Land and natural resources: property and power in a globalizing world

Key words: Property, property regimes and property relations; access to and exploitation of land and natural resources; land grabbing, expropriation and forced evictions; state/non-state & formal/informal dichotomies and continuities in property relations; public-private sectors; sustainability and development; human rights; imperialism and neo-colonialism; common-pool resource, land dispossession; agricultural outsourcing; transnational land deals.

Organizers: Karen Büscher (Conflict Research Group) and Lieselot Verdonck (Human Rights Centre)

Speakers: Ellen Desmet (Human Rights Centre) and Jeroen Adam (Conflict Research Group)

Moderator: Hossein Azadi (Social and Economic Geography)

In her introductory presentation, dr. Ellen Desmet discussed the potential and limits of law as a tool for indigenous peoples to deal with increased pressure on their lands and natural resources, whilst dr. Jeroen Adam argued that land grabbing should not be reduced to a mere conflict between the ‘powerful’ global/transnational and the ‘oppressed’ local/subaltern. Both presentations highlighted the need for a more inclusive, but pragmatic approach to study land governance, which is essentially context-based.

The debate following these introductory presentations mainly dealt with the levels at which (micro, meso and macro), and the way in which land rush manifests itself, as well as how these levels are related and/or re-constructed. During that debate there were some recurring issues. Firstly, one should be careful not to generalize the phenomenon of land pressure. For instance, while in certain cases the national government colludes with transnational corporations, there are also instances in which it has an interest in keeping such companies out. Land pressure in rural areas should also be nuanced, as people increasingly leave their communities to find a job in the cities. Therefore, studying land pressure should definitely not be limited to a rural context, but increasingly occurs in an urban context as well.

Secondly, every researcher should be aware of the multiplicity of laws regulating land grabbing and natural resources. Different layers of legal regimes are simultaneously applicable. Power relations play out at these different levels. In this regard, there are three important observations. First, you should never tie one specific actor to one specific layer; they may strategically use different legal regimes. Second, the powers at work are not limited to laws explicitly dealing with land and natural resource exploitation. Third, these layers are constantly in flux and interact with one another.

Thirdly, the agency of local actors should not be underestimated and researchers should be aware of the presence of “local power elites”, who can dictate land reforms and institutional arrangements and can even effectively oppose global actors and processes.

Fourthly, legal regimes cannot be severed from social reality. Land reforms in fact result from and are impacted by social change.

Finally, one issue that was discussed at length was the question whether land and natural resources require strict regulation in the sense of formal property rights so as to ensure the sustainability of their possession and use by local actors. Eventually, most discussants agreed that the answer is negative. On the one hand, there are various examples of “sustainable local communities” (see, e.g., Elinor Ostrom). Moreover, the national government does not always have the power to impose its decisions upon local actors, whose active participation and involvement may be necessary for land reform to be successful. Further, it implies a critical use of the formal-informal dichotomy, since this same national government can in itself be engaged in informal land allocation (formal actors or institutions can work in a strongly informal manner). On the other hand, legal rights are never absolute and thus no guarantee of protection. More important is that local actors are empowered so that they can claim their rights.

The conclusion is that instead of speaking of good land governance, perhaps it would be better to emphasis smart land governance. People can be disadvantaged by both formal and informal arrangements and there is no “one size fits all” framework for organizing and studying land governance. Conducting interdisciplinary research on a topic such as land and natural resources remains challenging, because different disciplines start from different conceptual understandings, have different research objectives and different notions of “efficiency”, which in turn lead to different (context-based) approaches.

By Lieselot Verdonck