The Political Ecology of Global Land Grabs: Food, Resources, Environment, and Development


Global land grabbing is in the news daily, but what is behind the headlines? Why are land and resource grabs important? How can we understand the role that they play in the rapid transformation of environments and peoples’ livelihoods around the planet? How might the many destructive aspects be challenged or changed? What is the relationship between land grabbing and hunger, climate change, growing inequality, poverty, and cultural and environmental destruction? And, of course, who benefits and loses most from the current waves of dispossession underway? This seminar is about land grabs and, in particular, its rapid increase around the world in the last decade. As such, we ask a number of additional questions: How and why do land grabs happen? Which information about them is heard and attended to, and which is not? What role does science play in predicting and assessing the impacts? How are certain styles of development and development paradigms deployed to either promote or counter land grabs? Who are the major actors and institutions actively involved—from nation-states to hedge funds to international environmental NGOS to sovereign wealth funds to transnational corporations? How do they justify the various forms of dispossession and loss of control over land and resources that communities around the world face daily? What are the historical antecedents that might inform our understanding of these processes from enclosures of commons to decollectivization to privatization of public spaces? How are government policies promoting or regulating land grabs? What is the role of social movements in challenging them? We start with a historical review of the struggle over land, and how this has shaped environment-development discourses, revealing competing approaches to key contemporary issues related to land grabs such as climate change, biodiversity conservation, sustainability of agriculture, population, food security, poverty alleviation, energy, community-based natural-resource management, environmental violence, and environmental and social justice. While largely focusing on the Global South—with reference to Asia, Latin America, and Africa—and policies driven by international institutions such as the World Bank, Food and Agriculture Organization, as well as dominant nation-states—such as the United States, China, Japan, and members of the European Union—the seminar will also draw upon examples from the Global North. We then move to epistemology and theory building in the social and environmental sciences. We examine diverse and contested approaches—from social theory to political ecology to political economy—that are being used to analyze land grabs. We discuss power and the construction of our knowledge of these processes of dispossession at international, national, and local levels. We will then explore these varied approaches to analysis with an eye toward identifying appropriate methodological means to assess land grabbing in practice. In our final weeks, we will examine the controversial efforts for reform and accountability—and associated movements for increased participation and democratization in decisions affecting control of land and resources of all kinds—as we creatively approach the essential question of what is to be done. There will be a number of sessions involving group presentations, debate, and role-play on specific case studies and issues. Conference work will be closely integrated with the themes of the course, with a two-stage substantive research project focusing on an analysis and critique of an instance of land grabbing of the student’s choice (usually grounded in texts but also involving fieldwork, where feasible, over October Study Days). The intent will be to provide inputs for chosen actors—from social movements to NGOs to market actors and formal policy makers. As such, project presentations will incorporate a range of formats, from traditional papers to multimedia visual productions. Prior experience in the social sciences is highly recommended though not required. Advanced first-year students are welcome to interview.