Neoliberal discourse on land harms livelihoods and environmental security: Oakland Institute report

Studying the cases of countries like Ukraine, Zambia, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka and Brazil, the Oakland Institute report debunks some of the myths on development and land use propagated by mainstream economics, and calls for the preservation of commons.

July 17, 2020 by Abdul Rahman
Landless agricultural workers working the fields in Orissa, India. Photo: P. Sainath / People's Archive of Rural India

A report titled “Driving Dispossession: The global push to “unlock the economic potential of land” published by the Oakland Institute was released on July 14, Tuesday. The report debunks myths propagated by mainstream neoliberal economics about private ownership of land being the panacea for development. The report argues that the push to privatize communally held land not only dispossesses millions from their source of livelihood, but also endangers environmental sustainability.

The push for privatization  

The report highlights how large US corporations along with international financial institutions such as the World Bank, sometimes alone or sometimes in collaboration with the US government, use their political and financial resources to push countries in the global South to adopt their version of the “development model”. Under this model, countries opt for privatization of land in order to increase production. Corporations such as Overstock.com, a US-based internet retailer, also use their financial resources to propagate technologies such as blockchain to increase the rate of privatization of land and natural resources in countries like Zambia in the name of better and efficient management of land tenure and land ownerships.

The report notes that as much as 65% of all land in the world is stewarded by communities and is communally-managed with billions of people relying on these lands for their livelihoods. Neoliberal land privatization policies lead to large scale dispossession of local producers and indigenous people.

The logic behind such moves is a push towards private ownership of communally held land in order to ease its transfer to large agribusiness or mining corporations. This process of commodification of land derives from a firm belief that communal ownership and production is less efficient and less productive as presented by Latin American economist Hernando de Soto and widely used by the neoliberal economic discourses to argue in favor of privatization of land as a way of increasing production.

In many countries, community-owned land which has been creatively used by local people for generations is marketed as “unused” and “vacant” by the governments to be handed over to private corporations in the name of development. This trend is also seen in countries such as the US. This approach not only ignores the customary uses of land, but also neglects the ecological advantages of such use.

Frederic Mousseau, the policy director at Oakland Institute and lead author of the report says, that “governments are being pushed to adopt the western notion of private land ownership to give corporations access to natural resources-land, water and minerals- just the opposite of the drastic shift we need to win the struggle against climate change.”

The report studies the laws and policies adopted by the governments in Ukraine, Zambia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea and Brazil. However, it argues that this is a global trend. Talking about Brazil the report says that the Bolsonaro government, working in collaboration with the US corporations, is aggressively expanding ranching and exploitation of the Amazon at the expense of the Indigenous people and their environment. The government in Brazil, in complete disregard for all rights of the Indigenous people, promotes commercial forestry, agribusiness and extraction of mineral resources leading to dispossession and ecological disaster.

Resistance and alternatives  

The report in particular provides a counter to the heavily referenced Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto’s pseudo-scientific claim that titling leads to increase in productivity of land. The report holds this assertion to be false and cites examples of how investment in production, processing and marketing can lead to improvement in livelihoods of people without alienating land. For example, Brazil during the previous left leaning governments under Lula da Silva and Dilma Roussef adopted a policy of granting land and resource rights to Indigenous people and communities under a customary system and created a strong network of protected areas where it adopted land use planning to achieve a rise in agricultural production as well as decrease in the rate of deforestation.

The report underlines that though most governments in the global South have adopted the policy recommendations of international financial institutions and their donors, local communities and Indigenous people are actively resisting such disastrous moves and organizing various kinds of movements, which often combine preservation of livelihoods and the environment as a common concern.

Mousseau recommends that, “governments and international institutions must halt the privatization of the commons and instead move decisively to protect natural resources for future generations.”

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