A Global Land Grab?

18 February 2010

The Future Agricultures Consortium, based at IDS, is embarking on a new initiative to deepen knowledge on the causes and implications of land grabs.

What are 'global land grabs'?

The phrase ‘global land grab' has become a catch-all phrase to describe the current explosion of (trans)national commercial land transactions revolving around the production and sale of food and biofuels, conservation and mining activities.

The convergence of global crises in food, energy, finance and the environment has driven a dramatic re-valuation of land ownership as powerful transnational and national economic actors tap into lands outside their own borders to provide food and energy security at home.

This is occurring globally, but especially in the Global South. The lands of the South are increasingly perceived as sources of alternative energy (primarily biofuels), food crops, mineral deposits (new and old) and reservoirs of environmental services. As a result, we are seeing a dramatic rise in the extent of cross-border, transnational corporation-driven and, in some cases foreign government-driven, large-scale land deals unfolding worldwide.

Around the world, various state, corporate and civil society groups have reacted, albeit in different ways. Some see this as a major threat to the lives and livelihoods of the rural poor worldwide, and so oppose such commercial land deals. Others see economic opportunity for the rural poor, although they are wary of corruption and negative consequences. And, of course, between these two extremes for and against large scale land purchases/sales are a range of intermediate positions offered by other groups.

Deepening debate

In-depth and systematic enquiry has become urgent and necessary in order to have deeper, meaningful and productive debates around this issue. This is the reason that the Land Deal Politics Initiative (LDPI) has been launched. The LDPI is initially a joint effort of research initiatives in five academic institutions: Initiatives in Critical Agrarian Studies at Saint Mary's University in Canada, the Future Agricultures Consortium at the Institute for Development Studies, the Institute of Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape, Resources, Environment and Livelihoods (RELIVE) at the International Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands and the Polson Institute for Global Development at Cornell University, USA.

It will be an ‘engaged research' initiative, taking the side of the rural poor, but based on solid evidence and detailed, field-based research.

The initiative aims for a broad framework encompassing the political economy, political ecology and political sociology of land deals centred on food, biofuels, minerals and conservation. We will use as a general framework the four key questions in agrarian political economy: (i) who owns what? (ii) who does what? (iii) who gets what? and (iv) what do they do with the surplus wealth that has been created? We will also ask questions about social and political relations: ‘what do people do to each other?', and questions about people-environment interactions: ‘how do changes in politics get shaped by dynamic ecologies, and vice versa?' The aim is to ask a range of big picture questions through detailed in-depth case studies in a number of sites globally, focusing on the politics of land deals.

A small grants opportunity

Today we are also announcing a small grants programme as part of LDPI. Grants of up to US$2000 (exceptionally more) per study are available to successful applicants who wish to undertake original field research, carry out follow up fieldwork on an ongoing related initiative, or write up a paper based on research that is being/has been undertaken on any of the LDPI's big questions (or combinations).

The Future Agricultures Consortium will be supporting Africa-based research, with the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies coordinating the effort as part of the Consortium's new ‘land and agriculture' theme.

Applicants from Africa, or those working on African cases, are particularly encouraged to apply. The closing date for proposals is 15 April 2010.

Ian Scoones is Professorial Fellow and joint convenor of the IDS-hosted Future Agricultures Consortium.

Photo: Panos / Paul Smith.