From land grabs to the Anthropocene: exploring the politics of resources

A Kharai (swimming) camel in Kachchh, Gujarat. Camels are blamed by some for mangrove destruction, but they have long been part of local livelihoods, which are coming into conflict with conservation efforts and industry, according to a new STEPS research project. Photo: Max Martin, University of Sussex. Used by permission of the author.

This second piece in our series of impact stories looks at how the ESRC STEPS Centre intervened in debates on land grabbing following the financial crisis in 2007 and 2008, and how our work led us on to explore the impacts of ‘green grabs’ and ‘water grabs’, carbon offsetting, the green economy, the financialisation of nature, the Anthropocene and other aspects of ‘resource politics’.


2017 may be set to be a turbulent year for global politics, but a decade ago the world faced huge upheaval too. In 2007 and 2008, financial markets began a slide into the worst crisis since the Great Depression. As food prices rose, there was an explosion in large-scale land deals. The World Bank estimated that, from 2008–2009, approximately 56m hectares worth or large-scale farmland deals had been announced, more than 70% of which was in Africa.

Land in the Global South was being increasingly seen as a source of alternative energy (primarily from biofuels), food crops, mineral deposits (new and old) and reservoirs of environmental services. Buying up land also offered the ability to access water linked to it. A new era of ‘land grabbing’ seemed to have begun.

Who owns the land?

The Atomium in Brussels is symbolically ‘sold’ as part of a global campaign by Oxfam to raise awareness of land grabbing in 2013. Source: Oxfam on Flickr (cc by-nc-nd)

NGOs campaigning on behalf of poor people in rural areas raised the alarm. Governments selling land often claimed that it was vacant or owned by the state, but this was not always true: in many cases, supposedly ‘empty’ land was used by pastoralists, or subject to customary rights. In many poorer countries, there was a strong need for investment in rural areas, but the people living there did not always appear to benefit, and could be evicted or rendered landless.

As land speculation continued, researchers at the STEPS Centre and elsewhere saw the need for in-depth and systematic enquiry into what was happening. Behind the alarming worldwide statistics, there was also a need to know what was happening nationally and even locally.

Investigating claims about land grabs

In 2010, researchers from STEPS, along with institutes in the Netherlands, South Africa and the USA, helped to found the Land Deal Politics Initiative (LDPI).

The LDPI set out to address questions that could inform policies that would help rural poor people who were vulnerable to land grabs. Who was making these deals? Who were the winners and losers? What actors were involved, and what were they doing to each other? And how were changing environments and ecologies affecting these patterns, and being affected by them?

The LDPI’s first action was to provide small grants to early career researchers, particularly those from Africa, for field work and writing on land deals. So far, researchers in the scheme have produced 57 working papers on cases from around the world.

This was followed in 2011 by the first international conference on Land Grabbing, hosted by the STEPS-affiliated Future Agricultures Consortium in the UK.

Olivier de Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, speaks at the first international conference on Land Grabbing, held at the Institute of Development Studies.

The conference brought together 180 people from around the globe, linking researchers with campaigning organisations and activists (including Oxfam, Via Campesina and Focus on the Global South) and policymakers from the World Bank, USAID, the European Union and the UK Government.

The conference brought to light the corruption and failures of large land deals to deliver on their promises, but also why it was difficult to count, track and document them — from secret contracts to failed or stalled projects.

Jose Graziano da Silva, Director General of the FAO, addresses the conference via video.

A second conference, in 2012, came back to the debate, with a keynote speech from the Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, José Graziano da Silva (PDF).

This time, three big insights came to the fore.

The first was that land grabs had to be understood in the context of big structural, geopolitical issues, and changing power relations in countries themselves and worldwide — and longer histories of agrarian change. Land deals had not come out of nowhere. The second was that narratives like ‘idle land’ and ‘backward smallholders’ were being used, alongside techniques of counting, measurement and modelling, to influence what happened. The third was that land grabs were not instant — they often took place over quite long periods, in a variety of forms, with different impacts on different groups of people.

Not just land: ‘Green grabs’ and ‘water grabs’

An artwork by Filipino painter Boy Dominguez, used by the Journal of Peasant Studies for a special issue on green grabbing.

The work on land also highlighted another phenomenon: that of ‘green grabbing’. Land was being appropriated not just for food or fuel, but in the service of ‘green’ agendas: including conservation, biodiversity, ecotourism and biofuels. This built on long histories of colonial and neo-colonial captures of resources. But it now involved new forms of valuation, commodification and markets for pieces and aspects of nature, and an extraordinary new range of actors and alliances — such as pension funds and venture capitalists, commodity traders and consultants, business entrepreneurs, ecotourism companies and the military, green activists and anxious consumers.

In 2012, a special issue of the Journal of Peasant Studies, co-edited by James Fairhead, Melissa Leach and Ian Scoones, collected 17 case studies of green grabs from around the world. In Mozambique, a company was negotiating a lease with the government for 15 million hectares, or 19 per cent of the country’s surface — to gain land for trees that could be traded on global carbon markets. In Latin America, conservation agencies, ecotourism companies and the military were aligning to protect the Guatemalan Maya Biosphere Reserve as a “Maya-themed vacationland” to generate ecotourism profits, while assisting the government’s war on drugs and counter-insurgency. In the process, people were being violently excluded.

These and other examples like them represented the dark side of the green economy, where market-based mechanisms were intended to help sustainable development. In the worst cases, this was opening up ecosystems to be ‘asset-stripped’. The work on green grabs helped to highlight the need for more transparency, consent and accountability, and the recognition of how local people valued and used natural resources.

Another special issue, in Water Alternatives, drew attention to the neglected issue of water grabbing. It showed how a desire for water lay behind many ‘land grabs’, and how water’s very nature — fluid, variable and linked to farming, food, human health and energy production — made it difficult to assess the impacts of water grabs.

In almost all cases, the state played a vital role. Water is diverted to new agricultural investments, petro-chemical industries or thermal plants; small farmers and downstream communities lose access. In many cases, rights are withdrawn or redrawn. Looking at water grabbing exposed the power imbalances between governments and industry on the one hand, and communities or smallholders on the other.


Forests and carbon: win-win or a recipe for conflict?

Meanwhile, a STEPS project focused on carbon forestry in Africa — another example of where the rights and livelihoods of local people can clash with big new initiatives. In this case, carbon emissions in the rich, industrialised parts of the world are offset by growing or maintaining forests in Africa. The schemes are also supposed to promote biodiversity and alleviate poverty, providing a ‘win-win’.

The STEPS book Carbon Conflicts and Forest Landscapes in Africa (Routledge, 2015) explored the impacts of forestry projects in 7 African countries aimed at offsetting carbon emissions. As such projects take place in landscapes where people already live and work, there are winners and losers.

But the reality is often more complex. The STEPS research found that local people were often blamed for the destruction of forests, presented as a degradation from ‘natural’ environments. ‘Slash and burn’ farming is blamed even in areas where it is no longer practised.

The STEPS research showed how the carbon embedded in forests has become a commodity, managed through a highly technical set of mechanisms, schemes, measurements and exchanges, linked to UN initiatives to mitigate climate change like REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation). But these often come face to face with complicated histories in the places where the schemes are implemented.

In Zimbabwe, a project developer, Carbon Green Africa, has allied in Hurungwe with local Korekore farmers and the Rural District Council, offering a range of benefits, including carbon dividends and ‘alternative livelihood’ projects in exchange for protecting forests, and planting trees. But the local farmers are pitched against other forces, including politically-connected tobacco farmers who came to the area in the 1980s and 1990s, and other displaced farmers after the 2000 land reform. Divisions based on ethnicity, class, gender, economic priority and more divide ‘the community’ that is notionally involved in the project.

Multiple conflicts like this have emerged between land owners, forest users and project developers. Achieving a neat, market-based solution to climate mitigation through forest carbon projects has not been straightforward.

The studies from the carbon project were among those presented in 2014 at Green Economy in the South, the first major international conference on the subject. The conference was held in Tanzania to make it more accessible for Southern-based scholars to attend. STEPS also provided a web platform for the conference. The event provided an antidote to Northern-led thinking on issues that affected people in the Global South.

Resource politics

The work on land, green grabbing and carbon forestry fed into a larger theme of ‘resource politics’.

Land, water and carbon had been shown to be highly political at different places and times: but a debate had also grown around global attempts to manage resources. The ‘planetary boundaries’ described by Johan Rockström and Will Steffen drew attention to human effects on biophysical systems. It became more common to talk about the ‘Anthropocene’ — a new geological age marked by the environmental change caused by humans.

These ideas were hugely influential and therefore politically important. Could the ideas of the Anthropocene become a way to depoliticize struggles over resources? Did debates about the Anthropocene pay enough attention to the unequal contributions of rich and poor to planetary decline? Or could it be a useful tool for raising awareness of a potential disaster to come?

The STEPS/Stockholm Reslience Centre/Tellus Institute paper, Transforming Innovation for Sustainability, published in 2012.

This question and related ones were debated on the STEPS blog, with contributions from STEPS members, the Stockholm Resilience Centre and elsewhere adding to the debate. Along with the SRC and the Tellus Institute, we also looked at how these urgent ecological challenges required new approaches to innovation — approaches that would give far greater recognition and power to grassroots actors and processes.


Financialising nature and resource politics

Meanwhile, in the face of urgent demands to decarbonise and protect ecosystems, a variety of mechanisms and instruments were being used to value nature in a way that could be meaningful for markets and investment. This meant that vulnerable natural resources of all kinds could be treated as a financial asset or commodified. For some, this was a necessary way to protect ecosystems and ensure their survival. From other, more critical perspectives, this process of commodification ignored other kinds of value, and threatened the rights, livelihoods and cultures of people who depended on them.

In 2015, the STEPS Centre and the Centre for Global Political Economy convened a symposium on Critical Perspectives on the Financialisation of Nature, exploring how theory, politics and practical approaches could make sense of a growing number of market-based environmental products and services.

This was followed by an international conference on Resource Politics, which explored a wider set of issues — including the Anthropocene, social justice movements, the ‘green economy’, feminist visions for sustainability and many case studies of local conflicts and alliances from around the world.

The outputs included video interviews with keynote speakers, and a film of the debate between Stockholm Resilience Centre director Johan Rockström and IDS director Melissa Leach, picking up again on debates about the political implications of planetary boundaries and the Anthropocene.

This year, a new e-learning course from STEPS included a module on Planetary Boundaries and Resource Politics with free video lectures and reading lists. The module covers the big discourses around the Anthropocene, as well as drilling down into STEPS thinking about the politics of financialisation and resource grabs.

The STEPS Centre’s work on resource deals and resource politics showed the immense upheaval from the 2007–2008 financial crisis, with impacts still being felt almost a decade later. The markets, instruments and deals involved were built upon long colonial histories and unequal power relations.

But our work also uncovered new opportunities for alliances and methods between researchers, activists, communities and others to resist and challenge the way that resources were being debated, appropriated and used. Recognising the political nature of resources is an essential first step in this process.