By John Vidal & Claire Provost / The Guardian

The World Bank is helping corporations and international investors snap up cheap land in Africa and developing countries worldwide at the expense of local communities, environment and farm groups said in a statement released on Monday to coincide with the bank’s annual land and poverty conference in Washington DC.

According to the groups, which include NGO Friends of the Earth International (FOEI) and international peasants’ group La Via Campesina, decades of World Bank policies have pushed African and other governments to privatise land and focus on industrial farming. In addition, they say, the bank is playing a “key role” in the global rush for farmland by providing capital and guarantees to big multinational investors.

“The result has often been … people forced off land they have traditionally farmed for generations, more rural poverty and greater risk of food shortages”, said FOEI in a separate report launched ahead of the World Bank conference.

The event, which promises to focus on “land governance in a rapidly changing environment”, is billed as a forum to discuss “innovative approaches” to land governance challenges including climate change, the growing demand for key natural resources, and rapid urbanisation. But campaigners say the conference mistakenly focuses on how to improve large-scale land deals rather than on helping local communities to secure or retain access to their land.

The FOEI report suggests land grabbing is intensifying and spreading, especially in rural areas of Africa and Asia. “High levels of demand for land have pushed up prices, bringing investment banks and speculators into farming,” it says.

“The World Bank’s policies for land privatisation and concentration have paved the way for corporations from Wall Street to Singapore to take upwards of 80m hectares (197.6 acres) of land from rural communities across the world in the past few years,” said the groups in a statement accusing the bank of promoting “corporate-oriented rather than people-centred” policies and laws.

In 2010, the World Bank spearheaded the development of new principles for responsible agricultural investment to better ensure that land deals respect local rights, livelihoods and resources; these guidelines have also been criticised for legitimising, rather than challenging, the global rush for land.

Allegations of land-grabbing have hit countries around the world and have been accompanied by growing concern about whether large-scale land deals are delivering promised income and employment for local people. This week, a coalition of NGOs and research institutes is expected to release the latest findings of the Land Matrix project, which has attempted to systematically document recent land acquisitions.

Current estimates suggest that 80-230m hectares of land have been leased or bought in recent years, largely to produce food, feed or fuel for the international market.

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