Think tank decries global push to privatise land

By P.K. Balachandran | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 28 2020
Columns Think tank decries global push to privatise land

By P.K. Balachandran

One of the ugliest features of the modern world is the exploitation of natural resources for private gain, irrespective of its consequences for the environment and the larger community, especially the poor majority.

Humanity has started consuming the world’s natural resources faster than they can be replenished. Governments, corporations, and international financial institutions are wanting to put land to “productive use” in the name of “economic development and prosperity for all,” despite hard evidence that this has only led to an increase in poverty, says the US-based liberal think tank, The Oakland Institute, in its latest report titled: Driving dispossession: The global push to unlock the economic potential of land.

“To attract private investment, governments are marketing hundreds of millions of hectares of land as available without regard for those whose livelihoods depend upon it. They ignore the fact that as much as 65 per cent of the world’s land area is held by communities as a whole under customary laws and not by individuals. Billions of people rely on communally managed natural resources such as rivers, lakes, forests, and savannas for their livelihoods. For most of the people, land is a common good, valued as an ancestral asset with social and cultural significance,” the report pointed out.

Governments and corporations are eager to convert smallholder farms, grasslands, and forests into monoculture plantations, cattle ranches, and mines. But this only contributes to climate change, environmental degradation, displacement, loss of income and poverty, the report says. 

Western governments and Western institutions like the IMF, and the World Bank are pushing for the privatisation of land by dangling money in front of poor countries. In its 2017 report titled: Enabling the Business of Agriculture, the World Bank prescribed formalising private property rights, easing the sale and lease of land for commercial use, systematising the sale of public land by auction, and improving procedures for expropriation. Money was made available for such projects as an incentive.  

COVID-19 exploited

The report cites the case of Ukraine to show how even the distress caused by COVID-19 is exploited to sell a dangerous capitalist idea. 

“In Ukraine, the IMF has leveraged the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic to coerce Europe’s breadbasket into creating a land market, despite overwhelming opposition in the country. In March 2020, Ukraine ended the moratorium on the sale of land that had stood for 19 years, 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), has been laying the groundwork for the creation of a land market to the benefit of agribusiness and private investors who promise growth in exchange for access to land. Farmers, agricultural workers, unions, and the vast majority of the population of Ukraine have staunchly opposed the creation of a land market.” 

Blockchain technology

The land market is now getting speedily international with the adoption of ‘blockchain’ technology by many countries. The blockchain technology creates a database that is shared through a network of computers across the world. According to The Oakland Institute, the former Overstock.com CEO, Patrick M. Byrne, has said the use of blockchain for land titles will help unlock trillions of dollars in global mineral reserves that are inaccessible due to unclear land governance systems. In 2018, Byrne signed a multi-country partnership with the World Bank to expand the use of blockchain for registering land around the world.

Myanmar intends to put land to its most “efficient use” through amendments to the country’s “Vacant, Fallow, and Virgin” (VFV) Land Law. Passed in 2018, the amendments imposed a six-month deadline to anyone occupying so-called VFV land to apply for a 30-year permit to continue using the land, after which any unpermitted lands would be made available for agriculture, mining, and other purposes. 

The Government ignored the fact that far from being vacant or fallow, these lands were used by communities for farms, gardens, orchards, and forests and were governed under customary tenure systems. 

Hundreds of civil society groups from ethnic/tribal Karen, Kachin, Shan, Chin, Karenni, and Mon communities had expressed concern over the law, The Oakland Institute notes. In Rakhine State, the homeland of the one million Rohingyas now living in refugee camps in Bangladesh, 50 per cent of the land is VFV land. Given the refugees’ inability to return to Rakhine, these lands could be taken away by the Government and sold off to local and foreign parties.

While 97 per cent of the country is under customary land tenure in Papua New Guinea (PNG), the PNG Government is making available millions of hectares of lands for palm oil, mining, and timber operations under the guise of “unlocking” the economic value of land. The PNG Government aims to move 20 per cent of all land into a formal market by 2022. Already, due to the takeover of lands in the last 40 years, deforestation and environmental degradation, and destruction of livelihoods have occurred. 

In Sri Lanka, the US is trying hard to get the Government to sign the US$ 480 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact, a part of which (US$ 67 million), is meant to be spent on a land project focused on mapping and digitising 67 per cent of the State lands, with the explicit purpose of stimulating investment and increasing its use as an economic asset.

The Government formally owns an estimated 85 per cent of Sri Lanka’s 6.6 million hectares of land. Out of the State land, 1.38 million hectares are allocated to farmers through permits or grants. The proposed MCC compact would shift control of millions of hectares away from the State towards private interests. Lankan civil society groups and a Presidential Committee have called on the Government to reject the MCC compact. 

In Brazil, the far-right government of President Jair Bolsonaro is using pro-business, anti-Indigenous rhetoric to garner public support for seizing indigenous lands.

“Bolsonaro assumed office in January 2019 after a campaign in which he promised to expand the exploitation of the Amazon Forest, 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 Congress, he has succeeded at emboldening politicians and citizens alike, resulting in increased land invasions, killings and violence against Indigenous and land rights activists, as well as an acceleration of deforestation. The budgets, staffing, and enforcement of the agencies responsible for environmental and indigenous protections have all been slashed,” the Oakland report points out.

The Great Amazon Fire in 2019 was man-made says the Oakland Institute. “Ranchers set large portions of the Amazon on fire, threatening a multitude of indigenous communities and the ecosystems on which they rely,” it alleges. 

Myths about private titling

Most proponents of the privatisation of land use a development imperative justification. The idea that privatising land will bring development comes in part from the – now largely debunked – claims of Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto. Soto said “securing land rights” via private titles would improve access to credit, agricultural investment, and environmental protection. But research reveals that private titling has not increased access to credit and loans. The claim that private titles offer tenure security while customary systems remain insecure is often repeated, yet not substantiated by evidence. 

“On the contrary, the process of transitioning locally developed customary systems – that in many cases offer tenure security – into private titled land is likely to result in considerable social and economic displacement, while placing ecosystems at risk. While research has long shown the value of customary systems, Western aid agencies and international financial institutions generally fail to recognise the evidence and continue to advocate and support the privatisation of land and the creation of land markets,” The Oakland Institute says. 

In conclusion it says: “Rather than erasing local governance and negating individual autonomy, governments must instead build systems that incorporate a diversity of ownership and tenure systems, and focus on a development path that serves the people, instead of one that takes the land away from them for corporate profits.”


By P.K. Balachandran | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 28 2020

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