Workshop: Land deals and their consequences in the Global South

May 17, 2018

The last decade has seen a massive increase in large-scale land deals in many countries of the Global South – a phenomenon that has had far-reaching consequences for the local population, the environment, and economic relations. These processes will be the topic of an international workshop “Transformations and visions: responses, alternatives and resistances to large-scale land deals in the Global South” on 23–25 May at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. The workshop will be held in English.

Land as an object of speculation
Land suitable for agriculture is a resource that is becoming ever more scarce. Consequently, a decade ago, in the wake of the financial and food crisis, international investors and national governments in the Global South began taking increased economic interest in this resource. The result: large parcels of land are being  leased out or sold for industrial-scale production of food and other agricultural products. “Of course, land has always been an object of economic interest,” explains Dr. Christina Gabbert, co-organizer of the workshop and coordinator of the international research initiative “Lands of the Future” founded at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. “However, what is new is the scale and the pace at which land is currently becoming an object of speculation. Also new is the use of large amounts of land for growing cut flowers or sugar cane, cotton, and oilseed crops – all products destined almost exclusively for export.”

The loss of traditional knowledge
These enormous alterations are not just the actions of investors in the Global North. Governments in the Global South have also long since recognized the importance of their countries as economic players and have opened the doors to investments from around the world. “It is often claimed that the land being leased out had previously been uninhabited and unused,” Gabbert says. “But in many cases that is not the case.” In fact, the land being transformed into tilled acreage has often long served as grazing land and for agriculture by pastoral and agro-pastoral communities who have developed ways to effectively use this land in spite of extremely difficult climatic and geographic conditions. Gabbert: “Interventions based on the short-term goal of profit-making often displace the local population, who sometimes thereby lose their entire livelihoods.” The environmental consequences are no less drastic, for the traditional land use is based on hundreds of years of experience and thus is highly sustainable. “Local cultivation methods are mostly designed so that subsequent generations can continue to live off of the land. This knowledge is being lost,” explains Gabbert.

The search for solutions
In order to understand the various forms such land deals have assumed and the responses to them, the workshop will discuss case studies from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. More than 30 international researchers and practitioners will attend. “We are starting by collecting empirical insights into the types of conflict, the forms of resistance, and the solutions and alternatives that have emerged in different countries. On the basis of this we then hope to be able to identify proven ways of representing the interests of those affected and ensuring social equity or compensation. We want to develop solutions for the future.” Gabbert says. To do this, it is worthwhile to closely examine the details of each case, for the situation is often not at all as simple as it might seem at first glance: for one thing, some international investors have chosen from the beginning to negotiate with the local population and attempt to accommodate their interests. For another, even well-intentioned initiatives, such as the designation of large areas as nature reserves, can result in conflicts. Gabbert: “When a space becomes a nature conservation area, it is sometimes no longer possible for the people who live there to use it as a source of subsistence. So the effect is similar to that of conversion of the land for use by industrial agriculture: the local population is driven out and forced to go elsewhere.”

Studying global social change
The Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology is one of the world’s leading centres for research in socio-cultural anthropology. It was established in 1999 by Chris Hann and Günther Schlee, and moved to its permanent buildings at Advokatenweg 36 in Halle/Saale in 2001. Marie-Claire Foblets joined the Institute as Director of the Department ‘Law & Anthropology’ in 2012. Common to all research projects at the Max Planck Institute is the comparative analysis of social change; it is primarily in this domain that its researchers contribute to anthropological theory, though many programmes also have applied significance and political topicality. Fieldwork is an essential part of almost all projects. Some 175 researchers from over 30 countries currently work at the Institute. In addition, the Institute also hosts countless guest researchers who join in the scholarly discussions.

Conference programme

More information on the research initiative “Lands of the Future”

Contact for this press release
Prof. Dr. Günther Schlee
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
Department ‘Integration and Conflict’
Advokatenweg 36, 06114 Halle (Saale)
Tel.: 0345 2927-101

PR contact
Stefan Schwendtner
Press and Public Relations
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
Advokatenweg 36, 06114 Halle (Saale)
Tel.: 0345 2927-425

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