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'Socially acceptable' land grab rejected

Over 100 community and farmers’ rights organisations from across Africa, Asia and Latin America have denounced the World Bank’s proposed code of practice on land sales. They issued a statement today headed Stop Land Grabbing Now, which says that the code effectively facilitates the corporate take-over of rural people’s land.

The World Bank starts from the idea that any investment to increase land productivity in lower income countries and rural areas “is desirable in principle”.

It admits, however, that “some countries have been confronted with informal requests amounting to more than half their cultivable land area”. The World Bank also acknowledges that the key driving forces behind this phenomenon are far from philanthropic.

They are “the 2008 price spike in food and fuel prices, a desire by countries dependent on food imports to secure food supplies in the face of uncertainty and market volatility, speculation on land and commodity price increases, search for alternative energy sources, and possibly anticipation of payments for carbon sequestration”.

The World Bank adds: “The range of actors includes agro-enterprises in agri-food, biofuels, and extractive industries, private equity and other financial institutions, government-linked companies including sovereign funds, and individual entrepreneurs.”

The opposition statement contemptuously dismisses the World Bank code, which is any case entirely voluntary, saying:

Since these investment deals are hinged on massive privatisation and transfer of land rights, the WB wants them to meet a few criteria to reduce the risks of social backlash: respect the rights of existing users of land, water and other resources (by paying them off); protect and improve livelihoods at the household and community level (provide jobs and social services); and do no harm to the environment. These are the core ideas behind the WB’s seven principles for socially acceptable land grabbing.

The community and farmers’ groups say that facilitating the long-term corporate takeover of rural people’s farmlands is “completely unacceptable no matter which guidelines are followed”. They also warn that the World Bank’s principles distract from the fact that today’s global food crisis, marked by more than 1 billion people going hungry each day, “will not be solved by large scale industrial agriculture, which virtually all of these land acquisitions aim to promote”.

The statement sets out its own principles for land use which support the rights of communities, small farmers, fisher people and pastoralists. They would ensure local food supply and local control over water use and bio-diversity.

No surprise then that almost the first comment posted on the statement comes from China Farmer – aka a Chinese government official assigned to monitor this issue on the web.

He/she states: “This sounds like it was written by a westerner who does not understand local situations and does not wish to help people get out of poverty. Where is analysis? Why do westerners wish to help poor people but not help poor people be rich?” This is Chinese government speak for “don’t challenge the right of our new-style agricultural corporations to rove the globe making money”.

Those governments who are buying land for profit represent a new brand of colonialism in cahoots with the global corporations, but hiding behind anti-imperialist rhetoric. Those who are selling it are not much better. They can try to put people off the scent, but global fairness can only be achieved by ending the market in land.

This means completing the anti-imperialist struggles of the 20th Century with a new political movement to overthrow the élites who inherited the colonialists’ power and are exploiting it to the full on the same free-market principles.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
22 April 2010

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