Interpreting the Land Grab

11 October 2011

The so-called “global land grab” continues the historic process of land enclosures described by Sir Thomas More in Utopia as “sheep eating men,” when English peasants were evicted from the commons to make room for private estates.


The land grab is not new, and it is not a single phenomenon. It has multiple dimensions. It is the medium through which development agencies can renew their legitimacy via land “improvement” with codes of conduct ostensibly to protect inhabitants but practically to protect investments. It contributes to the investment portfolio of finance capital, restoring profits even as capitalism enters a profound crisis of political legitimacy, and energy and environmental limits. The land grab includes plans to incorporate southern peasants into the World Bank’s new initiative of “agri­culture for development.” And it serves revenue interests of host states and the security interests of investing states - anticipating food, water and fuel shortages.

Since peasants constitute the majority of the world’s food producers, and provide the majority of the world’s staple foods, there is rising concern about the long-term impact of the land grab. Land consolidation and/or agro-technologies not only portend a deepening of the homogenization of landscapes with ecological implica­tions, but also redirects food resources away from local communities—whether as commercial foods for distant consumers, or as agrofuels.

Land grabbing, even via voluntary codes of conduct, is represented by its handlers as a form of security planning for an uncertain future. Arguably there is no such security to be had, and the land grab – to the extent that it is incapable of recognizing the salience of low-carbon bio-diverse agriculture – is a modernist fantasy, as industrial biofuels and value-added agriculture will not resolve the combined problems of climate change and food insecurity. They will only buy time (and space!) in the short run for political and economic elites and consumers with purchasing power. In this scenario the longer run may well be catastrophic.

Philip McMichael is a professor of development sociology at Cornell University. His research concerns agrarian questions, food regimes and agri-food counter-movements. He is author of Development and Social Change. A Global Perspective (Sage, 2012, 5th edition), editor of Contesting Development: Critical Struggles for Social Change (Routledge, 2010), and co-editor (with Jun Borras and Ian Scoones) of Biofuels, Land and Agrarian Change (Routledge, 2011). He has worked with the FAO, UNRISD, IATP, IPC for Food Sovereignty, and La Vía Campesina.