The term ‘land grabbing’ re-emerged on the international stage in the context of a spike in global food prices in 2007-2008. The media spotlight was initially focused on new players like Saudi Arabia and South Korea potentially acquiring vast areas of land in developing nations like Madagascar and Ethiopia to grow food for their own people amidst a fear of food scarcity. Prominent international development think-tanks helped to reinforce this framing.
Today, however, several years down the road, it is clear that this framing of land grabbing has obscured more than it was able to illuminate. It is important to unpack what land grabbing really involves if we are to understand what is really happening.
A better way to start to understand land grabbing is through the lens of political economy. From this perspective, land grabbing is essentially control grabbing. It refers to the capturing of power to control land and other associated resources like water, minerals or forests, in order to control the benefits of its use. That is, the project ‘to fix or consolidate forms of access to land-based wealth.’
This can include ‘virtual land grabs’ where “behind a façade of land acquisition for a stated purpose, there lies an agenda to appropriate subsidies, obtain bank loans using land permits as collateral, or to speculate on future increases in land values.”
Whether ‘virtual’ or ‘real’, land grabbing is inherently political, since what is at stake is the power to decide how the land and water can be used now and in the future. From this perspective, land grabs that are made more transparent are, in the end, still land grabs.
Land grabbing needs to be seen in the context of the power of national and transnational capital and their desire for profit, which overrides existing meanings, uses and systems of management of the land that are rooted in local communities.
The global land grab is therefore an epitome of an ongoing and accelerating change in the meaning and use of the land and its associated resources (like water) from small-scale, labour-intensive uses like subsistence agriculture, toward large-scale, capital-intensive, resource-depleting uses such as industrial monocultures, raw material extraction, and large-scale hydropower generation – integrated into a growing infrastructure that link extractive frontiers to metropolitan areas and foreign markets.