Contested Global Landscapes

A Multidisciplinary Initiative of the Cornell Institute for the Social Sciences

By Holly Jean Buck, Cornell University

One popular question about land grabbing today was: What is new about the phenomenon? How is it distinctive from dispossessions and enclosures throughout history?

One possible answer is: it is taking place in the Anthropocene, the so-called age of humans, where humanity has become a geological agent through its modifications in earth processes.

Land grabs have the strange position of both deriving from and contributing to the Anthropocene, to human domination of ecological processes. Land grabs contribute to the Anthropocene because agriculture contributes to 12% of greenhouse gas emissions, and up to 30% if you count land use change (FAO 2009, IPCC 2007). If intensive monoculture expands via land grabs— the ones that just aren’t speculation— those figures could increase. Even “green grabs” imply greater human management of the earth.

So how do land grabs derive from the Anthropocene? This is the mechanism that today’s plenary began to explore: the speculative imagination. Both Melissa Leach and Tania Li challenged us to think about how land deals are initiated ‘upstream’, about the imagination of speculation and how the financial rewards of land are conjured. Part of this conjuring has to do with the idea of limits, of scarcity, of land running out. Of urgency. The worth of land becomes contingent on this scarcity, to some degree.

It’s not just profits that are conjured in the speculative imagination; the dark corollary is a vision of a hungry, neo-Malthusian world, with some kind of Hobbesian free-for-all in play. Fred Pearce, in his new book The Land Grabbers: The New Fight Over Who Owns the Earth, looks into land investment firms in London to see what devices they are using to conjure up capital.

Pearce reports that they are “peering into their geopolitical crystal balls” to tell stories of resource conflicts “around 2020″, employing graphs that correlate commodity prices and wars and calculating how to best take advantage of climate change. It’s a perverse loop: land grabbing benefits from the Anthropocene’s darker imaginaries, while going on to further humanity’s movement into the Anthropocene.

We are still coming to terms with the Anthropocene, working out culturally what it means for a species to induce change on a planetary scale. We don’t yet have cultural stories about what it means. But one of these stories could be about a closing of frontiers, of the map.

“The new land rush looks increasingly like a final enclosure of the planet’s wild places, a last roundup on the global commons,” writes Pearce. This observation has a grave resonance. The phrase “final enclosure of the planet’s wild places” speaks of permanence, of culmination. It also speaks of loss. The new age of the Anthropocene means that one era, the Holocene, is lost. And this sense of loss runs through the land grab conversation, too: Shalmali Guttal spoke about it compellingly at the conference’s welcome address. She stated that not just land is being lost, but cultures, values, and other intangibles: what is lost cannot be measured. What is lost from crossing into the Anthropocene and from land grabbing might be analytically separate, up to a point, but I would suggest that they mingle emotionally, and could be part of the same story.

It’s worth it to consider land grabbing and the Anthropocene and see how the concepts can inform each other. It’s also worth it to actively conjure against the routine apocalyptic visions of scarcity, conflict, and food insecurity that are a bizarre corollary to some land investments; fight the apocalypse-as-discursive-enabler. Li called for alternative images: alternative imaginaries are certainly need to create a narrative more compelling than the apocalypse for what the Anthropocene could be.

Holly Jean Buck is a Ph.D. student in Cornell’s Development Sociology department and blogs occasionally at

Photo: Circle irrigation east of Hartley, Texas by brewbooks on Flickr

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