Global Policy Forum

Seeing More Clearly: New Perspectives on the Global Land Grab

The recent 2012 international conference on global land grabbing reflected an attempt to place empirical findings in wider conceptual and theoretical debates. While the urgency of the topic has certainly not disappeared, this year’s conference focused on strong wider ideas and theorization of land grabbing. This helps to place the current phenomena in longer-term processes of agrarian change and transformation, and to understand the contemporary political economy of land grabbing in its historical context. In addition, this year’s conference increasingly saw land grabbing as a process that unfolds over quite long periods. All agreed that both short and long-term approaches for this vital issue are needed, and that a dialogue between academics, activists and policymakers is crucial.

By Ian Scoones

October 30, 2012

Land grabbing is never far from the headlines. It’s also an issue marked by secrecy in land deals themselves, as well as conflicts over evidence, causes and impacts. What should be done about land grabs, and who should do it, remains a topic of intense debate on the international stage.

So what new debates on this key global policy issues are emerging? The recent international conference on global land grabbing, convened by the Land Deal Politics Initiative (LDPI) and involving the Future Agricultures Consortium, explored a huge array of material on the subject across 120 papers and six plenaries.

What new perspectives were offered at the conference?  It is impossible to summarise everything of course, but there were a few things that struck me that had changed since the conference held at IDS in 2011, which I commented on in the closing session.

Context and theory isn’t just interesting – it’s essential

This time round, there was a greater attempt to locate empirical findings in wider conceptual and theoretical debates. The last conference was dominated by case after case, all fresh from the field. There was an urgency and immediacy about the presentations. This had not disappeared; indeed, as Shalmali Guttal from Focus on the Global South forcefully pointed out, land grab issues are perhaps even more urgent a year or so on.

Now, two strong areas of theorisation are evident in the papers presented in 2012: one focused on the broader structural, (geo)political issues, situating findings in wider changes, and reconfigurations of national and international power relations. Another focused on the intersections of discourse and practice, emphasising how discursive moves – and the narratives of ‘idle land’, ‘productive commercial agriculture’, ‘backward smallholders’ and so on – were deployed, and how practices – of measurement and modeling, categorisation and counting – influenced what happened where.

With this deeper theorisation of land grabbing, there is an increasing ability to locate current phenomena in longer-term processes of agrarian change and transformation, understanding the contemporary political economy of land grabbing in its historical context.

Land grabbing is a process

This related to a second observation. In 2012, there was less tired, unproductive talk of what is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ land grab. Instead, land grabbing is increasingly understood as a process, one that unfolds over quite long periods.

Despite the high-profile announcements of large areas having been ‘grabbed’, many are not yet under production, and some may remain speculative acquisitions and may never be. When new large-scale farms are established, they appear in a variety of forms – as estates or plantations, as nucleus arrangements with outgrower schemes, and many variants in between, across a variety of scales.

So understanding ‘impacts’ requires a much more nuanced assessment of who gains and who loses across class, age and gender; what the implications for labour are; what economic and social relations exist with areas around the new farms; and what patterns of differentiation and class formation unfold as a result of new investments.

These questions will be familiar to students of agrarian political economy, and have been well rehearsed in studies of large scale commercial agriculture in the past: but they are now being asked of new contexts.

Bringing people together

Finally, as with the previous conference, the discussions benefitted enormously from a great mix of participants. The LDPI is committed to engaged research which links academic research with practice. It is also committed to encouraging a younger generation of scholars through a small grants programme. Of the 40 odd grantees this year, around 20 were at Cornell presenting their findings. In the wrap-up session, Justa Hopna and Jessica Chu (two of the grant recipients), commented on how important such interactions are in the often lonely process of completing a PhD.

The benefit of a mixed crowd was evident in a well attended plenary session on ‘methods’ – that is, how we understand and know about what is happening. The academics Carlos Oya from SOAS and Marc Edelman from CUNY challenged everyone on the measuring and monitoring of change processes. Representatives from the Land Matrix Project, GRAIN and Oxfam responded, arguing how data and information must be deployed for different aims.

All agreed that rigorous approaches were vital in such a political-charged arena, and both the quick-and-dirty and the long and elaborate approaches were important complements. As an exchange on the politics of knowledge in a highly contested policy arena, it was gripping. It showed the potential for respectful, informed and engaged dialogue between academics, activists and policymakers.

The importance of this dialogue was also underlined by Jose Graziano da Silva, FAO Director-General, in his keynote speech on day 3.

What next?

The LDPI will be continuing its work, hoping to launch another competition for small grants in 2013, and will follow up the vibrant debates held in Cornell with some regional discussions in Africa, Asia and the Americas.

Meanwhile, papers and presentations produced for the conference are still being posted on the conference website, and there are plans for a series of journal special issues on a range of themes, as a follow up to the much-read Journal of Peasant Studies ‘land grab forum’, and issues on ‘green grabbing’ and ‘governance and politics’, as well as the forthcoming issue in Development and Change on ‘the state’.

As one of the world’s most challenging and pressing issues, there is now no shortage of informed, scholarly debate on ‘the global land grab’. We hope that the exchanges between participants at the conference will lead not only to understanding but also to action, as new alliances and networks are formed across the globe.


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