The World Bank’s landgrabs report

So the World Bank has finally published its big report on landgrabs (this after an earlier version of it was leaked at the end of July, as I noted at the time): here’s the news release, a 4 page issues note and a pdf of the report itself.

The report is upfront about the fact that many recent land access deals have been bad news for poor people – the result, it says, of factors like weak land governance and a failure to protect local communities’ land rights, lack of country capacity, unclear investor strategies, or lack of overall national development strategies that can help to identify where investments can be helpful. World Bank MD Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala puts it like this in the press release:

These large land acquisitions can come at a high cost. The veil of secrecy that often surrounds these land deals must be lifted so poor people don’t ultimately pay the heavy price of losing their land.

The report divides countries up into four categories, on the basis of two main variables: whether or not they have lots of surplus land, and whether or not they have a big ‘yield gap’ (i.e. between actual and potential agricultural productivity). Depending on which quadrant countries fall into, different considerations for governments and investors alike become apparent.

Arguably the key task for governments identified in the report is the deceptively simple prescription to “improve land governance to ensure that the pressures from higher land values do not lead to dispossession of existing rights”.

This means, according to the Bank, ensuring that existing rights are sufficiently protected to create the basis for voluntary transfers, having state land identified geographically and ensuring transparent mechanisms for its “management, acquisition, divestiture and imposition of land restrictions”, making complete and current information on land rights available to all, and ensuring accessible mechanisms for dispute resolution.

All fine in principle, though in practice about as politically charged as it gets. The Wilson Center’s Michael Kugelman, who edited an excellent publication on land grabs last year, is unimpressed, arguing that “the World Bank’s talk about codes of conduct and other normative modes of fostering good investor behavior is well-intentioned, but ultimately naïve”. That may well be true – although it’s not wholly clear to me whether the World Bank can really do that much to twist governments’ arms into playing nice on the issue.