Land purchases by rich nations in the developing world are swallowing up as much as one-third of some African states, undercutting efforts to raise food production, Oxfam has warned.
Demanding an immediate moratorium on World Bank funding for the acquisition of tracts of property, the charity said its figures showed an area the size of London was being sold off to foreign investors every six days.
The World Bank has tripled its lending to land deals over the last decade to more than $8 billion (£5 billion).
“The World Bank is in a unique position to help stop land grabs becoming one of the biggest scandals of the century,” said Barbara Stocking, the Oxfam chief executive. “Investment should be good news for developing countries not lead to greater poverty, hunger and hardship.”
Land investment in Africa has grown by a factor of two in some years as food prices rise and Gulf states join Asian tiger economies in trying to secure food and energy supplies through direct investment. Liberia, a war torn and impoverished West African country, has sold off more than three tenths of its entire land mass in the last five years.
Oxfam also plans to demand Downing St adopts a pledge to push to adopt global rules setting limits on the scope of acquisitions at the top of its agenda when it chairs the G8 group of nations next year.
“We want higher standards to govern these investments to ensure that the deals are transparent and that the people on the land can give their free, prior and informed consent,” said Max Lawson, Oxfam’s head of advocacy.
Two thirds of the land acquired by rich nation investors over the last decade is in Africa, the continent with the greatest food needs. The total acreage transferred to sovereign wealth funds, multinational food producers and even, hedge funds could provide food for one billion.
Researchers found that in the three year period between 2007 and 2009 only seven per cent of land in Mozambique transferred to agricultural investors was planted with food crops. At the time more than a third of families in the country did not have enough food to eat.
There is an alarming trend to grow biofuels on the land. In other cases countries have negotiated the right to export all production, even if a famine strikes the host country.
Mr Lawson said that three fifths of land acquired by foreign investors in developing nations was for export.
“It’s not growing food for the benefit of the local population,” he said.
Despite its strident opposition to the sales, Oxfam has made no study of the economic impact on developing nations of freezing investment.
The investments have been one of the strongest trends in Africa’s economic renaissance over the last decade.
The World Bank said it rejected Oxfam’s moratorium demands, while sharing its desire for investments to benefit locals.
“Taking such a step would do nothing to help reduce the instances of abusive practices and would likely deter responsible investors willing to apply our high standards,” it said in a statement. “Now, more than ever, the world needs to increase investment in agriculture, which is two to four times more effective in raising incomes among the very poor than growth in other sectors.”
Nkoyo Toyo, a Nigerian MP, said the large scale purchases amount to an attack on the dignity of African states still struggling with the legacy of colonialism.
“This buying up of land is negating all attempts to build sustainable agricultural development,” she said. “It is an attack on [Africa’s] food, its water sources, the nutrition of its children, its women and on its states.”
Support for Oxfam has been come from the Network of Farmers and Agricultural Producers Organisations of West Africa and the Regional Platform of Farmers’ Organisation in Central Africa.
A joint campaign in Britain will be launched next year with CAFOD, Save the Children and UNICEF.