State of the land: Reconfiguration of the power of the state and capital in the global land rush

06 February 2014

Who gets how much and what kinds of land, how, and for what purposes? These are the basic questions around the politics of land. The question of land politics has been resurrected in a big way recently, worldwide, and in ways significantly different from the past.

Understanding why and how this has occurred – with what implications – is critical to our understanding how to struggle against contemporary global enclosures.

Control of land has always been at the core of economic and political power. In the past, the traditional powerholders that have direct interest in land and agriculture were mainly the nation-state and the landed oligarchy – confined largely within national territories. They were also well linked to international capital, especially to agribusiness, food and timber companies. The convergence of multiple crises – food, energy/fuel, environmental crisis, climate change, finance – as well as dramatic and recent increases in the demands for commodities from newer hubs of global capital have however led to significant changes in the drivers, processes and characters of land grabbing; while retaining the main plot which is the logic of expanded capital accumulation.

The 2007-08 food price spike made many countries who used to rely upon the TNC-brokered global food system for a large part of their food supply to look for ways in securing complementary and alternative food supply partly through direct control over offshore food production. The realization that the world’s deposit of fossil fuel will be exhausted earlier than previously assumed and the pressing concern about greenhouse gas (GHG) emission have driven efforts to develop renewable sources of energy. Liquid biofuel is most popular to the world’s transportation sector because it is ready for use through blending with fossil fuel without requiring changes in existing dominant technology in the transport sector. The need to bring down the level of GHG emission has made various climate change mitigation initiatives quite attractive, many of which involve the forestry sector. In light of the financial crisis, companies are in search for alternative sectors to invest in, and in the midst of emerging investment opportunities in agriculture and land the latter has become a popular option for finance capital. And in all this recent transformation, the rise of the BRICS countries and some middle income countries (MICs) has required further agrarian reconfiguration – such as the rise of the livestock complex and its corresponding feed sector – as these countries become sources of capital to be invested and key sites of production and consumption.

One offshoot of this recent development is the emergence of ‘flex crops & commodities’: crops and commodities that have multiple uses (food, feed, fuel, industrial material) that can be easily and flexibly inter- changed: soya (feed, food, biodiesel), sugarcane (food, ethanol), oil palm (food, biodiesel, commercial/industrial uses), corn (food, feed, ethanol). It has partly solved one difficult challenge in agriculture: diversified product portfolio to avoid devastating price shocks, but not easy to do and achieve because of the cost it entails. With the emergence of relevant markets (or speculation of such) and the development and availability of technology (e.g. flexible mills) that enables maximisation of multiple and flexible uses of these crops, diversification has been achieved – within a single crop sector. When sugarcane prices are high, sell sugarcane; when ethanol prices are high, sell ethanol. When actual market for biodiesel is not there yet, sell palm oil for cooking oil, while waiting (or speculating) for a more lucrative biodiesel market to emerge (a feature not present in Jatropha). The emergence of flex crops is a logical outcome of the convergence of multiple crises. Hence, in a single crop sector we find multiple mechanisms of land grabs: food, energy/fuel, climate change mitigation strategies. It is these broader interlinked contexts that largely differentiate current land grabs from the ones that existed before. 

This has implications in how we analyse the current global ‘land grab’. Reducing the question of oil palm expansion to biofuels issue is only partly correct; and thus partly wrong. Charting recommendations for public action and framing policy advocacy campaigns based on such a flawed assumption is likely to result in less successful initiatives and campaigns (and worst, in problematical initiatives and campaigns). Looking only into the livestock sector in the context of the rise of the soya complex is certainly useful, but only partly correct. Recommending policy reforms for the soya complex framed solely within the livestock complex is partly flawed and certainly weak. Understanding trees and forests solely from their conventional uses of timber and pulp – and blind to the rising speculation on new or anticipated markets for biomass and ethanol as well as for carbon trading – will be largely problematic in the current global political economic context. Understanding the changing power configuration of transnational companies in the context of their conventional sectors, e.g. oil companies on fossil fuel, car companies on fossil fuel, remains relevant and important but has become increasingly insufficient in the context of the rise of flex crops and commodities where TNCs are increasingly engaged in ‘flexing’. Examining national and international regulatory institutions, instruments and principles based on their traditional sectoral approach: regulations for food, fuel, feed, and others will remain relevant – but has been rendered largely insufficient with the rise of flex crops and commodities.

This changed context has resulted in the contemporary global land rush: land has been revalued multiple times in multiple ways for multiple purposes. Up to a quarter of the entire land area of Cambodia has been carved out and allocated for Economic Land Concessions, while up to a million people are currently being relocated from the Gambella region of Ethiopia because their land has been allocated for large-scale land investments. Tens of thousand hectares of agro-forestry land in Niassa Mozambique has been allocated to a European industrial tree plantation company, while lands are massively re- concentrated in the hands of Brazilian entrepreneurs and companies in Bolivia and Paraguay. Many observers and groups have engaged in trying to quantify the extent of these land deals, offering various estimates of the total land areas that have been grabbed. But the methods of counting have been flawed in many ways, as pointed out more recently in critical studies. Understanding actors and processes of land deals are more important, in my view, than obsession about quantification.

The mainstream assumption about land deals by companies and those who support the idea of current land rush is quite simple. It is assumed that there is a solution to the convergence of multiple crises, and solution lies in the existence of marginal, empty, under-utilized and available lands. The World Bank estimates it to be: in the minimum at 445 million hectares, and at the maximum, 1.7 billion hectares of land. What they are saying essentially is that we can double the current 1.5 billion hectares of actually cultivated land without expelling people from the land or causing any food insecurity among the latter because these lands are assumed to be empty. This is the same assumption being used by companies and national governments in promoting and justifying large-scale land investments.  However, evidence shows that most of these lands are not empty: people live and work in these lands despite what official state records claim.

State of Power 2014 cover
State of Power 2014 State of the Land chapter(pdf, 347.83 KB)
Average time to read: 
5 minutes