Land Grabs Part I: Are Land Grabs the price to pay for modernity?

Author: Solène Souplet-Wilson Image: Spooner.

A staggering 1.3 billion people work in agriculture, with an overwhelming 97% in the Global South. Beyond forming people’s livelihoods, land shapes peoples identities and culture. This is under threat. Unbeknown to headline press, a wave of land grabbing has swept across countries in the Global South, especially since the 2008 global crisis. In 2009 alone, 56million hectares were transferred between hands (more than twice the size of the UK), with 62% of these deals taking place in the African continent.

You may wonder, “what’s the big deal”, surely companies investing in land is great as these nations are finally getting the capital they need to develop? For the Bill Gates’ and World Bank’s of this world, you wouldn’t be too far off. This line of thought avoids emotive terminology of “land grabs”, as they conceptualise them as simple market transfers. For example, in the World Bank’s G8 New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition report, transnational companies are encouraged to increase investments in land, to offer their “expertise” and encourage “yield improvements”. These neutral definitions present a “win-win” narrative, as acquiring land and improving the yield-gap, improve food security for local communities, as well create profit for multinational corporations.

Unfortunately, this line of thought is grounded in a neoliberal discourse that fails to highlight the consequences to land deals. Author Ritu Verma supports this in her 2014 article in Feminist Economists, arguing that the key issue is that this reasoning posit land deals as the solution to the “land problem”: being low levels of productivity, “unsustainable” agricultural practise, corruption or “underutilised land”. Land is simply a resource for profit. Moreover, this narrative is part of the wider ideological stance that development is synonymous with modernisation, epitomised with Walt W. Rostow who put forward the idea that natural resource endowments enables developing countries to make the transition from “underdevelopment” to industrial “take-off”. This has led to the increased use of biotechnology. This leads one to question what role small-scale farmers can play in development and ‘progress’, as modernisation ultimately romanticises urbanity.

Beyond this notion of ‘progress’ and ‘development’, land deals often disrespect the rights of local communities as they lack the free prior informed consent of said communities. By violating their customary land rights, this often leads to a loss of access to natural resources, and leads to landlessness. In other words: dispossession. There are an overwhelming amount of examples of this violent process that this blog entry does not have the capacity or word length limit to include. (Check out, Land Matrix, Global Witness, la Via Campesina, GRAIN who have an abundance of case studies).

Moving beyond the binary debate of whether land deals dispossess people or develop economies, a series of questions are raised. Does land belong to those who work it? What does development mean for those affected by land grabs? More importantly, how do we Western consumers contribute to land grabs?

Verma, R. 2014. Land Grabs, Power and Gender in East and Southern Africa: So, What’s New? Feminist Economics. [Online]. 20 (1), pp.52-75. [Accessed 3 April 2014]. Available from:


Read part II here