Regulating land grabbing?

Published on Pambazuka News, by Saturnino Borras Jr and Jennifer Franco, December 16, 2010.

Previously reviled as ‘land grabs’, international institutions increasingly paint the global land rush as ‘large-scale land investments’, providing fertile ground for ‘win-win’ development schemes. But, caution Saturnino Borras Jr and Jennifer Franco, ‘any scheme that guarantees only winners and no losers deserves our scepticism and a closer look.’

‘Land grab’ is the catch-phrase for the explosion of (trans)national commercial land transactions currently revolving mainly around the production and export of food and biofuels. Initially deployed by activist groups opposed to such transactions, the meaning of the phrase has been slowly eroding as it gets absorbed into mainstream development currents that see the global land rush as fertile ground for ‘win-win’ development schemes. 

What were once reviled as ‘land grabs’, are now increasingly seen as ‘large-scale land investments’. Telling signs of this conceptual drift are found in recent high-profile calls for a ‘code of conduct for landgrabbing’ and ‘principles for responsible landgrabbing’. Together they signal a shift in the discourse from alarm to acceptance of land grabbing … //


To get a better grasp of land issues today requires unpacking the vague category of ‘land use change’. Global land use today is changing not just in one direction (e.g. in favour of food or biofuel production for export); but instead it has many faces. A fuller understanding of land use change brought about by (trans)national commercial land deals requires empirical research and theorising that are able to cover the breadth and diversity of the actually existing social conditions and dynamics. It is also crucial to trace how these various directions in land use change (re)shape one another. And while mainstream institutions tend to focus their attention narrowly on issues of land use change alone, a better grasp of the current global situation demands closer scrutiny of the dynamics of land property relations changes – for these types of changes relate directly to the burning global issues of enclosure and dispossession.

This can be seen in the current (trans)national commercial land deals on two fronts. First, we see dominant social classes and groups (e.g. landlords, capitalists, traditional village chiefs) and state bureaucrats who have some kind of pre-existing access to and/or control over land resources, trying to cash in on the re-valued land property. They do this either by consolidating and expanding landholdings and selling or leasing them out to new investors, or by getting incorporated into the emerging new food and energy agro-industrial complex. This is happening in many countries today, including Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia, and in many countries in Africa. Some of these economically and politically dominant classes and groups and other corporate interests have expanded their food and biofuel production by swallowing up smaller farm units either by purchase or lease. This is partly the way the sugarcane belt of Brazil has been expanding. In short, the first front is on private land property.

Then there is the other, second front, which in fact is much bigger than the first and is the main target of the current worldwide massive enclosure. These are the non-private lands, often broadly and vaguely referred to as ‘public land’ or the ‘global commons’. The ‘non-private land category’ is huge – for instance, it comprises the majority of land in Africa. But here is where it gets tricky. Official categories do not necessarily reflect actual human practice. For example, while 70 per cent of Indonesia’s land is officially categorised as ‘state forest land’, (un)official private appropriation and use of it still occurs in practice. In reality, many such lands across the globe are productive farmlands under different farming techniques. Yet this reality is essentially dismissed by the claim of a vast global reserve of available agricultural land that is central to the World Bank’s land grab report in September 2010.

Massive enclosures on these two fronts (private and non-private lands) will be far-reaching partly because of the political-economic imperatives (convergence of food, energy, financial and environmental crises) of capitalist development and expansion, and partly because this process will be aided by 21st century hi-tech gadgets (computerised recording, satellite mapping, and so on) for clearer, cheaper, faster, and more efficient land administration and management, or efficient ‘land governance’. This is likely to result not only in undermining remaining moral economies in many agrarian societies, but it is likely to result in massive dispossession and/or displacement of peasants, indigenous peoples and other rural poor dwellers worldwide. Many of them will be incorporated into these food-feed-fuel production enclaves, some under relatively bearable conditions and some under more adverse terms. Many others are likely to be completely dispossessed; and some of these will be displaced and forced to migrate to agro-ecologically precarious and fragile settings.

The contemporary land grab phenomenon has started to gain momentum and is rapidly expanding. Institutional support for this process is varied and widespread, but largely justified by calls for the need for and feasibility of regulating land grab via a code of conduct or a set of principles on responsible land grabbing. Most recently, this has been expressed in the September 2010 World Bank land grab report. Still, the affected rural poor communities and their allies are not likely to simply accept the land grabbing process in the way the World Bank and its supporters might suppose. Already we are witnessing increasingly widespread ‘everyday forms of resistance’ by villagers and increasingly organised, widely networked and politically sophisticated campaigns by (trans)national agrarian and environmental social movements in mounting opposition. The character, pace, direction and future of global land grabbing will be at least be partly (re)shaped, if not blocked, by the actions of these social forces. (full long text).

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