Central Uganda can be a pretty barren and desolate place, a deeply rural region with employment hard to come by. So, when New Forests Company (NFC) chief executive Julian Ozanne, a London-based tree planter once married to X-Files actress Gillian Anderson, expressed an interest in the country, he was welcomed with open arms.
Ozanne, a former Financial Times African bureau chief and a graduate of the London School of Economics, has clearly brought much good to an impoverished region, planting more than 14 million pine and eucalyptus trees in central Uganda over the past seven years on three plantations that employ more than 1,400 people.
But not everybody is happy. Some communities around the plantations in the central Ugandan districts of Mubende, Luwunga and Kiboga claim they have been forcefully evicted in campaigns that some allege included arson. The communities also say they were not properly consulted and have been offered no adequate compensation or alternative land.
Disputes over land ownership in the developing world are nothing new. What appears to makes this case stand out is that the World Bank is an indirect backer of NFC through a $7m (£4.3m) loan it made to AgriVie, an agricultural investment firm that is a key shareholder in the London-based group.
But, according to a new Oxfam report, it turns out that these plantations in Uganda are by no means an isolated example of World Bank-backed projects falling foul of local communities. Last week, Oxfam accused the World Bank of facilitating land grabs in some of the world's poorest countries – through its $8bn-a-year agricultural loans programme – after a raft of formal complaints from communities affected by projects it has financed.
Some 21 complaints over land-rights violations have been made to the bank's ombudsman in the past four years from countries like Uganda, Chad, Cambodia and Panama. Most remain unresolved. In the case of NFC's activities in Uganda, the government's National Forestry Authority claims responsibility for the evictions, and the World Bank has "commenced a dispute resolution process" with the support of all parties involved.
NFC said it could not comment while the resolution process was ongoing, although the group has told the World Bank's ombudsman it does not assume any direct responsibility for the evictions, was not involved in carrying them out and was explicitly excluded from the process by the Ugandan government.
The developing world typically gets hit the hardest because property laws are weak to non-existent, and governments are hungry for the revenues and jobs that land deals can yield. In many cases, Oxfam argues, families may have farmed a plot for generations but have no legal title, making it relatively easy for governments to sell the land.
"Investment should be good news for developing countries – not lead to greater poverty, hunger and hardship," says Oxfam chief executive Dame Barbara Stocking (inset left).
The charity is calling on the World Bank to temporarily freeze its agricultural loans and review its advice to developing countries, help set standards for investors and introduce more robust policies to help stop land grabs.
At present, 66 investment funds, many of them from London, have invested about $14bn in farmland and agricultural infrastructure. That amount could triple by 2014.
A World Bank spokesman disputed the need for a moratorium on lending, and does "not accept the inference that the World Bank Group is facilitating or overtly supporting negative practices associated with large scale land acquisitions".
Oxfam responded: "We would argue, based on the evidence, that in too many cases, the application of safeguards for affected communities has not been sufficiently stringent."