Land grabs and Green Grabs: New Forms of Capitalist Accumulation

By Martha Pskowski (originally published on the Hampshire Political Writing Intern blog)

Narratives of scarcity and impending crisis, be it climate change, food insecurity or political conflict, are fueling corporations and nation states to “grab” land around the world to secure their economic interests.  Land grabbing isn’t new, it was the basis of colonialism, but it appears to be spiking in recent years and changing in form.  Among these changes are blurring lines between corporations and the state, the role of finance capital and speculation, and the phenomena of “green grabbing,” or land appropriation for environmental purposes.

Protester at Rio+20 summit in June 2012 (photo from Build It Green)

October 17 through 19 at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, I attended the second international academic conference on Global Land Grabbing.  The conference, hosted by the Land Deal Politics Initiative included over thirty panels and plenaries and where participants engaged in the nuances of land acquisition today.

The conference “Fast Facts” define land grabs as: “large-scale land acquisitions – either through lease or purchase – by powerful transnational and national economic actors from corporations to national governments and private equity funds.”  A variety of reports and initiatives are tracking the scale of this phenomenon and place it between 50 and 700 million hectares (123 million to 1.7 billion acres) since 2008.

I attended the conference to learn about green grabs, and specifically climate change mitigation programs which are facilitating land appropriation.  Several presenters provided insight into the role of U.N. and other international bodies in turning nature into a market commodity, in order to attract investment. Programs such as “Payment for Ecological Services” (PES) and “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation” (REDD+) view the ecological crisis as a market failure, and seek to further integrate ecological benefits to the economy.  While these programs do not necessarily take away people’s land, they impose restrictions on how people can use their land and create new ways to profit from it.  As presenter Kathleen McAfee has written, are we “selling green to save it?”

Central to these debates over land grabbing and green grabbing are questions of how to appropriately use resources to meet the needs of humanity, for food, energy, shelter and other sustenance.  Representatives from social movements issued clear calls for centering justice, access and the commons in policy and discourse. When it comes to green grabbing, many of these policies are on the verge of being rolled-out at a large scale under U.N. climate policy.  As researchers and activists, we need to address the root causes of hunger, climate change and other global problems.  Land grabs and green grabs aren’t the way forward.

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2 thoughts on “Land grabs and Green Grabs: New Forms of Capitalist Accumulation

    • Yes, it’s interesting to think about how this ties into domestic land policies as well. I don’t think it’s a direct connection always, but something important to consider. I don’t think economic incentives are necessarily bad; they’re really necessary sometimes. But what gets lost in those deals?

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