by Ian Scoones, STEPS Centre co-director

There is something for everyone in the long-awaited World Bank report, Rising Global Interest in Farmland: Can it yield sustainable and equitable benefits? Some sections contain a damning critique of the situation; others a positive spin, with a narrative offering a bright future. Not surprisingly, then, the press have picked up different angles in the few days since its release. The Financial Times, for example, headlines with “World Bank backs farmland investment”, while Bloomberg reports the World Bank as saying that “Large Land Deals Threaten Farmers”. Both are equally valid interpretations of an often ambiguous report.

The bottom-line, take-home message seems to be that external investment in land is a good thing in some places, especially those where there are “large tracts of suitable land, but also a large proportion of smallholders with very low productivity”, but that governance measures, based on a set of high-sounding principles, are required to make this happen equitably and sustainably. But what does this mean? How should we interpret this report?

Overall, the report certainly offers a useful compilation of existing data and provides a selective review of other studies. Like other research, the report shows how the global ‘land grab’ is complex, often involving multiple actors, including national governments. It is not simply a rapacious grab by outsiders. Despite the concerns raised at the peak of the food crisis, many deals have yet to be put into practice and it is unclear what the longer-term consequences will be. But what new dimensions does it offer? The report has been long trailed, and there has been much excited expectation around its publication. Overall though it is a disappointment: long on detail, but short on analysis and flawed in key aspects of its methodology.

The highlights are some short case studies from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Mexico, Mozambique, Tanzania, Ukraine and Zambia. These show how land investments have very often failed – not only for the investors but also for local people. For Mozambique, job creation was “significantly lower than expected” and the investors “damage non-renewable natural resources (water) without compensation, disadvantaging women”. Issues of poor governance abound. In Tanzanian for example “investors often circumvent land acquisition procedures”, while in Liberia the “investor encouraged illegally on fertile wetlands and displaced 30 percent of the population”. These cases however are given only limited coverage in a long and rather dense study, and a systematic analysis of livelihood impacts and wider consequences for agrarian change in different locales is absent.

Elsewhere a bizarre ‘yield gap’ analysis takes up many pages and pinpoints the potential of vast tracts of land apparently suitable and available for agricultural exploitation in some countries. This of course conveniently forgets that such areas may be used for other purposes, and that existing land use may well be the most productive, equitable and sustainable. The heroic assumptions of the model are not very transparent, and there is little attention to past experiences when grand schemes for the transformation of the unproductive African bush ended in large-scale and embarrassing failures. The seductive imagery of satellite maps and projections of vast riches to be gained from exploitation are not rooted in a ground-truthed understanding of local livelihood conditions.

A set of principles – the famed ‘code of conduct’ – are hailed as the administrative-managerial solution to the troublesome governance problems of large-scale land investment, but there is no political analysis of how they might actually work in such settings. Pleas for an “evidence-based multi-stakeholder approach” are all well and good, but actual practice is a world away from such ideals. Other sections of the report, focusing on institutions and governance, show clearly why such principles are likely to be doomed to failure, given the lack of capacity, failures of institutional authority, corrupt practices and so on. There are clearly strong political economy reasons for a simplistic code not to work, yet this dilemma is not grappled with. Nor are the “open and impartial”, “accountable and representative” mechanisms by which local land rights get recognised, and more importantly, realised in such challenging settings discussed at any length. Good ideas about low-cost, participatory approaches to land registration, alongside broad-based processes of consultation, are forwarded, but will these really work in the forests of the Congo or the savannahs of Sudan?

In sum, the overall message is deeply confusing. The confusion arises from several fronts: methodological, presentational and conceptual. Methodologically, the report draws on data sources of highly varying quality. As the report admits, data on land acquisitions is shaky at best, and the Bank relied on government surveys, which in most settings are less than reliable. The mapping of agricultural potential and suitability is done at a large scale with assumptions which can be challenged on many counts. Yet the case studies, where particular examples of land acquisition are examined, are by comparison much more rich and detailed, offering some starkly contrasting conclusions to the cornucopian vision projected from space. The presentation of these highly contrasting perspectives is very unbalanced in the final report. The case studies occupy just a few pages in the main report, summarised in a one-page table and accompanied by only very tentative, shallow analysis. By contrast the land suitability study is given much more coverage, with its authority projected through a false sense of quantitative precision.

This mismatch between data sources, analytical depth and a failure to add them up into a coherent picture is the consequence of another major weakness: a narrow economistic conceptualisation. A political economy analysis of agrarian change and the role of large scale investments in historical perspective is essentially absent from the report. No surprise for something coming from the World Bank, but this lack of historically-located political analysis is a gaping hole. Without an understanding of what drives investments, what politics surrounds the deals, and the socio-political dynamics shaping livelihood outcomes, it is very difficult to make sense of recent events. The argument that investment in farming – and small-scale farmers in particular – rather than farmland makes much sense, but this is easy to state, but less easy to realise. Why is it that governments prefer large-scale deals over investment in smallholder farming? What factors are pushing the investment in land as an asset? What global connections between state elites, financiers and private businesses are significant? And how is it that the terms of incorporation within leases, contracts and partnership deals seem always to fail the smallholder?

These are very basic, first-stop questions in the fields of agrarian and global political economy. And this is the analytical terrain, unfortunately missed by this report, which reveals the dynamics of land deals, and which allows us to see beyond the economics to the wider politics of land.

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