Contested Global Landscapes

A Multidisciplinary Initiative of the Cornell Institute for the Social Sciences

How much land does a man need? Leo Tolstoy’s famous question seems prescient today. Investment in land as a store of wealth is a familiar response to volatile circumstances. The past decade, a showcase of global volatility, has seen an enormous rush to acquire land. Dubbed a “global land grab” by activists, the World Bank estimates that the number of hectares of terrestrial surface rights changing hands has increased twenty-fold in recent years. Acquisitions globally are motivated by rising food and fuel prices, anticipated commodity and resource scarcities, new incentives for financial speculation, and concerns over dwindling spaces for “nature.” As reports of a “global food crisis,” peak oil, global climate change and ecological devastation multiply, the hunt for land and access to its riches similarly intensifies.

This ISS Theme Project analyzes the diversity and complexity of land deals both as a lived experience and as a changing set of global relationships. We contextualize the rush to enclose land within four related global transformations referenced to property, governance, economy and livelihood. Land deals signal important changes in the social relations constituting property and everyday tenure; in response, familiar property paradigms are being altered from above and from below. So, too, do they suggest changes in sovereignty among modern nation states as local authorities, non-profit organizations, and multinational players re-write the rules of land and resource governance. Equally important is the new political economy of land wherein global investment strategies and capital flows redefine existing production, distribution, and exchange, not to mention ecological relationships. This merges with land as livelihood—life support, social reproduction, and community resiliency. How are appropriations via purchase, lease and transfer and the expropriations they occasion affecting people’s ability to feed themselves, secure shelter, and access the basic resources of life in both urban areas or rural areas? Seeing land deals as a window on these larger transformations and the latter as lenses for understanding the complex rush “back to the land” defines our Project, as does the distributive justice concern of who wins and who loses from large-scale land deals?

Download the project proposal here.