Earlier this week, David Harvey appeared on a panel about contemporary Land Grabs along with activists Somnath Mukherjee, Smita Narula, Kathy LeMons Walker. I unfortunately was not able to attend. In searching fruitlessly for a video of the event, I nonetheless came across some interesting materials online.
The first is a video of a talk David Harvey did with Medha Patkar, founder of the anti-dam organization Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Campaign), and founder of the National Coalition of People’s Movements. This was a fascinating dialogue between a key activist working to roll back land grabs and an theorist who provides an incredibly important overview of capitalism’s strategies of accumulation by dispossession, of which land grabs are a key strategy. Here’s the video:
I also came across a really interesting blog post by Raj Patel that analyzes a 2010 World Bank report on Land Grabs.
Last of all, I came across my own transcript of the discussion between Harvey and Patkar (I attended the event, which was held in an Occupy-aligned space near Wall Street). Here’s a link to my transcript.
From the perspective of a cultural critic, I want to ask what forms of hegemony need to be established in order for these sorts of land grabs to take place. Part of the problem may be that many of these activities remain invisible to most of the public in imperial nations such as the U.S. In this context, it might be worth recalling Fredric Jameson’s argument in Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature that colonialism shifted a significant structural segment of the economic system overseas, beyond the metropolis, outside the quotidian experience of imperial subjects, rendering significant segments of everyday life unknown and unimaginable for these subjects.
But while Jameson’s point may make some sense in relation to land grabs, I think it’s important to see such strategies of accumulation by dispossession in a broader context, as part of an ensemble that includes free trade agreements, Structural Adjustment Policies, transnational flows of migrants, food riots, and uprisings such as the Arab Spring. So ultimately I think a position such as Edward Said’s in the same volume as Jameson makes more sense: to see the anxiety that permeates much modernist (and contemporary) cultural production as a product of the troubling of fixed borders that results from empire. It is probably also worth thinking about land grabs as part of a broader cultural of uneven development. Bret Benjamin’s Invested Interests is an important investigation of the culture of contemporary accumulation by dispossession. I’m sure there are other examples of cultural studies work along these lines. I’d love to hear suggestions…
Hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) in order to recover natural gas supplies has been making big news in the New York region over the last couple of years because the procedure could directly threaten New York City’s famously pure water supplies in the Catskills. A strong citizen movement has arisen to challenge fracking in New York, and the state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, has delayed release of an inquiry into the procedure. Since the state missed a mid-February deadline, the review process will have to be restarted, with another round of citizen hearings in which the people can make their voices of opposition to the process heard.
But fracking is an issue not just in New York, not just in the United States, but around the world. A recent report released by the wonderful Transnational Institute (TNI) explores the global boom in fracking. The TNI report links fracking to a spate of water and land grabs that has unfolded in recent years, with baleful alliances between nation-states and big capital leading to the privatization of the commons around the world. As TNI puts it,
Fracking is an expression of the water and land grabbing agenda already underpinning expanding corporate takeover of natural resources. In addition to further intensifying and spreading fossil fuel extraction-related environmental destruction, fracking is breathing new life into the corporate oil industry, which is already a serious impediment to democratic control of resources and resource management and a key actor behind accelerating climate change. For all these reasons, fracking must be stopped.
The TNI report explains how fracking works, who the interests promoting fracking are, how fracking is part of an agenda to privatize the global commons, and, perhaps most importantly, what kinds of resistance movements are igniting around the world to challenge fracking. This is essential reading.
Kamoji Wachiira (Kenyan-born senior fellow with the Canadian International Development Agency) presented this evening on contemporary land grabs.
According to Wachiira, it is estimated that an area the size of Europe has now been grabbed in Africa by external countries or corporations. This trend is accelerating rapidly, driven not just by donor agencies but hedge funds, which are treating land as a possible derivative salable in the future on commodity markets, as well as to sit idly and speculate on.
The unfairness of this land grab is transparent. People are simply displaced from their land, with no consultation. Issues of food security are a clear result, with possible famine in these lands because all the production being done is in non-edible things like flowers (Kenya) or biofuels (Indonesia). Another impact is accelerated rates of environmental degradation.
Social movements in places like Uganda and Ethiopia have been very effective in educating civil society about these land grabs. This has started in places such as southern Sudan, where a new country was created and immediately found itself one of the world’s most well endowed sites in terms of water resources. Oxfam recently released a study that documents the displacement of roughly 25,000 people in Southern Sudan as a result of land grabs by a London-based corporation named the New Forests Company.
In Land Grabs, you don’t need to import virtual water (the water needed to produce a commodity – a concept invented by Professor Anthony Allen), but you actually grab the land and control it. Resources thus flow to the wealthy. The dynamics differ in each country, but the underlying pattern is the same as a result of the global capitalist system. For example, China is not going to come and take South African land, but it will take land in Sudan.
Q from Patrick Bond: can you connect the civil war in Sudan to the concept of climate refugees (as Alex de Waal does)? This refugee problem becomes the source of xenophobia in places like South Africa. Perhaps the most fierce resistance is in the Mt. Elgon area in Uganda to the Danish REDD project.
Q from me on whether he knows Christian Parenti’s book Tropic of Chaos, which talks about these kinds of conflicts in terms of the convergence of triple catastrophe: Cold War flooding of areas with arms and conflict, neoliberal structural adjustment programs, and climate change. Result is conflict around resources that imperial powers like the U.S. represent as racialized ethnic strife, which leads to military solutions that further inflame conflict. Wachiira responds that exactly this is happening in horn of Africa, with U.S. now sending 500 military advisers into Kenya to deal with conflict with Somalia. The argument is that Al Qaeda is present in the horn of Africa and so U.S. must intervene.