The World Bank is discussing ways to counter land grabbing - which will be critical for fighting global hunger. But critics have charged the organization with participating in land grabbing itself.
There are more than 7 billion people on Earth at present - about a billion of them don't have adequate access to food. Of those who suffer from hunger and malnutrition, 80 percent live in rural areas. Experts project that up to 9 billion people will inhabit the planet by 2050, with most of population growth taking place in emerging economies like China, India, South Korea and Nigeria. Global demand for food is increasing, along with demand for biofuel and animal fodder.
The World Bank estimates that agricultural production will have to be increased by 70 percent within the next three decades to be able to provide sufficient food to feed the world.
Ending extreme poverty and hunger by 2030 is one of the targets being discussed in the draft for the so-called post-2015 agenda, which is to succeed the Millenium Development Goals. In this context, protection of land rights is supposed to be integrated into the new global development agenda, which is one of the topics of this week's World Bank meeting in Washington, DC (March 24 to 27).
Numerous strategies to meet the growing demand for food are currently being researched. Scientists are trying to find ways to produce artificial meat, while nutrition experts are promoting consumption of insects and worms as proteins in human diets.
While such new ways to feed a growing number of people in the world may prove helpful in the future, they're not yet at the point where they can be employed.
That's one reason why an increasing number of governments and private investors have been buying vast tracks of land in other countries - or trying to get long-term leases for them - to grow crops like wheat or rice for their own populations.
Large tracts of land are also being used to grow soy and biofuel crops like rapeseed.
Since the global food crisis in 2007 and 2008, which saw a huge increase in food prices, the number of global deals regarding agricultural land have increased massively, said Michael Windfuhr, vice president of the German Institute for Human Rights in Berlin.
Food security concerns are feeding the growing interest in arable land. Private investors, including banks, insurance companies and pension funds, are also taking a greater interest as "there is a huge amount of capital available, since the real estate market in the US is not so lucrative anymore," according to Windfuhr.
On the backs of the poor
Emerging economies are among the biggest investors in land, since they have to feed a population that's increasing quickly. Rich oil-producing countries in the Persian Gulf are also increasingly buying or renting land in more fertile regions, where it's cheaper to produce food crops than in the dry deserts of the Arabian Peninsula.
The aid organization Oxfam estimates that more than 227 million hectares of land have been bought or leased worldwide since 2000. Most of these deals were struck after the sharp increase in global food prices after 2008.
According to the World Bank, in 2009 alone some 60 million hectares of land were bought or leased by private investors. That's an area almost the size of Germany.
"Our research indicates that land deals and land conflicts are increasingly happening in countries that have very little protection of land rights for local people," said Marita Wiggerthale of Oxfam Germany. She added that investors "are consciously picking countries where it will be easier for them to do business."
World Bank involved in land grabbing?
Many of these deals are being financed through the International Finance Corporation, which is owned in part by the World Bank. The IFC's task to support the private sector in developing countries and emerging economies.
However, these kinds of investments are increasingly fueling conflicts, Wiggerthale said. She cited a situation in Honduras, where the Dinant company received $30 million (22 million euros) from the IFC to extend palm oil plantations. But conflicts over land erupted with local famers in the Bajo Aguan region.
Dinant hired private security companies, which have been accused of being involved in evicting the farmers from their land. "Between 2009 and 2012, 92 people were killed in the Bajo Aguan region where Dinant was doing business," Wiggerthale said.
An investigation conducted by the World Bank ombudsman's office unveiled that the company had indeed been involved in evicting people.
"The World Bank's ombudsperson has repeatedly brought attention to problems connected with investments. But apparently the World Bank is not learning from its mistakes," Wiggerthale said.
Dinant discontinued its activities in the Honduran Bajo Aguan region in 2012.
Strengthening legal guidelines
Two years ago, the United Nations passed voluntary guidelines for responsible administration of land rights. The basis of these guidelines is the human right to food; access to land is key for putting this basic human right into action.
The UN guidelines also include rules for investments in land, forestry and marine extraction, as well as for expropriations and compensation processes. There are also proposals for agrarian reforms.
Michael Windfuhr says these guidelines indicate a change in attitude for the World Bank. "The World Bank always tried to prevent agrarian reforms that would redistribute unused land to poor people," Windfuhr said. "They always wanted to have this ruled by the market - like giving credits to poor people so they could buy land."
This prevented, for example, protection of traditional, communal forms of ownership and use for forests and pasture. For that reason, Windfuhr welcomes the new guidelines.
"German foreign trade and development assistance policies can orient themselves to these new standards, for example in granting loans to agricultural investors," Windfuhr said. They could also be used for investment in land, he added.