Politics of IFIs in Asia: Displacement and Resistance for Land and Water

By: Mary Ann Manahan
Wednesday 18 April 2007 by LRAN

Mary Ann Manahan is a researcher with Focus on the Global South, and based in the Philippines. She works on common pool resources, mainly on land and water issues. She is also a member of the Land Research Action Network, a working group of activist-researchers and social movements monitoring land and agrarian change. She was in the Nyeleni Forum on Food Sovereignty as an interpreter and staff support for the Filipino delegates.

Stories of displacement and migration, lost livelihoods and homes, hunger and impoverishment are everyday realities for many peoples and communities across Asia. Their abilities to exercise their rights to self-determination and sovereignty over food, environmental wealth and natural resources are threatened by market forces. Employing a comprehensive and multi-pronged strategy, transnational corporations and international financial institutions (IFIs) have recognized that tremendous profit could be made in controlling the world’s natural resources. Land and water are considered as key assets to mining, industrialization, export-oriented agriculture and large-scale agribusiness— all lucrative investments that bring in much-needed revenues to cash-strapped public coffers. National oligarchies and less-than-accountable governments are natural allies of TNCs and IFIs, using the battering ram of IFIs and TNCs to implement laws that drastically alter the landscape of natural wealth. In the name of development, poverty alleviation, and economic efficiency, large infrastructure projects and privatization programs are transforming natural resources into investment opportunities and ‘tradeables’ or commodities, thereby undermining people’s access to and control over land, forests, water, minerals, biodiversity, genetic resources and traditional indigenous knowledge.

For example, as of December 2006, the World Bank has committed US$1.64 billion for its natural resources, agriculture and water projects in Asia, representing 23 percent of its total lending in the region. The WB’s extent of involvement in agriculture and natural environment ranges from land administration and management projects to infrastructure such as farm-to-market roads. In the same period, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has disbursed almost US$ 1.5 billion for agriculture, natural resources and water supply projects, accounting for 18 percent of its total lending. Many of these projects include privatization packages that supposedly would benefit the poor and marginalized.

Contrary to claims of IFIs, however, many of these projects have starkly failed to realize their intended objectives of poverty reduction, better service provision and economic growth. A case in point is the destructive market-assisted or negotiated land reform programs of the World Bank implemented in some 30 developing countries allowed the creation of land markets by establishing credits and land banks, a means of privatizing support services, so that the rural poor can purchase land and then sell them in a purported ‘willing buyer and willing seller’ market. In so doing, these land policies do not only undermine age-old demands for comprehensive and broad genuine agrarian reforms but are actually re-igniting landlessness and land concentration through mass sell-offs of lands as farming families struggle with heavy debts due to high interest rates from the land purchase and find themselves on poor and marginal soils with little access to markets. This creates more hunger and poverty in the countryside, increases rural to urban exodus, and fuels rural unrest. In Thailand, farmers from the Northeast are being threatened with eviction from their lands and forced restriction of their agricultural practices. This is because the World Bank- and Thai-government sponsored “land titling program” or “market-assisted land reform” promotes land as a commodity, which can be bought and exchanged in land markets. This becomes problematic in a country where formal land titling is a new thing.

IFIs’ rural development policy demands the transformation of subsistence agriculture to export-oriented one. Peasants and villagers in Indonesia are experiencing violence, harassment and forced evictions from their lands by local police and government as their lands are designated for oil palm plantation development. In neighboring Laos, through the Asian Development Bank-financed Forest Plantations Development Project, about 150,000 hectares of eucalyptus plantations are replacing swidden fields, native dipterocarp forests, and grazing lands. Instead of reducing poverty and raising revenues for the government, farmers and villagers fear increased poverty and loss of access to their lands. Across the Indian Ocean, thousands of farmers in the state of Andhra Pradesh have committed suicide due to increasing debts that they incurred from shifting to mechanized and market-based agriculture.

Other forms of privatization includes privatizing fish lots and communal fishing grounds, as in the case of Tonle Sap Lake Basin, which threatens Cambodia’s food security, economy and cultural identity.

Aside from land, the IFIs have also trained their resources on privatizing water and water rights. The WB had a total of US$ 1.8 billion financing for water supply and sanitation (not including irrigation, energy and environment) in 2005, representing eight percent of total lending. For ADB’s part, it has invested a total of US$15B water-related operations in 1968-99, or 19 percent of total lending. In 2006, total lending for water supply and sanitation was US$ 648 million.

The promise of ‘improved services and low prices’ through these projects has not been fulfilled. Many of the problems— debts, under funding and non-investment, skyrocketing water rates, broken pipes and water theft – characteristic of the pre-privatization days have resurfaced and have even worsened. In Manila, urban poor women have to wait daily for the privately owned truck that will deliver water to their community. They have to pay a hefty price of more than US$ 3 for a cubic meter of water, more than half of their daily income. This or they have to rely on the polluted water from a nearby stream. In order to save money on water, these poor households adopted “saving water strategies” such as recycling and reusing water for laundry, cleaning the toilets and watering plants. Yet, they keep wondering when the promised piped water made by the private company, Maynilad Water Services, Inc. ten years ago, would finally reach them. In neighboring Thailand, the Samut-Prakarn Wastewater Treatment Project of the ADB, which aimed to minimize wastewater pollution, has in fact done otherwise—directly harming coastal communities and killing mangroves.

This complicates further access and other issues related to IFIs support for mega infrastructure projects in the water sector like dams. What are intended to be the answer to developing countries’ energy and flood control needs further exacerbate displacement and impoverishment in rural communities. In India, the controversial Sardar Sarovar dam has displaced and further impoverished millions of indigenous peoples, fishing and farming communities. Similarly, environmental, ecological and social disaster hang heavy over the Melamchi Water Supply Project in Nepal, an inter-basin project, which will divert water from Melamchi River to Kathmandu valley through the construction of a tunnel.

Clearly, communities, farmers, fishers, indigenous peoples, consumers and the general public have been left in the dark, without access to information and are not consulted on how they want their land and water to be managed. When market mechanisms and people’s ability to pay become the means for wealth and power redistribution, the result is further exclusion of the poor and already marginalized.

All this results in growing resistance, and the advocacy for innovative approaches to land and water stewardship. Dam-affected communities with environmentalists, NGOs, academe and others in the Mekong region have time and again rightfully resisted and defended their lives and homes against the onslaughts of mega-infrastructure projects. There is also a vibrant and dynamic anti-IFI movement in South Asia and Southeast Asia that expose the real impacts of privatization programs in their communities and called for these institutions to get out of Asia. In Thailand, the Assembly of the Poor, Thailand Reform Network, and other movements have engaged in land occupations as alternative to the market-led and government’s inability to implement land redistribution. 4,000 rural communities in the North have gained access to about 2,300 hectares of land through a community land reform movement. This is also happening in Bangladesh, the Philippines and Indonesia. Alternative models such as water public-public partnerships (PUPs) are counterbalance to privatization and Private-Public Partnerships. In Malaysia and Indonesia, the most efficient water utility provides the cheapest water rates yet still earns millions of dollars in revenues; and it is public. In Taguig, Philippines, urban poor communities formed neighborhood associations to invest in the pipelines and are organizing on the ground to manage their water systems and groundwater resources.

Now, this resistance is brought together by the alternative model of peoples’ food sovereignty . There is a number of rural and urban movements in Asia, which are fighting for this model— the National Forest Peoples and Forest Workers in India, Indonesian Federation of Peasant Unions, Korea Women Peasants Association, Asia-Pacific Network for Food Sovereignty, National Rural Women’s Coalition in the Philippines, and the list goes on. Peoples’ food sovereignty as “the right of people and communities to safe, sufficient, healthy and ecologically sustainable means of producing, gathering, eating, storing and distributing food” is not possible without people’s access to and control over natural resources. More than 500 farmers, fisherfolks, women, indigenous peoples, youth, pastoralists and consumers from 98 countries, which gathered together in Selingue, Mali last February to strengthen a global movement for food sovereignty, attested to the urgency and importance of peoples’ command over resources. More than this, the Nyeleni Forum on Food Sovereignty offers much momentum, hope and inspiration—that indeed, food sovereignty is a model whose time has come. But there is still a long way to go, much to be done, to fully realize food sovereignty at the local, national and global levels. With relative successes, the movements in Asia are in no doubt up for the challenge.

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