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Land Rights

The purchase and lease of vast tracts of land from poor, developing countries by wealthier nations and international private investors has led to debate about whether land investment is a tool for development or force of displacement.

Overview

Secure land tenure is not just crucial to have a place to call home — it is also the basis of the livelihood for billions of people, especially Indigenous communities, farmers, herders, and fisherfolk. For the majority in this world, land is the common good, which communities share, preserve, and manage collectively.

However, following the 2007-2008 high food price crisis and financial crisis. looking for the next commodity to invest in, “investors” including multinational corporations, private equity firms, and pension funds, swarmed in to take over lands around the world. Their goal has been to convert smallholder farms, grasslands, and forests into monoculture plantations, cattle ranches, and mines.

Faced with this threat, local communities and Indigenous groups have been on the frontline in the struggle against land grabbing and destructive practices. Their claim over land and their resistance to its takeover is viewed as an obstacle to investment and business. This is why many governments around the world are encouraged to adopt the Western capitalist notion of private land ownership. Adopting this notion would make land a commodity and lead to the creation of land markets so that land can be leased or sold and put into so-called “productive use” to “unlock its value.” The World Bank is a key actor in the push to privatize and commodify land. In 2017, its Enabling the Business of Agriculture report prescribed policy measures to governments in order to “enhance the productivity of land use” and encourage agribusiness expansion. These included formalizing private property rights, easing the sale and lease of land for commercial use, and systematizing the sale of public land by auction.

However, the lack of evidence of development outcomes associated with the introduction of private title systems makes it clear that the privatization of land has nothing to do with fighting poverty or improving livelihoods. The “creation” of land markets has actually been repeatedly found to solidify existing inequalities in access to land. Within a market system where land is nothing more than a commodity, corporations and wealthy individuals can price farmers and herders, who rely on land for their livelihoods, out of the markets.

Whether it is through large-scale extractive or agricultural projects, urban expansion, or privatization schemes that transform land into a marketable commodity, the threats to land rights are multiple and severe, driving the displacement of local communities and the destruction of their livelihoods.

What we are doing about it
  • The Oakland Institute is a leading voice on land rights issues, working on the front line of the struggle to defend land rights, uncovering the drivers, the actors, and the impacts of land grabbing around the world.

  • Through research, policy analysis, and advocacy campaigns, we work directly with communities to defend their land rights when threatened by governments, private corporations, and international development institutions.

  • On the policy level, the Institute produces research and evidence that promote tenure systems, which ensure the land rights of communities, Indigenous Peoples, farmers, and pastoralists.

Publications

Engineering Ethnic Conflict report cover

Engineering Ethnic Conflict: The Toll of Ethiopia's Plantation Development on Suri People

Recently dubbed “Africa’s Lion” (in allusion to the discourse around “Asian Tigers”), Ethiopia is celebrated for its steady economic growth, including a growing number of millionaires compared to other African nations. However, as documented in previous research by the Oakland Institute, the Ethiopian government’s “development strategy,” is founded on its policy of leasing millions of hectares (ha) of land to foreign investors. Implementation of...

Unfolding Truth: Dismantling the World Bank's Myths on Agriculture and Development report cover

Unfolding Truth: Dismantling the World Bank's Myths on Agriculture and Development

In the 1980s and 1990s, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) intervention in developing countries’ national policies, through aid conditionality and austerity programs known as Structural Adjustments Programs (SAPs), triggered a wave of global resistance against the International Financial Institutions (IFIs). in the face of growing criticism that these policies increased poverty, debt, and dependency on rich countries, saps...

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We Harvest--You Profit: African Land Ltd's Land Deal in Sierra Leone

From rising food prices to growing demand for biofuel, the current obsession for agricultural land borders on speculative mania as private companies, hedge funds, private equity funds, and sovereign wealth funds join the land rush looking for lucrative deals in the developing world. An estimated 500 million acres, an area about ten times the size of Britain, has been bought or leased in the developing world in the last decade. The social,...

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World Bank's Bad Business in Nicaragua

Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Foreign direct investment in the country has more than doubled in past years, and the World Bank has been actively promoting foreign investment in the agricultural sector despite the numerous health, social, and environmental problems associated with industrial plantations in Nicaragua. One of the most damaging activities is the production of sugarcane for ethanol. The crop is...

Willful Blindness cover

Willful Blindness: How the World Bank's Doing Business Rankings Impoverish Smallholder Farmers

Established in 1944 with the objective of reducing poverty, the World Bank, headquartered in Washington, DC, is an international financial institution that provides financial and technical assistance as well as advisory services to enhance development in poor and transitioning countries. Despite its praiseworthy goals, the World Bank’s activities and undue influence over policy making in developing countries have come under heavy criticism over...

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Blog

European Union Bankrolls Deceitful Land Project in Ethiopia

Saturday, July 30, 2016 Alice Martin-Prével

The European Union and Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development are funding a €3.8 million ($4.2 million) agricultural initiative in Ethiopia. "Support to Responsible Agricultural Investment" (S2RAI), launched in March 2016, is a three-year long project focused on two western regions of Ethiopia: Gambella and Benishangul-Gumuz. According to documents made public at the project-launching workshop in Bishoftu on July 15-...

Green Resources Hedging Around Growing International Calls for Radical Reform of its Plantation Forestry Practices

Friday, March 25, 2016 Kristen Lyons and Peter Westoby

Kristen Lyons and Peter Westoby The Paris climate talks at the end of 2015 no doubt left some feeling as though global politics might have turned a little green. With a Climate Agreement aiming at keeping global temperature increase to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius, national governments have some heavy lifting to do in cutting emissions. The green economy—including carbon markets and other payments for ecosystem services—is being...

Why the World Bank Is Missing the Point on Agricultural Development

Wednesday, December 9, 2015 Alice Martin-Prével

Agricultural development is central to addressing some of the biggest challenges today: climate change, hunger, poverty, need for rural employment, and managing access to land and natural resources. According to the World Bank, climate change could push 100 million people into poverty in the next 15 years. Farmers will be the primary victims, affected by reduced rainfall, crop failure, heat waves, and floods. Yet, instead of investing in small-...

Trendy but Risky: Questioning Outgrower Schemes in Light of the Agrica Rice Plantation in Tanzania

Wednesday, July 1, 2015 Alice Martin-Prével

Contract farming and outgrower schemes are two terms used interchangeably to describe contractual agreements between farmers (outgrowers) and firms (offtakers). In contract farming, the outgrower agrees to provide a pre-determined quantity of a product at a given time and price, meeting the quality standards set by the offtaker. In return, the firm commits to purchasing the product and sometimes supports the production, for instance through the...

Who Owns Agricultural Land in Ukraine?

Friday, May 8, 2015 Elizabeth Fraser

The fate of Ukraine’s agricultural sector is on shaky ground. Last year, the Oakland Institute reported that over 1.6 million hectares (ha) of land in Ukraine are now under the control of foreign-based corporations. Further research has allowed for the identification of additional foreign investments. Some estimates now bring the total of Ukrainian farmland controlled by foreign companies to over 2.2 million ha;1 however, research has also...

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