Sunday, September 12, 2010

Stealing People’s Land Can Only Impoverish Them Further

The World Bank, an institution devised to divert aid money on its way to developing countries back to the rich and powerful, seems to have woken up to the sort of negative impact that its policies have been having on developing countries. I wouldn’t get too excited, though, because the negative impacts they are concerned about follow from their policies, which they haven’t changed in any way. And no matter how they appear to equivocate, it’s always worth bearing in mind who ‘international’ financial (and other) institutions are intended to benefit.

Grabbing land goes back a long way, hundreds of years, as does using people and resources in developing countries for the enrichment of people in developed countries. The monumental disaster, the Tanganyika Groundnut Scheme, which started in the late 1940s and was abandoned in the early 1950s, is just one out of many examples.  Like all of today’s land grabs, the grabbers were quick to claim numerous advantages for those who were being dispossessed of their land; employment, food security, development, mechanization, efficiency, modernization, etc. Such terminologies have changed little since the 1950s!

The flaws of the Tanzanian scheme were many and obvious from very early on, but there were those who thought they would make a lot of money from it. So vast tracts of land were destroyed and lots of equipment and other resources were wasted. Someone did make a lot of money out of the scheme, though it’s not certain who. But the losers were Tanzanians, the Tanzanian economy and the Tanzanian environment.

Land grabbing schemes of the last few years have already appropriated tens of millions of hectares, at very low cost. It is difficult to estimate how many people have been displaced and dispossessed but the number affected by the process will be enormous. ‘Investors’ will not be counting those costs, that’s for sure. They are anxious that we think of ‘feeding the starving’, even though 80% of the land hasn’t yet been used for anything. Ultimately, much of it is destined for non-food crops and for export to rich countries, though. What else would it be used for?

The World Bank has been talking about how to protect people in developing countries and their land. But they have been talking about a lot of things throughout their history. International agreements about accountability and transparency are a great idea, even better if there is some guarantee that they are upheld. But we know that all sorts of agreements are discussed, fewer are made and hardly any are ever upheld.

Land grabbing on a scale that is taking place presently is not happening despite the existence of institutions like the World Bank. On the contrary, such institutions were set up by rich and powerful countries so that they could stay rich and powerful. So we need different institutions, not the same ones saying the right thing while continuing the policies that have brought developing countries to their knees. The institutions are doing what they were intended to do, that’s why the World Bank needs to be abolished and replaced by something that genuinely represents the interests of the world.

The kind of land grabbing that is occurring at the moment will further devastate the most vulnerable communities, economies and environments in the world. People in rich countries may not be able to witness these phenomena as they occur, and the corporations currently enriching themselves are certainly not going to record them or make them publicly available. But by the time a handful of sound bites and photo opportunities are considered to be newsworthy by the world’s media, it will already be too late to reverse the damage.


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