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.