When Fear and Favor Rule: The World Bank’s Systemic Land Displacement

May 6, 2015
The Feminist Wire

According to the UN’s Trade and Environment Review, food security, poverty, gender inequality, and climate change can all be collectively addressed with a systemic paradigm shift away from giant monoculture agriculture to localized organic farms. But to address where we need to be, we must first understand where we are. As such, I’d like to focus in on the issue of land grabs.

A land grab occurs when a wealthy transnational corporation or country buys up or leases land in a poorer state at especially low rates. Why does this practice take place? As companies grow and expand their profits, they exhaust their domestic markets and resources; they are constantly seeking out new markets abroad and regions where oil and other profitable resources can be extracted. So, essentially, global capitalism offers the notion that there will always be new markets, continuous resources, and sacrifice zones. These sacrifice zones are places where land, resources, and cheap labor are exploited, where extracted resources are processed and taken to core regions of global capitalism, like the U.S. and Western Europe, and where waste gets dumped back into these “disposable peripheries.” Land grabs have become more and more prominent, with purchases being made by Middle Eastern emirate states, Saudi Arabia, and China. Due to years of consecutive drought, Saudi Arabia, formerly one of the Middle East’s largest wheat-growers, began reducing domestic production by 12% per year as of 2008 to conserve water at home. Carbon offset programs, a market-based solution, also fuel land grabs. Corporations purchase land to convert to forestry plantations, which destroy biodiversity, in order to offset carbon pollution but also to gain revenues, through the selling of carbon credits.

The climate crisis is a structural issue perpetuated by racial and gender inequalities. Land grabs overburden the developing world’s agricultural labor force, a group that produces 60-80% of the world’s food. Forty-three percent of this workforce is comprised of women, yet women make up less than 20% of landholders. Grabs undermine the ability for small and local producers to survive, forcibly replacing women-led, regenerative farming with unsustainable food production led by exploitative corporations like Monsanto. Industrial scale farming is reliant on pesticides, herbicides, and intensive water usage, and it turns landscapes into mono-culture plantations. Plus, land grabs are for the production of biofuels, further displacing farmers and food production in regions where food scarcity is rife. Land grabs happen most often in areas with low recognition of land rights, occurring greatly in places where governments own most of the land and have systems of land tenure. This disproportionately affects women, as most lack sufficient land rights. And because they lack the rights, they cannot receive compensatory rental fees from agribusiness companies when these exist. The land grabs that enable extraction, deemed legal under trade policies, reinforce imperialist notions of entitlement (to land and labor) and racial superiority.

The Role of the World Bank

So much land is being bought up for intensive industrial agriculture that we are witnessing the greatest change in land ownership since the colonial era, with wealthier nations buying up the land of sovereign states. Many see this phenomenon as a new colonialism, where people are driven off their land for the purpose of capital accumulation for the global elite. Across the globe, land that once held cultural and ancestral significance is being commodified and made available to those with money.

This is all enabled through international trade policies set by institutions like the World Bank, created with the intent to reduce poverty and aid the Global South in development. So why place a critical lens on the World Bank? Because it is a proxy for capitalism and colonialism, and under the guise of development it pursues “growth at all costs” and undercuts people from determining their livelihoods and economic destinies. Essentially, the World Bank takes the money it makes from trading on Wall Street and donations from wealthier nations and distributes around $30billion per year, mainly in loans, to poor nations in the name of promoting economic development. But really, the World Bank is a link between Wall Street and the Global South, with an extreme ideology that any economic activity is good, regardless of who reaps all or most of the benefits (a classic feature of neoliberal “trickle down economics”). It promotes the belief that open markets for the private sector will bring more growth and development to rural areas than state-led or community-driven programs.

The World Bank has a Doing Business Report, that ranks countries based on “ease of doing business” and the fewer regulations a country has, the higher it scores. This sets the parameters for what “business friendly” looks like for countries desperately seeking aid and investment. Regulations that protect workers and the land are considered bad, while those that protect investors and companies, by enabling them to land grab and avoid taxes, are good. This sort of one-size-fits-all approach enriches elites and ignores the fact that certain regulations are necessary for a fair and environmentally safe society. What the World Bank considers good for business is detrimental to some of the world’s most vulnerable communities and land, creating a race to the bottom.

The report’s ranking system is considered a powerful tool in compelling countries to deregulate their markets (driving a quarter of the 2,100 policy changes recorded since the first edition launch in 2003) and for businesses and lenders, including the World Bank, to invest in particular regions. Furthermore, the struggle for transnationals or wealthier nations to gain land is also the struggle for political influence. The practice of land grabbing spreads a neocolonial agenda in countries that appear sovereign. Institutions like the World Bank influence policy by setting aid conditionality on countries seeking aid. Policies benefit corporate interests at the expense of the social, health, and political needs of people in these countries.

Why Africa? (41% of Land Grab Deals)

Seventy percent of the population of sub-saharan Africa lives on traditional lands that, through colonial history, became state lands in independent Africa. This is why governments, again desperate for aid and investment, look to the private sector and sell off or lease vast amounts of land, at $1 per hectare per year, without consulting local people or offering legal compensation. Governments and investors propagate myths that land is going to waste, which under the false paradigm of an incessant need to accumulate and exploit capital may seem true. However, for indigenous populations like those in the Gambella region in Ethiopia, where each community looks after and tends their territory, rivers, and farmlands, this is certainly untrue. Much of the work of the Global South is at risk because it is incompatible with today’s development model of endless profit-seeking.

Rightful Resistance

The next logical step would be to look at what is being done to counter these historical and systemic issues. One notable struggle is the fight to secure more land rights for women. From East Asia to Africa, women make up a majority of the agricultural labor force, yet rarely own the land they steward and depend on to survive and provide to their families. This means that women must access land through their fathers, brothers, husbands, or some man who controls the land. This makes women especially vulnerable because once they lose their connection to their male relative, they lose their land. The issue of women’s land rights is being addressed and making strides in countries like Kenya and Tanzania. In 2010, Kenya adopted a new constitution granting women unprecedented protections for land. More recently, Tanzania’s proposed new constitution equips women with equal rights to own and use land. Securing land rights for women is a foundational way to increase income, security, health, and empowerment.

Another place to plug into may be the “Our Land Our Business” campaign. Over 200 different social movements and civil society organizations (CSOs), from peasant movements in developing countries to think tanks and activist groups globally have come together to demand an end to the Doing Business Rankings. The campaign began with a focus on one policy but has grown to a deeper critique of how the World Bank’s approach to development is undemocratic, pro-corporate, extractive, and anti-poor. The first public act was the World Bank actions, a twelve-city string of global demonstrations that occurred on October 10 in front of World Bank offices around the world. Representatives of civil society organizations were invited by the World Bank to attend an annual board meeting concerning their revised safeguard policies, which in reality served to revoke a lot of the protections. Many of these policies were established about 20 years ago after decades of civil society protesting. Representatives walked out of the consultations to protest the new draft and met members of civil society and took to the streets. The global solidarity of the Our Land Our Business campaign illustrates the need to connect the struggles of those facing new forms of colonialism to those of our hurting environment.

The Tides Are Rising And So Are We

As we’ve seen, the World Bank and other global institutions created to “aid in development” have in fact done the opposite. Or maybe I shouldn’t say opposite, because they have aided in development, just the wrong kind (and for the wrong people). The development these financial institutions are responsible for is the spreading of mass inequalities, corporate personhood, and land grabs. The issue of land grabs disproportionately affects womxn, as womxn lack land rights across the globe. To reiterate, less than 20% of womxn hold land and most often must access land through male relatives. Despite this and the myriad ways womxn are further systematically marginalized, solutions to climate change are known and practiced by strong and resilient womxn. Returning to sustainable, organic, and womxn-led farming techniques is one way to mitigate climate change, increase food security and lessen gender inequality and poverty.

A more horizontal worldview, one that sees us as part of nature and understands that an economic system seeking to infinitely grow on a finite planet can never be sustainable or just, lies at the heart of feminist environmentalisms. As small scale farmers, as community organizers, activists and educators, womxn are compellingly shifting the ways we relate to the earth.