Contested Global Landscapes

A Multidisciplinary Initiative of the Cornell Institute for the Social Sciences


The past decade has witnessed global outcry over a new era of ‘land grabbing’ and, in response, there have been numerous efforts to halt and reverse the corporate takeover of community land.

Initially presented as investors grabbing land from rural people, it has since become clear that most such ‘grabs’ involve national governments selling or leasing out land to private companies, often by dispossessing rural communities of their rights.

Though such moves may flout international law and human rights, they are mostly legal under national law. It's the result of a longstanding failure to recognize that customary and informal land rights constitute real property rights. This failure effectively renders invisible the tenure of millions of people across the world, and privileges only the minority of those in developing countries who hold private title to property.

The conundrum then is how to address the deficiencies of national statutes that render land grabs – which are illegitimate and flout human rights – nominally legal under national law. On a recent trip to Lake Victoria, I heard fishing communities talk about the effects of land acquisitions on their lives and livelihoods. In this post, I'll explore the issues and share some of their reflections.

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