Resisting contemporary land grabs

24 October 2012

Land grabs do not always play out the way the investors and their government backers expect, and people are mobilising to resist them.

Following the acceleration of the global rush to grab farmland, precipitated by the convergence of crises of food, fuel and finance, processes of resistance are emerging on multiple fronts. Such land grabs do not always play out the way the investors and their government backers expect, and people are mobilising to resist them.

This week at Cornell University, nearly 200 researchers, activists and policymakers are gathered at the second international global land grabbing conference convened by the Land Deal Politics Initiative (LDPI). In intense discussions, participants are assessing what has happened and where, and with what consequences. One of those consequences has been a passionate and sometimes violent struggle against land grabs: either as a resistance to dispossession, or a struggle over employment terms and wages.

The case of Chikweti

In Mozambique, forest plantations funded from Europe have met with resistance from local peasants. Chikweti Forests of Niassa is a subsidiary of Global Solidarity Forest Fund (GSFF), a Swedish-based investment fund focused on the forestry sector in Mozambique, and established in 2006. Chikweti Forests of Niassa is the largest investment of GSFF, managing a total of 140,000 hectares in the Niassa province, planting fast-growing tree species, pine and eucalyptus, on 68,500 hectares. The land has been leased from the government for the period of 50 years, renewable for another 50 years. But the plantation started to encroach into the peasant subsistence plots, resulting in partial loss of land access and livelihoods of peasants.

The promised jobs for local people also did not fully materialize – and for those who have been employed, wages and benefits were below what the local population considered fair. The result has been an ongoing struggle by local peasants against partial dispossession and over the terms of their incorporation within the enterprise. In April 2011, there was a local uprising in several places, where peasants destroyed plantation trees and burned plantation machineries and equipment. A year after, they sent a delegation to Europe to amplify their campaign, supported by key allies in civil society organisations: UNAC Mozambique, the Transnational Institute and the Food First Information and Action Network (FIAN). It remains to be seen whether their collective action will be successful, and their demands met.

Struggles on two fronts

The Chikweti case demonstrates some of the key issues about people’s struggles around land grabbing in various parts of the world today. When corporations need the land but not the local labour, land deals result in the expulsion of people from the land. Land deals that create large-scale, industrial monocrop plantations that are generally labour-saving usually result in varying extents of expulsion. But there are many cases too in which labour is needed. When this happens, sections of the local population are incorporated into the emerging enterprises, but usually adversely: partial employment for part-time jobs, paid with low wages.

These two broad outcomes of land deals provoke two broad types of resistance: resistance against dispossession and struggle over the terms of incorporation. Either of the struggles can be the defining feature of a particular case depending on the actual condition. Villagers in Kampung Speu in Cambodia have been struggling for some time now against expulsion from the land without much success, while across Indonesia we see numerous struggles over the terms of their incorporation into the oil palm complex either as contracted small farmers or as plantation workers. But there are cases where we see these two struggle fronts in one case, such as the Chikweti case.

What we are witnessing, and will continue to witness, are struggles around these two broad fronts. It is wrong to assume that all protests around land deals are against the deals; it can very well be about local people who want the deal, but on better terms. In many local farm-based societies affected by global land grabbing, local people’s political actions in either of these two fronts are triggered less by how much was taken from them, but by how much was left. That is, when their subsistence interest is threatened. The local population in Niassa seems to be not much concerned that the company now controls a vast area of forestland. What triggered their militant local protest was when their subsistence plots were taken over, and the promised jobs did not fully materialise.


About Land Grabbing II

The second international academic conference on Land Grabbing was held at Cornell University from 17-19 October 2012. For more information, visit the conference website.

The Storify feed for Land Grabs II has a selection of social media video and images from the conference. You can see tweets from the conference at #landgrabs2.

The conference is the second event in a series organised by the Land Deals Politics Initiative, which includes the Future Agricultures Consortium, the International Institute of Social Studies, the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), and the Polson Institute for Global Development at Cornell University.


Photo by Bread of the World