US Corporations a Driving Force Behind ‘Unprecedented Wave’ of Global Land Privatization: Report

Jerri-Lynn here. This study on land privatization looks to be an interesting one, which I would write up if I did not already have posts in progress for today. So instead I leave you with Julia Conley’s analysis.

By Julia Conley, staff writer, Common Dreams. Originally published at Common Dreams

A study released Tuesday by the Oakland Institute details an “unprecedented wave of privatization of natural resources that is underway around the world”—one that is largely being driven by the United States and its allies.

According to the progressive think tank’s report (pdf), “Driving Dispossession: The Global Push to Unlock the Economic Potential of Land,” governments around the world—particularly in developing countries—are often put under pressure by financial institutions and Western agencies to open up land for so-called “productive use” by miners, agribusiness interests, and other corporate entities intent on exploiting natural resources for profit.

The U.S. in particular, the report says, is a “key player in an unfettered offensive to privatize land around the world.”

With deforestation and fossil fuel extraction helping to fuel the climate crisis, governments are being pushed in a direction that’s “just the opposite of the drastic shift we need to win the struggle against climate change,” Frederic Mousseau, policy director of the Oakland Institute and lead author of the report, said in a statement.

“Most of the land on our planet, especially in the Global South, is public land or land held under customary tenure systems [and] is seen as an obstacle to exploitation and economic growth,” Mousseau said.

The Oakland Institute included in its report six case studies in Ukraine, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Zambia, Papua New Guinea, and Brazil, finding that global land privatization is often directly driven by U.S. interests.

Zambia has been affected by what the Institute calls a recent “surge of American and European startups attempting to apply blockchain technology to land registries,” referring to the digital ledger created for Bitcoin.

The Zambian government is partnering with Medici Land Governance (MLG), a blockchain company and subsidiary of the U.S. online retailer, to assist with land registration and titling. According to former CEO Patrick Byrne, the use of blockchain “will help unlock trillions of dollars in global mineral reserves that are inaccessible due to unclear land governance systems.”

In Sri Lanka, a U.S. government entity known as the Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC) approved a five-year compact for the country in 2019, offering the Sri Lankan government $480 million to map and digitize public lands in order to “promote land transactions that could stimulate investment and increase its use as an economic asset.”

“The proposed MCC compact would shift control of millions of hectares away from the state towards private interests,” the report says, and was proposed by a U.S. entity formed in 2002 by Congress with the stated goal of “reducing poverty through growth.”

“In practice, poverty alleviation has taken a back seat to promoting private sector growth,” the report continues. “This has translated to countries shifting their policies in adherence to a neoliberal economic framework—including the privatization and commodification of land—in exchange for substantial financial grants.”

MCC compacts throughout Africa have “allowed investors to acquire land at bargain prices to facilitate large-scale industrial agriculture at the expense of smallholder farmers,” the Oakland Institute added.

The study also points to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s aggressive push to assume control of Indigenous territories in the Amazon Rainforest, appointing a member of one the country’s most powerful agribusiness families to head the Ministry of Agriculture. Illegal land invasions and massive fires driven by agriculture and mining interests have threatened Indigenous people while contributing to deforestation and the climate crisis.

As the Institute published the report while the Covid-19 pandemic is upending the global economy, the report points out that “returning to normal is not an option.”

Instead, the economic crisis “must be used as a catalyst to address the systematic issues surrounding the rampant overexploitation of natural resources that has driven the climate crisis to its current state.”

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.”

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  1. David Mills

    The Zambians deserve what they get appointing a company named after vicious bankers from the internecine period of the Italian city states to manage their “blockchain” land registry…

    Oh look, Cosimo owns it all now.

    1. greensachs

      This seemingly translates to the suburbs as well. As small community businesses are shuttered, deep pocketed private equity (newly flush) and large contractors are eyeing property locations for high-rise, high density housing with retail frontage.
      I can’t imagine a more dystopic view of community. Sequester populations on top of each other, Have them serve the corporate franchise overlords exponential profit seeking motives.
      Local governments see much needed revenue (as the cartels have the Treasury and central banks) and naturally the F.I.R.E. sector is enthralled. Public/private/prosperity for the same players. Sustainable economics?

      1. Margret Brady

        Morristown, NJ is a prime example. Town now hires planner, who work for developers at the same time and use redevelopment laws to create new zones permitting high profit development to take over older residential neighborhoods.

    1. tegnost

      “Most of the land on our planet, especially in the Global South, is public land or land held under customary tenure systems [and] is seen as an obstacle to exploitation and economic growth,” Mousseau said.
      Well we can’t have that…

    2. William Hunter Duncan

      Thanks for the link.

      Yes, that is what the economy is designed to do. Build up an asset bubble with pipelines of made up money from nothing, “realizing” immense profits; let the bubble deflate, the Fed makes up more money to buy up debt of biggest players and hand them more money to buy up the wreckage of the collapse for pennies on the dollar; own ever more of the economy/land over time. Rinse and repeat. Divide and conquer. Americans keep voting for more disempowerment and debt servitude.

    3. jr

      Thanks for the comments guys. Refeudalization is right, as Sagan said presciently we are entering a new Dark Age.

      Duncan, thanks for the breakdown, I’ve heard that’s how the ruling interests stole SanDiego, makes sense that it works nationally and globally.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    Establishing land title is central to power and control. Ireland was the best mapped country on the planet in the 17th to mid 19th Centuries – precisely because incoming colonists knew that if you had accurate maps, you could establish title more easily, so displacing native populations. Each wave of incomers brought additional quality maps, and these became the basis of title deeds.

    This has been an especially insidious process in decolonising countries, where the powerful have realised that he who establishes legal title first, wins. Most notably recently in Cambodia, a powerful elite have been displacing numerous poor farmers and slum dwellers under the guise of helping people establish ownership of their own land.

    It’s very difficult though to maintain a balance between ensuring that the weak can establish title on historic lands, without creating systems that either lead to the powerful using the laws for their ends, or indeed for small landowners to thwart necessary public works. In South Korea, for example, the relative weakness of land title rules has enabled the State to take a lead in creating vast new industrial areas (similarly with China), while Japan has had to resort to large scale land reclamation schemes to overcome the difficulties in persuading numerous small landowners to create larger holdings (this is one reason why Japanese cities sprawl over such vast areas, in contrast to more compact Korean and Chinese cities).

    An answer of course, is strong land taxation. If corporations can establish title over vast areas, maybe its better in some circumstances to let them. Then tax the hell out of them – Henry George had a point.

    1. DW Bartoo

      PlutoniumKun, consider what has happened in the “Exceptional Nation”, the one celebrated as “indispensable”.

      Corporations now, very effectively, determine tax policy.

      How would you prevent such power from controlling policy wherever it is permitted Monopoly ownership?

      Military empire has always claimed that it brought about “better” land use “efficiency” as will, doubtless, be the claim of Corporate empire, indeed that is already the claim, the essential boast, is it not?

      Again, looking at the “indispensable” nation as ready (and patriotic) example, what might we say about corporate land use in the land of the free enterprise and the home of brave private equity, in agriculture, in mining, and in petroleum production?

      Has it been benevolent, sustainable, responsive to the local environment and inhabitants, human and otherwise?

      Further, who would better husband the Amazon, keeping it the magnificent lifeform that it is, the indigenous people who have done so for thousands of years or corporate CEOs?

      Let us not confuse greed with reverence, profit with sustaining care, or “ambition” with spiritual connection.

      Years ago, a group of those human beings who were concerned about land-based resources, about protecting both the environment and stable human populations, postulated that the Earth is composed of “bio-regions, despite the artificial assumptions of national demarcation, and that those most likely to best care for those regions were those humans whose ties to those regions were longstanding and “wedded” to the wellbeing of those regions because the survival and success of those living within the regions depended upon the care and appreciation such regions receive.

      That seems a rather wise and informed analysis.

      Then, of course, might humanity, as a whole, if it is to survive, even to thrive, need to intentionally, and very deliberately, move beyond the current corporate moment of, let us be honest, expropriation and plunder?

      Of course, that requires imagining a future beyond Margaret Thatcher’s TINA (there is no alternative).

      1. Adam Eran

        “The cemeteries are full of indispensable men” – Napolean

        Incidentally, part of the sleepwalking here is neoclassical, neoliberal economics. It folded land into capital, so the classical trio of labor, land and capital as inputs to production are now just land and capital. How can you manage what you doesn’t really exist? Economists! Gotta love ’em.

        A captious economist planned
        To live without access to land.
        He nearly succeeded,
        But found that he needed
        Food, water, and somewhere to stand.

        – from Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing by Josh Ryan-Collins, Toby Lloyd and Laurie Macfarlane)

    2. RBHoughton

      “Establishing land title is central to power and control” – looking back two centuries to Cornwallis’ land taxes in India, that was precisely what the EIC did to impoverish the ryot and assume the wealth that came from his land holdings.

      When whole villages sought to remove to the land of another Rajah they were physically stopped by the Company’s army, their tools and barrows set on fire unless they returned to discipline.

      This is the model that the global south can look forward to and, as India seems to never learn from its past, those benighted people will do it all again.

  3. Yen

    Nothing new. Move on. No one cares. Atleast not the voters in the USA. Lets keep voting for senile losers and feel we are free and above the rest of the world

  4. Thuto

    Ethiopia immediately comes to mind. Large swathes of fertile land in that country are being gobbled up at an alarming rate by foreign “investors”. I know of a farm in the north of the country owned by a Dutch family that supplies fresh produce to 5 star hotels in Europe and the Middle East. The land was bought for next to nothing and the workers earn less than $2-a-day and often get paid with a small bag of maize, destined to never even taste the grade A produce their back breaking toil produces. Where before small scale farmers were able to feed their families and sell excess produce in community markets to earn an income, they’ve now become indentured (slave)wage workers on lands previously belonging to them. Tricked by unscrupulous politicians and foreign “investors” into parting with their land, these farmers have been dispossessed of the only form of capital they’ve ever known.

    Before Covid, African Land Investment summits had become must attend events in London and other western financial capitals, with government officials from target countries invited to come witness the divvying up of the most fertile parts of their respective countries under the guise of “investment”. This is the story across much of Africa, from Ethiopia in the horn to Senegal in the West and Zambia and Mozambique in the south. Most countries on the continent have a version of this neocolonial land grab unfolding as we speak. China too is in on it on the natural resources side of things and any leader who dares to even tackle these issues meets with an untimely end to either their lives or political careers.

    1. DW Bartoo

      Thank you for this comment, Thuto.

      It much appreciated for both its subject matter (little encountered on most “Western” threads) and it honesty.

      Ethiopia has long been plundered, both by outsiders, Italy for a long time, and privileged insiders which led to the independence efforts of Eritrea.

      Now, once again, it is up for grabs by the “astute” vultures of rapacious profit and punishing precarity.

      The colonialist mentality has moved from overt abuse, in “person”, to the refined, very distant, killing floors of speculative Big Finance.

      From beating “the savages” bloody, to soaring far distant “above” and beyond unseemly, brutal, unseen, and thus, unacknowledged, reality.

      “Progress” is a most wonderful thing, filthy lucre becomes clean, well-laundered wealth with no taint of scandal or injury.

      Before, in the past, bodies were beaten, whereas now, souls are simply crushed and the people dispossessed.

  5. ObjectiveFunction

    Some interesting stuff in those case studies, but really all just variations on a theme. Friends tell me that the rules of the road in most countries, developed and developing, are:

    1. Sorry for Gaia and all, but “leave it in the ground” is simply not a thing when there’s money to be made, outside a few rich societies who can afford to ship the socio-ecological impacts of their consumption overseas, out of sight.

    2. Oligarchs gonna oligarch, extracting various nontax payments in return for granting rights of use to the foreign enterprises. Tolling land rents with no value add (other than protection from other predators) is a huge portion of world wealth transfer; has been since Scylla and Charybdis.

    3. Whether it’s tribal chiefs, district commissioners, deputy ministers, or the Big Man himself and his cronies, *somebody* is gonna be Driving da Big Merc and Flying da Choppa.

    4. Western investors, whose reps are subject to anticorruption laws (unless they speak Romance languages lol), try to stay detached from these mud fights. That’s for the ‘local partner’ to mediate, in return for various flavors of free carry equity or its equivalent in ‘advisory fees’, options, etc.

    5. Who never wins, ever, are the little guys. At best, they get some token ‘development’ funds, a new school and temple, and use of the project roads and utilities. There might also be a few steady local jobs, usually security or gardening (locals trained up in skilled trades tend to end up working in the Gulf).

    What they never ever get is an ‘owners’ share in the market value of the land, or even compensation for its loss of use. And obstruction merely results in reassignment of the project to even less scrupulous (*cough Chinese *cough) developers who hire thugs (or just the army) to clear the way.

  6. Davenport

    This has been going on for centuries. Have you heard of the 17th and 18th century Enclosure Movement in England? Some point to this as the cause of the English Civil War.

    It would be interesting to identify how much of the money used to buy up land previously held in common came from commercial bank receipt for deposits (eg, the fiat currency of the day).

    I have a strong suspicion that the capitalist class was always simply printing money through the banking system as a scam for gaining and concentrating ownership. The game is simply to own everything.

  7. sam

    At least in parts of Latin America I am familiar with, traditional private land ownership did not depend on surveys and records but rather on local knowledge of topography (west from the big rock to the old tree and then north to the gully) as well as family tenure and heredity (that land has always been farmed by the X family and was last divided among their Y siblings). Transfer by sale was possible but required identification of potential claimants and confirmation of boundaries with neighboring owners. In the end title was based on recognition by the locals vs notations in a book. Outsiders found it difficult to determine the facts and marshall the evidence needed to prove title under that system so it served as an impediment to absentee ownership.

  8. Waking Up

    As long as the Transnational Capitalist Class runs the world with their sole purpose being profit, this exploitation of land, resources and the people will accelerate to a level we have never seen in world history. The current pandemic is just another exploitable situation for them around the world.

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