Land Rights and the World Bank Group: Setting the Record Straight


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The leasing or purchase of agricultural land in the developing world has become a hot button issue as the planet has grown more crowded and the pressure to stake out more arable land – whether for food or biofuels – grows. At the same time, agricultural productivity in many of the poorest communities around the globe has stagnated and, unless higher crop yields can be attained, far too many people will remain trapped in poverty.  Helping such smallholders catch the wave of rising interest in farmland is a key aim of the Annual World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty, which began Monday. Our theme this year is ‘Land Governance in a Rapidly Changing Environment.”

It’s clear that this year, many stakeholders who are either taking part in the conference or criticizing the event from outside think that global interest in farmland in the developing world is at a tipping point.

The ominous narrative is as follows: Land will not remain cheap for long and the remaining areas of cultivable land that are not yet farmed (or which are used by locals who lack formal title) are vulnerable to speculators or unscrupulous investors. CSOs and other advocates for smallholder farmers worry that those unsavory actors will run roughshod over smallholder farmers, herders and other local people who lack the power to stand up for their rights.

Given these worries, it is an opportune time to bring together government officials and representatives of civil society, practitioners and the private sector to discuss policies that can help countries establish transparent land-governance systems.

Among the participants gathered in Washington are the very experts who design policies to help ensure investments in agricultural value chains and various forms of agricultural production boost rural economies and benefit locals. Case studies presented at the conference include research by several CSOs who highlight examples where poorly managed land investments hurt locals. Other case studies demonstrate successful efforts to raise agriculture productivity through responsible investment and to employ locals and safeguard their rights.

Lessons drawn from the papers and case studies will be critical to informing the Bank Group’s support to governments, as well as the way our institution works with other stakeholders.

Some CSOs are using the media to paint an inaccurate and distorted picture of the World Bank Group’s work and they are questioning the motives of the conference. A few have recently posted misleading videos wrongly implying that our institution is involved in the Malibya land investment in Mali as well as palm oil development in Uganda, when in fact the Bank Group is involved in neither. There are also claims that the World Bank Group is pro-investor and anti-smallholder.
In reality, the Bank has a strong track record of supporting policies to protect the land rights of local farmers, including poor people and women. We assisted Mexico with a program that registered rights to about 100 million hectares, giving local communities rights to develop land use plans and, where beneficial, enter into contracts with outside investors and we helped Indonesia register over 227,000 land parcels in Aceh after the tsunami. In Rwanda 9 million plots were registered, enabling small farmers, especially women, to invest and increase productivity.

IFC’s recently adopted Environmental and Social Performance Standards aim to protect land rights for local communities and environmental assets. As noted earlier IFC has no palm oil projects in its Uganda portfolio, nor has IFC made any recent investments in palm oil in Uganda.

The World Bank is working with developed and developing world partners as they set up policy frameworks and principles designed to facilitate transparency and accountability in decisions over land and investment. Particularly promising is the Nairobi Action Plan.  The Nairobi Plan was up in October 2011by the Land Policy Initiative, or LPI.  The LPI is a joint initiative of the African Development Bank, the African Union Commission, and the UN Economic Commission for Africa and was agreed in October 2011. The Nairobi Plan aims to develop principles that encourage sound and sustainable investments in land and to undertake efforts to implement land policies that facilitate equitable access and secure the rights of communities –including women, investors, both local and foreign.

Parties to the Nairobi Plan have already acted on their commitment to transparency and openness by working with partners to build an online Land Matrix that serves as a database on large-scale land deals.

Globally, there are also Voluntary Guidelines (led by the FAO) plus an effort to set out internationally agreed agriculture investment principles. These global guidelines and principles are attuned to the needs of vulnerable groups, especially small farmers and which call for existing land tenure rights to be respected.

We welcome engagement that will keep investors and governments honest and that can help us work together on issues prompted by the global land rush. This is an opportunity to put rhetoric aside and focus instead on finding practical policies and solutions that can help smallholder farmers and rural communities to benefit from the modernization of farming and the formalization of land rights.


Klaus Deininger

Lead Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

Join the Conversation

April 26, 2012

Well said. The notion that small farmers can simply grow their way out of poverty without capital, technology or access to markets needs correcting. Rather than lump all agriculture systems in a singular mythology it is useful to at least distinguish between "high", "mixed" and "low" value systems and their relative socioeconomic impacts. Glad you acknowldge that operational improvements in land registration and cadastre have yielded good returns and accelerated investment in diversified small-holder systems. It is time for a more honest conversation about how human and capital investments in all farming systems can be improved and not assume its all "land grabbers".

April 27, 2012

The author seems to be responding in part to a recent Friends of the Earth report on land grabs in Uganda and potential WB involvement.…

Regarding the palm oil development projects in Uganda, the key word, judiciously used in this blog, is "recent" investments. IFAD reports that the World Bank (not sure which branch) was the cooperating partner on the VODP (Vegetable Oil Development Project) until 2004 (project began in 1998). UNOPS allegedly took over from the World Bank in September 2004 after World Bank withdrawal over fears of non-compliance with WB internal forestry safeguard policies.

Haven't been able to verify this involvement, but if so, it would at least merit a closer look at WB involvement in the claims and not dismissal out of hand.

Nachiket Mor
May 06, 2012

Dear Dr. Deininger,

I wonder though if what we are implicitly regarding with some suspicison ("Land Rush") is not really an opportunity for small holder farmers and for national agricultural systems. I work in rural India (and am a former banker) and worry that small holder agriculture has reached its limits and policies that introduce friction in the sale and aggregation of land are directly hurting agricultural productivity and delaying the much needed (and inevitable) urbanisation. Migrants regularly do a very costly back-and-forth so that they can tend to their sub-scale and marginal lands when what they perhaps really need to do is to sell it and move permanently to urban locations.

Is it not perhaps better to acknowledge that we may have reached the limits of small-holder rain-fed agriculture in many parts of the world and to think much more carefully about non-distorting financial safety nets (such as universal and unconditional cash transfers for example) which could do the job of protecting people much more effectively than trying to make the land itself illquid.

I would be eager to hear your opionon on this as well as that of other experts in this field.


Nachiket Mor

Scott Root
May 22, 2012

Backing up a century, we need to revisit Henry George's proposal on Land reform. Access to the earth and it's resources belong equally to everyone. None of us physically created the Land and if we insist on relegating Land to a commodity we in turn relegate Life to the market. Land is a necessary component for sustaining Life and therefore it is Birthright of every human being. When you speak of Land you are referring to Land outside of urban areas but Land encompasses everything underneath our feet - urban or rural. Everyone must live somewhere and that requires Land. This fact in and of itself determines that Land is an Inherent Right. Henry George spelled out how we can "share" the Land while at the same time respect "private" property rights using a system of Land Rent. By charging Land Rent on every parcel of Land that is based on current values and taking the resulting revenue and redistributing 100% of it back to every man, woman and child equally in the form of a yearly Land Dividend, we effectively setup a system where we are each equal owners of the Earth and share in it's value while at the same time give those individuals and businesses who earn their revenue off the Land the ability to continue to be profitable as well as retain the "private" rights they enjoy so long as the pay the Land Rent to the community. This effectively bridges the gap between the needs of Life and the needs of the market.