After months of delays and false starts, and a tantalizing partial leak
to the Financial Times
earlier this summer, the much-ballyhooed World Bank report
on large-scale land acquisitions has finally arrived.
For the last year, those thirsting for more information about these land deals – which are rumored to extend millions of acres of developing-world farmland to foreign agribusiness investors and governments dependent on food imports – have assured themselves that the Bank’s study would answer all their questions.
They are in for a major disappointment. The 164-page report, “Rising Global Interest in Farmland: Can It Yield Sustainable and Equitable Results?” may have landed with a powerful thud, but the product is a resounding dud.
The study essentially rehashes the glass-half-full, glass-half-empty debate in much of the substantive work previously published on the issue:
Nothing new here.
- If done well, these deals can reduce poverty in the developing world and revitalize sagging agricultural sectors.
- If done poorly, they can destroy smallholder livelihoods, spark rampant displacements, and wreak grave environmental damage.
The report also recycles the “principles for responsible agro-investment” that many international organizations believe will promote beneficial and sustainable agricultural investments: Respect for indigenous land rights; emphases on transparency and good governance; participation of all “stakeholders”; and attention to social and environmental sustainability.
Much of the anticipation surrounding the report centered on data the Bank promised to reveal about specific land deals – data practically impossible to obtain anywhere else. Yet the data, as reported in the study, are anticlimactic. On the one hand, they reveal “displacement of local people from their land without proper compensation,” and on the other, support for social infrastructure “through community development funds using land compensation” – all of which is essentially in line with previously published work.
Fortuitously, several thought-provoking conclusions do eventually emerge from the report’s otherwise dry discussions about “yield gaps,” “institutional frameworks,” and the like.
The Bank finds that “virtually everywhere, local investors, rather than foreign ones, were dominant players” in large land transfers between 2004 and 2009. This finding amplifies the under-reported fact that overseas farmland acquisitions are sustained as much by the eagerness of host governments – and their local partners – to attract foreign investors as they are by the motivations of foreigners. The World Bank does not comment on the character of these “local investors,” though anecdotal evidence suggests they are not particularly warm-hearted.
In the Wilson Center’s 2009 book, “Land Grab? The Race for the World’s Farmland,” Raul Montemayor, who represents a farmers’ group in the Philippines, wrote about local partners hiring “goons” to intimidate smallholders into abandoning their land:
In 2009, there have also been many reports of small landowners being pressured and intimidated into involuntarily leasing their land. In some parts of the southern Philippines, local agents of palm oil agribusiness investors have been suspected of hiring goons to harass uncooperative landowners. Elsewhere in the Philippines and in other parts of Asia, rogue elements have reportedly been let loose to sow terror in target areas, forcing frantic settlers to evacuate their homes and farms, and making them easy prey for opportunists – who have readily offered to lease the settlers’ land in exchange for advance rental payments.Another important point in the report is that “private investors can contribute in many ways, not all of which require land acquisition.” Indeed, international investors can bring great benefits to local farming communities by simply providing them with more water-efficient technologies.
Unfortunately, the study sheds precious little light on the fundamental problem of these land deals: They are orchestrated by private investors and governance-deficient governments, neither of which demonstrates interest in ensuring their transactions are beneficial for smallholders and host countries on the whole. The actors doing the investing are driven by powerful motivations: private firms seek to boost bottom lines, and national governments aim to improve food security back home at all costs.
The World Bank’s talk about codes of conduct and other normative modes of fostering good investor behavior is well-intentioned, but ultimately naïve. It is unfortunate the report does not place more of an onus on host governments to pass new laws or enforce existing ones to protect their agricultural communities from predatory investments in farmland.
Michael Kugelman is a program associate with the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. Much of his recent work has focused on resource shortages. He is the lead editor of, and a contributor to, the 2009 book “Land Grab? The Race for the World’s Farmland.”
Photo Credit: “Cadillac Rows” courtesy of flickr user ken mccown.