribes reforms across 12 topic areas, such as seeds, fertilizers, trade, and machinery. It then promotes policy reforms to remove these barriers and support agribusiness. Under the World Bank’s guidance, governments should, for instance, loosen regulations on seeds and phytosanitary products (fertilizers and pesticides). The latest EBA report, published in 2017, introduced a new indicator: land.

This new indicator comes as large-scale land acquisitions in the developing world have intensified over the past ten years. In most instances, they have involved forced evictions, widespread human rights violations, environmental degradation, increased food insecurity, and the destruction of livelihoods.

But these land grabs have also been met with massive resistance by millions of farmers, pastoralists, and Indigenous Peoples who oppose the takeover of their ancestral land. Many have been successful in delaying, disrupting, or stopping the establishment of plantations. The land targeted by so-called investors is often used by local people who might not have property titles. Legally, it is typically either public or state land and/or land on which local communities claim customary rights. This issue is recognized by the World Bank, which has reached the conclusion that “undocumented [land] rights pose challenges and risks to investors.”

This may explain why the Bank, supported by the US and UK governments and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – all strong proponents of the corporatization of agriculture – has used the EBA to embark upon a new, unprecedented effort to tackle the land issue in the developing world, particularly Africa.

By examining the reforms and measures that this new land indicator advocates for, this report raises serious concerns about their potential impact, if implemented by governments.

Whereas the Bank claims its intention is to protect land rights and bring more freedom and equity in access to land, the so-called “good practices” prescribed by the EBA point to a drastically different agenda centered on promoting large-scale industrial agriculture at the expense of family farmers, pastoralists, and Indigenous Peoples. To regulate countries’ land tenure arrangements and “enhance productivity of land use,” the Bank’s prescribes formalizing private property rights, easing the sale and lease of land for commercial use, systematizing the sale of public land by auction to the highest bidder, and improving procedures for expropriation.

Most public land in the developing world is actually used by people as a common good, under customary laws. Communally managed natural resources such as water, forests, savannas, and grazing lands are essential for the livelihoods of millions of rural poor. In customary laws, land is also valued as an ancestral asset with deep social and cultural significance. Ignoring these facts, the Bank is driving governments towards the privatization and commodification of land to enable the expansion of more capital-intensive agricultural production.

Suggesting that low-income countries do not manage public land in an effective manner, the Bank prescribes the privatization of public land as the way forward: Governments should become land brokers and transfer public lands with “potential economic value” to commercial use and private ownership, so that the land can be put to its “best use.”

The World Bank also pushes for the formalization of private land ownership as a way to spur agribusiness investments in capitalintensive agriculture and increase productivity. Part of the process is to make land a “transferable asset” and encourage its use as a collateral for credit. The Bank’s premise overlooks the high vulnerability of family farmers around the world, which is further increased when the land that they rely on for their livelihoods becomes an asset that can be traded and speculated upon. In Western economies, with “formal” land tenure systems, stories of farmers losing their land to banks and creditors abound. Expanding this model to the developing world will provide a legal avenue for increased land dispossession, land concentration, and land grabbing.

By scoring countries according to the ease of accessing land for agribusiness, the new land indicator represents an aggressive push to privatize land in developing countries and facilitate private interests’ access to land. By making land a marketable commodity that must be offered to the highest bidder, the land indicator will inevitably encourage increased concentration of land in the hands of a few, along with the dispossession of the rural poor who rely on it for their food security and livelihoods. This will shift land from being an essential source of livelihoods and the basis of resilient farming and ecological balance, to an increasingly speculated upon financial asset that will expand corporate agriculture.

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. Introduced as a pilot on 38 countries in 2017, the land indicator is expected to be expanded to more countries in the EBA 2019 report. Whereas the EBA was already much biased towards industrial agriculture and agribusiness corporations, the threats that come with this new indicator make it even more important to end this harmful initiative permanently.

Land and Natural Resources under Growing Pressure in the Developing World

Some 3.1 billion people worldwide rely on land for their livelihoods, mostly as farmers. Eighty percent of the food consumed in the world is produced by family farmers. Despite the essential role they play, farmers and pastoralists have come increasingly under threat over the past ten years with mounting pressures over their land and natural resources by corporate interests. Around the Global South, land grabs have led to dispossession and forced displacements, while posing threats to local and national food security. This trend intensified with the food and financial crises of 2008, when the high volatility of food prices led to a surge of interest in large-scale agriculture and land acquisitions. In 2009, less than a year after the food price spike, 56 million hectares worth of large-scale farmland deals had been announced, more than 70 percent of which were in Africa. By 2016, an estimated 42.4 million hectares of land had come under contract, one third of which involved land formerly used by smallholder farmers.

The World Bank has played a pivotal role in promoting these largescale land deals. For years, through different mechanisms including technical assistance and advisory services to governments, aid conditionality, and business rankings, the Bank has encouraged regulatory reforms aimed at attracting foreign private investment for economic growth and development. By 2014, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) – the World Bank’s private-sector arm – was managing 156 projects worth US$260 million for advisory services to promote private-sector development in 34 African countries.

Around the world, the expansion of large-scale farming has been the cause of dispossession and loss of livelihoods for millions, while failing to bring promised economic development and food security. It has led to massive environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity while worsening climate change through deforestation and industrial agriculture, as seen for instance with palm oil in Indonesia. But the past ten years have also seen countless stories of resistance by farmers, pastoralists, and Indigenous Peoples opposing the takeover of their land and the destruction of their environment. Often mislabeled as “land disputes,” many of these struggles challenge the takeover of land by foreign firms that is either legally public or state land and/or land on which local communities have customary rights. While some of these struggles have resulted in violent repression and forced displacement, many have been successful in delaying, disrupting, or stopping the establishment of plantations.

A farmer in Tanzania, where land and water grabs are frequent. Credit: World Bank/Scott Wallace

This is recognized by the World Bank, which has reached the conclusion that “undocumented [land] rights pose challenges and risks to investors,” and that, in the case of Africa, the continent is “held back by land ownership confusion.” …

The EBA – A “Doing Business in Agriculture” Ranking

The EBA was commissioned by the G8 in 2012, as one of the so-called “enabling actions” for the then newly formed New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. Initially bankrolled by five Western donors including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the US, UK, Danish, and Dutch governments, the project was officially launched by the World Bank in 2013.

The EBA’s goal is to help create “policies that facilitate doing business in agriculture and increase the investment attractiveness and competitiveness of countries.” To achieve this, it benchmarks areas including seeds, fertilizers, markets, transport, machinery, finance, and now land, to determine whether countries’ laws do or do not facilitate doing business in agriculture. The Bank recommends pro- business reforms and scores countries on their performance in applying these recommendations. The scores obtained then condition the provision of international aid and are intended to influence foreign investment in these countries. The EBA exemplifies a growing trend in international aid programs, which have become instruments to enforce market-based and pro-private sector industrial agriculture.

In 2014, a multi-continental campaign, Our Land Our Business, was launched with over 280 organizations, including farmers groups, trade unions, and civil society organizations joining hands to denounce the top-down imposition of policies detrimental to farmers and food security by the EBA and the Doing Business projects. Pressured by the campaign, the Dutch and Danish governments terminated their funding of the EBA in 2016.

What Is the EBA’s New Land Indicator?

Officially, the “EBA land indicators measure laws and regulations that impact access to land markets for producers and agribusinesses.” The EBA identifies and evaluates the “regulatory burdens” impacting private access to land. The 2017 pilot scored 38 countries according to three main sub- indicator groups:

1. Coverage, relevance, and currency of records for private land; 2. Public land management; and 3. Equity and fairness.

The first group of sub-indicators assesses the documentation and coverage of private land, for instance the presence and extent of systems for mapping private property and the existence of online records for land-related legal procedures, such as land transfers, mortgages, and land disputes. According to the World Bank, a key purpose of land records is to increase investments in agriculture and allow land owners to transfer their property to others “if they decide to take up non-agricultural opportunities.”

The second set of sub-indicators deals with public land management. It scores countries in terms of existing mechanisms such as state land mapping, monitoring, and the use of public tenders to transfer public land to private owners. Though the stated goal of these subindicators is to prevent encroachment, all of the nine questions that guide the scoring relate to processes for easing the transfer of state lands such as parks, natural reserves, forests, and other public spaces to commercial use. The Bank emphasizes the “potential economic value” of public land and claims that privatizing it via public auction will “ensure that state land is put to its best uses.” For low-income countries to improve their poor ratings in public land management (see Figure 1), they must establish adequate tender mechanisms to transfer public land to the private sector and ensure a good price for the land sold. In other words, public land must be sold to the highest bidder.

Forest in Uganda appropriated for palm-oil plantation. Credit: FoEI.

The third set of sub-indicators concerns equity and fairness in land markets. It recommends gender-differentiated land records as well as the lifting of “restrictions on land leasing.” For the Bank, encouraging the long-term leasing of land would allow “farmers with higher skills to expand and invest in more capitalintensive production methods,” while “less efficient” farmers would exit agriculture. Most of the questions related to equity and fairness (7 out of 12) concern procedures for expropriation, so that “land rights are protected against expropriation without fair compensation.”

The pilot EBA land indicator ranks OECD countries highest, whereas countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are ranked lowest (see Figure 1).

Throughout the EBA report, the establishment of land markets for selling and leasing land to investors is encouraged for “efficiency-enhancing” land transfers and “effective land use,” which, for the Bank, consists of allocating farmland to capitalintensive agriculture.

The EBA’s land indicator and associated World Bank documents raise important questions about the Bank’s policy prescriptions to governments. An initial concern has to do with the assumption that formalizing “private ownership” over land will secure land tenure and spur development.

Is Formalizing Private Property the Right Way to Secure Land Tenure?

While the EBA prescribes the formalization of private property as a way to increase land tenure security, it also encourages land registration in order to turn land into a transferrable asset. According to its logic, once land tenure is formalized – i.e. the rights and conditions of access of a now bounded piece of land are officially registered – landowners will be able to access credit, using their new title as collateral for loans. As a result, they will be able to invest in more “capital-intensive agriculture” or sell their land to others if they “choose” to exit agriculture.

This approach raises a number of questions. First, the Bank’s premise that people would freely choose to exit agriculture overlooks the high vulnerability of family farmers around the world. Their vulnerability is further increased when the land on which they rely for their livelihoods becomes an economic asset that can be traded and speculated upon. In Western economies, with “formal” land tenure systems, stories of farmers losing their land to banks and creditors abound. …

The consequences of formalizing land as a “transferable asset” are likely to be even more dire in developing countries, where farmers are highly vulnerable to environmental shocks, receive limited public support, lack crop insurance, and where agricultural prices are generally deregulated and volatile. Where tenure systems allow such sales, farmers may then be forced to sell their land in years of bad harvests or low commodity prices. This happened on a largescale following the 2005 food crisis in Niger, when in just one season, hunger forced 8 to 14 percent of the farmers to sell or mortgage their land in order to survive.

The Bank’s approach thus provides a legal avenue for increased land dispossession, land concentration, and land grabbing. ...

Moreover, the Bank’s assertion that private titles constitute a necessary building block for eradicating poverty and achieving development is challenged by its own Independent Evaluation Group (IEG). A 2016 IEG review of the Bank’s land projects from 1998 to 2014 found that most projects failed to deliver on development promises and did not even target the poor and marginalized groups in the first place. Furthermore, the same review found weak evidence of enhanced credit access as a result of titling and registration.

Preventing Encroachment of Public Land: A License for Land Grabbing

The World Bank claims that the primary objective of governments regarding the management of public land should be to “prevent encroachment.” But the majority of so-called “encroachment” in the developing world is actually the use of public lands by pastoralists, smallholder farmers, and Indigenous Peoples for their livelihoods.

It is estimated that as much as 65 percent of the world’s land area is stewarded by communities under customary systems. Throughout history, large expanses of these lands have been claimed by colonial and later independent states under statutory laws. After their independence, a number of formerly colonized countries adopted legal systems establishing that all land was owned by the state. Communities were allowed to maintain customary tenure systems and could still access and use public land and natural resources, while the state reserved the right to transfer or lease land for “public interest” purposes. …

Public land is therefore often land that is used under customary arrangements. Communally managed natural resources such as farmland, water, forests, and savannas are essential to the livelihoods of millions of pastoralists, fisherfolk, and family farmers, and generally also valued as ancestral assets with deep social and cultural significance. …

The Bank’s policy recommendations and its stated goal to “prevent encroachment” thus transform customary land users into “squatters,” “encroachers”, or “trespassers” on their own lands that they have protected and used for generations. This is exactly how local communities have been labeled in a number of cases of forced evictions documented by the Oakland Institute in recent years. “This land belongs to the state” is a recurring argument used by governments to grab the land from their own citizens for the benefit of foreign business ventures as documented in the case of Indigenous communities in Ethiopia, the Maasai in Loliondo, Tanzania, and the villagers who lost their land to the Bukanga Lonzo agro-industrial park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Unfolding the Bank’s Agenda: Privatization of Public Land in the Developing World

The Bank emphasizes the “potential economic value” of public land, as if this land is universally idle and available. In a rather cynical posture, oblivious of centuries of colonial and neocolonial exploitation, the Bank claims that poverty in Africa is largely due to its poor land governance: “Despite its abundant agricultural land and natural resources, Sub- Saharan Africa is still mostly poor and has been unable to translate its recent robust growth into rapid poverty reduction.” The continent is “held back by land ownership confusion,” the Bank claims.

For the World Bank, in order to improve low EBA ratings, developing country governments should enforce transparent public tender mechanisms to offer land to private investors at the highest market prices. The Bank considers that fairness would be ensured by such transparent sales of land to the highest bidder, while ignoring that in a world rampant with inequality, this is likely to drive further land concentration. The highest bidders are likely to be the most powerful economic interests, such as corporations and rich individuals.

The use of public auction to sell public land is posited as the way to “ensure that state land is put to its best uses.” Once public land is transferred to commercial use, investors will ensure “economically valuable” land is used with “efficiency.” The Bank fails to provide a definition for “economically valuable land” nor what it means by its “best use,” or “efficient use.”

This is highly problematic. Who gets to assess and decide what the “best use” of the land will be? Using what criteria? Will communities living on that land have a say? And who will benefit eventually?

Bringing Equity and Fairness or Driving Expropriation and Land Concentration?

Given the massive threats to land rights around the globe, it would be commendable if the World Bank prescribed measures that actually increased equity and fairness in access to land. However, what the Bank recommends to governments falls short of what is required to achieve these goals. Instead, its measures could contribute to increased concentration of farmland in the hands of a few.

[For example] The second EBA recommendation for fairness and equity focuses on the “freedom of leasing” land, i.e. removing regulations and restrictions on leasing. According to the Bank, “leasing is critical for structural transformation” and “restrictions on its use” should be removed to allow “efficiency-enhancing land transactions” and “more effective land use.” The positive sounding “freedom of leasing” recommendation is promoted as a way to allow land transfers for “farmers wishing to grow into the commercial sector, but also for those wanting to exit agriculture.” Yet, as discussed earlier, many farmers don’t exit agriculture by choice but are forced to do so because of social marginalization, poverty, conflict, climate, lack of institutional support, and more. In this context, promoting the “freedom of leasing” is geared towards easing large-scale land acquisitions and land concentration in the hands of corporations, influential individuals, and those with more resources.

In terms of productivity and food security, as early as 2009, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a multidisciplinary study involving over 400 scientists and co- sponsored by the FAO, UNDP, UNEP, and the World Bank itself, widely discredited the supposed benefits of capital- intensive, industrial agriculture. The report urged all actors involved in agricultural development to shift their support toward agroecological practices that are less dependent on capital and external inputs. The IAASTD also called attention to the negative environmental impacts of intensive agriculture, which are hardly taken into consideration by the Bank’s current policy advice.

Another comprehensive study, carried out by the World Bank’s own research staff in 2009, deconstructed the fallacy of the economic efficiency argument that is used to favor the privatization of land and expansion of land markets. According to the Bank’s experts, the creation of land markets ultimately leads to land concentration for industrialized agriculture and monocultures in large mechanized land holdings, which are less productive than family farms.

In addition, large industrial farms often lead to much higher economic burdens for farmers (e.g. debt) and health and environmental damage (e.g. loss of biodiversity, soil depletion, contamination of water sources by chemical fertilizers, food insecurity/lower nutrition intake). Overall, the World Bank’s own experts assert that land markets not only fail to distribute land to the poor, but also do not make economic sense in terms of enhancing productivity.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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