The latest report by the US-based Oakland Institute shows how West-backed schemes to make land marketable in the developing countries are hurting the interests of the underprivileged local communities there.
The Oakland Institute’s report entitled “Driving Dispossession: The global push to unlock the economic potential of land” begins by saying: “Many governments around the world have been prompted to adopt the Western capitalist notion of private land ownership. This includes the creation of land markets so that land can be leased or sold and put into so-called productive use to unlock its value.”
There is hunger for land among capitalists across the world because it is a very scarce commodity. Man has access only to 149 million sq.km, or less than 30% of the surface of the earth. And a major part of the land is “not” controlled by private interests but by community interests. “65% of the world’s land area is stewarded by communities under customary laws including communal ownership. Land is also valued as an ancestral asset with social and cultural significance,” the report points out.
The World Bank is a key actor in the push to privatize and commodify land, the report says. In 2017, the World Bank’s Enabling the Business of Agriculture prescribed the following policies to developing countries: formalize private property rights; ease the sale and lease of land for commercial use; systematize the sale of public land by auction; and improve procedures for expropriation.
The Oakland Institute’s report uses a number of case studies to illustrate the human rights issues arising from making land marketable for capitalist exploitation
“Land For Aid”
In March 2020, Ukraine ended the moratorium on the sale of land that had been there for 19 years in order to qualify for a desperately needed US$ 5 billion loan package from the IMF. The World Bank, along with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), had been laying the groundwork for the creation of a land market to the benefit of agribusiness and private investors who promise traditional landowners “growth in exchange for access to their land.”
However, farmers, agricultural workers, unions, and the vast majority of the Ukrainian population staunchly opposed the creation of a land market, as this would “allow agribusiness conglomerates, oligarchs, and private foreign investors to increase their already substantial control over land and natural resources in the country,” the report said.
Takeover of Communal Land in Myanmar
In Myanmar, government intends to put land to its “most efficient use” through amendments to the country’s “Vacant, Fallow, and Virgin” (VFV) Land Law. Passed in fall 2018, the amendments imposed a six-month deadline to anyone occupying VFV land to apply for a 30-year permit to continue using the land, after which any “unpermitted” lands would be made available for other purposes which could be, besides agriculture, mining and establishment of industrial zones.
“But far from being vacant or fallow, these lands are used by communities for farms, gardens, orchards, and forests and are governed under customary tenure systems. Those who call these regions home are confronted with the stark choice of rescinding their ancestral claims to the land in exchange for a 30-year permit, or facing eviction, jail time, and fines. The law has already been used to seize community land for palm oil operations, which threaten people’s livelihoods and the ecosystem,” the report said.
The Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar is particularly affected. The VFV law threatens their ability to ever return home from forced exile in Bangladesh. Nearly half of Rakhine State, where the majority of the persecuted Rohingyas originate from, is considered VFV land.
MCC’s Project in Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka, the United States Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) could potentially shift millions of hectares of land into private control, the Oakland Institute warns.
The MCC project is yet to be approved by the present Gotabaya Rajapaksa government. However, as per the existing plan, the project will extensively map and digitize land records of eventually up to 67% of the entire country. The state formally owns an estimated 85% of the island nation’s 6.6 million hectares of land. Of these, only 1.38 million hectares of State land are allocated to farmers through permits or grants.
In April 2019, the Board of the MCC had approved a five-year compact for Sri Lanka. The compact offers the Lankan government US$ 480 million over a five-year period to undertake both transportation and land management projects, including US$67 million for mapping and digitizing state lands in order to “promote land transactions that could stimulate investment and increase its use as an economic asset.”
In December 2016, a feasibility study of the MCC Lanka project was undertaken by the Center for International Development at Harvard University. According to this study: “the difficulty of the private sector in accessing state-owned land for commercial purposes” is one of the major constraints to economic growth. It noted that the “process of acquiring rights to develop land is slow and unclear, resulting in government’s inability to meet the demand for land needed for new private sector investment, including for export-oriented FDI.”
Fully adopting the findings of the study, the MCC compact contains a comprehensive Land Project, with a stated objective of “lasting improvements to the country’s land governance framework [to] promote land transactions that could stimulate investment and increase its use as an economic asset.”
The MCC compact is expected to first map and record State lands in seven target districts that cover 28% of Lanka’s land and potentially extend outside the target districts to cover 67% of all land, the Oakland Institute says.
Creation of this map will be accompanied bythe digitization of paper titles; conversion of permits and grants of State land into “absolute land grants”; computerization of the appraisal system for land valuation; and establishment of a land policy research group.
But this has led to bitter opposition to the MCC. Summarizing these concerns, the Alliance for Economic Democracy (AED) submitted a formal rejection of the compact in a letter endorsed by 53 civil society groups, academics, and local leaders. The AED warns that the Land Project will not address poverty and but only result in “land grabs by creditors, the transfer of prime land to multinational corporations, [and] the loss of livelihoods for local farmers,” The Oakland Institute report said.
“For dispossessed groups and ethnic minorities, the prospect of the government determining what land is vacant poses an enormous threat given the country’s history of war-related displacement, internal colonization, and landlessness,” the report adds.
At the time of Zambia’s independence in 1964, there was no private land. 94% of the country was under customary tenure and the remaining six percent under State control. This started to change in the early 1990s, when the World Bank and the IMF required the government to change land laws towards privatization as a condition for the restructuring of its international debt. As a result, Zambia saw a drastic reduction of communally administered land from 94% to 60%.
Amazon Forest Fire And Land Grabbing
In Brazil, the far-right government of President Jair Bolsonar is using a pro-business, anti-indigenous people rhetoric to garner public support for seizing the lands of the Indigenous people, the report charges. Bolsonar assumed office in January 2019 after a campaign in which he promised to expand the exploitation of the Amazon forest area; halt the demarcation of indigenous lands; and arm ranchers to allow the takeover of those lands for cattle ranching.
While some of his attempts have been blocked by the legislature, he has empowered politically backed land grabbers. Violence against indigenous and land rights activists followed.
“It was in this context that in 2019, ranchers set large portions of the Amazon on fire, threatening a multitude of indigenous communities,” the Oakland Institute’s report alleges. (The story previously appeared in The Citizen/Ceylon Today)