The taking of land and its resources –farming, forest and urban – by omnivorous capital is an act of class war. The increased ownership by such capital not just of the means of production, but of subsistence as well, strengthing its power of control, and it is this that makes land a ‘safe’ asset for the sovereign investor. In the process, capital recreates scarcity, as it must, in both the rural and urban worlds, even in the process of its own accumulation. Its war-like character can be seen in the many, many violent deaths of those resisting the process.[1] In the present, the process has been called the ‘new enclosures’,[2] referring back to a period in Europe from the late 15th through to the 18th century, when a new class of landless labourers was made and then labelled, feared and despised as ‘vagabonds.’ This coincided with a worldwide ‘land grab’ by Europeans whose settler colonialism was unequalled in its sheer scale and whose dirty footprints are all too evident in the present day.  A sense of entitlement, usually claimed in the name of productive efficiency or a self-defined though generic ‘modernity’, also required psychic protection, which was accomplished by denigrating those whose land had been taken and which settled into disgust and hatred both in Europe and the colonised world. One of many articulations came from the Jesuit Father Gilij in 1780 after he was exiled from Orinoco, the people of which, he said, had ‘betrayed’ their conversion to Christianity. [3]Gilij compared Amerindians to the filthy peasant of Europe “who grow fat in their own filth”. Nowadays, the dispossessed are labelled as ‘squatters’ and despoilers of the environment.


Though the scale and impact  of the ‘new enclosures’ takes place today on a qualitatively different scale to thecolonialisms of the past, similar processes are also at work in the present. They are taking place in the former colonized  world but also in the global North, mot dramatically shown in New Orleans where Hurricane Katrina was used as a pretext for class cleansing.[4]In Britain the Vagrancy Act of 1827 is still in force and being used against street sleepers in cities where somewhere to live has been commodified, reproducing scarcity and enforcing exclusion. In the case of New Orleans, and as colonial entitlement required, class was overlaid by a racism that continues into the present, as does a vicious resentment of non-productionist societies. The fascistic language of current Brazilian President Bolsonaro towards Indigenous people is not new and has a basis in the resentment expressed by one of British colonialism’s useful idiots, Thomas Carlyle: “Where a black man, by working about half an hour a day … can supply himself, by aid of sun and soil, with as much pumpkin as will suffice.” A similar complaint was applied to lower class Englishmen by a late 18th century clergyman writing about the New Poor Laws under the name “A Well-wisher of Mankind”. The gist of his argument? With enough land to feed himself and his family, such a person was an idler; let’s see him work when it is there no longer there.[5]


The kind of racism, directed mostly at indigenous people or those labelled as ‘backward’, is not exclusive to Bolsonaro. Alan Garcia, a recent President of Peru, showed the same scornful hatred. In his case hatred in the interests of mining capital –Western and Chinese – who find that much of the copper and gold they extract is on Indigenous land.[6]His successor promised to treat opposition to land concessions for mining with an ‘iron fist’ in a country where violence against protests is a constant.[7] In 2018 a company controlled by Canadian Barrick Gold was to get control of 8,900 hectares of Amazonian land on which live 12,000 Shawi people. This in addition to the 145,000 hectares it already controls by grace of the government.[8] At the same time, the temporary tax benefit for mining companies was to be made permanent. Peru is a World Bank and neoliberal poster boy.


The recent term ‘land grab’ was originally limited to large-scale purchases, concessions and leases – since for those affected a 99-year lease appears no different to an outright purchase – by nation states in South East Asia and the Gulf in Africa. It was used with specific reference to food-producing arable land and gained traction at the time of the 2007–8 ‘food crisis’, which saw riots over the price of food in cities of the global South and which has been partly attributed to the increasing use of arable land for bio-fuel. But investment in land – including for bio-fuels – by various forms of domestic and international capital, from pension funds to private equity and hedge funds, was already in process. With the connivance of states, themselves debt-pressured, different forms of force were used to dispossess small farmers, communal farmers and pastoralists. Investment in land for bio-fuels in Africa was almost exclusively British. Elsewhere it is domestic capital, as in Russia and India, which benefits from land grabs and gets laws changed (2002 and 2005 respectively) in order to make them possible, or that acts as a proxy for foreign investment when there are written laws against external investment in land (this has happened in Russia as well as Cambodia, Serbia, Myanmar and Ukraine).


This process – also called, with a different emphasis, Accumulation by Dispossession  by the geographer David Harvey–accelerated with the 2007–8 financial crisis (coinciding with the ‘foodcrisis’), which both revealed and augmented a crisis of capitalism itself, a surplus of capital in relation to profitable investment opportunities.[9]Where to invest so as to make the kind of returns that omnivorous capital demands? This, from 2008 onwards, was the pressing questions- rather more so than the much trumpeted actions of sovereign wealth funds or the Chinese.[10]Agriculture it was declared, was “The bright light in the investment universe”.[11]It was those who were able to promise such returns that were the prime movers. Some ‘agricultural funds’ were offering returns of 20–25% from the combination of food production and the rising price of the land, at a time when the ‘solution’ to the financial crisis was the further inflation of asset values made inevitable (to use a favourite neoliberal word) by the policy of Quantitative Easing.[12]Money could be made even when mistakes were made along on the way,[13] because the surplus of capital from those inflated assets could be applied to lands where there was a shortage of it. Then there was the added attraction of land being a finite, material resource as well as a productive one; capital had the power to reproduce scarcity while accumulating itself. The (in relative terms) extreme cheapness of land in Southern Africa, for example, was in itself, “an arbitrage opportunity. We could be moronic and not grow anything and we think we will still make money over the next decade”.[14]


In Europe, the Latvia’s Forests during 20 Years of Independence brochure of 2011 could boast that “Foreign investors choose not to make short-term investments in manufacturing sectors which are subject to various dangers, but instead in the timber industry, where investments are more secure than bank deposits and annual increases in growing stock volumes also ensure higher profits.” This particular claim led to deforestation of the country, with trees cut down at a far faster rate than replenishment would allow.[15]This ‘short-termism’ as a form of greed mirrored on arable land by chemical-intensive mono-cropping is characteristic of contemporary large-scale agriculture and there is an extensive critique from a socialist environmentalism.


This is not,however, the whole story; land-grabbing affects not only forests and farmland for bio-fuels or crops, but also claims for ‘nature conservation’, tourism, mining as in Peru, and large-scale infrastructure such as dams and the roads and rail of ‘economic corridors’. Just as significantly, urban land grab is not included under the term, usually because of the limited scope – and perhaps moral/ideological nature – of campaigning NGOs. Given that in many cases the rural dispossessed have little choice but to migrate to cities in which land prices are rising and where–over time–such migrants may be dispossessed again (as has been seen Delhi and Rio de Janeiro), this omission becomes a form of distortion.





Any bullshit detector would immediately see the falsity of neoliberal capital’s anti-state rhetoric. It is only against the state as a possible source of redistribution of wealth or as a provider for its citizens’ health, housing and educational needs; it is not all opposed to the laws the state makes in its favour, their implementation or the subsidies it receives.[16]In the case of land grabs, capital needs to make use of the state’s power to dispossess. In the 1980s and often beyond, states in the Southern world often had little choice. The debt they had accrued, largely because of policy decisions in the USA,[17] was the lever by which ‘structural adjustment’ policies could be imposed by the IMF/World Bank axis and which weakened the state’s capacity for economic development. This debt pressure in turn involved the use of the law to transform property relations where official ownership did not exist. In the 1980s just 36 African states implemented 241 adjustment programmes laid down by the World Bank/IMF, which they were able to impose because of the states’ indebtedness.  Under the terms of these programmes, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal were urged to sell off common land that was suitable for growing rice to private buyers. “The effect of this was to encourage get-rich-quick merchants to come in and develop rice fields. But often they installed the cheapest form of irrigation, without drainage”, as the campaigning group Food First noted in 2002,long before the notorious proposed South Korean arable land lease of 1.3 million hectares in Madagascar, which first prompted the ‘Land Grab’ terminology.[18]


Where peasant land was taken by the state, and this was not all ‘the commons’, as a literal reading of ‘new enclosures’ might imply -resistance was determined not just by whether compensation was on offer, but by what form or amount it might take and whether there were opportunities for new incomes. Women have been at the forefront of resistance as their access to land and their livelihoods are most threatened, and as defenders of communal natural resources and environmental well-being.In China, the rejection of what was an offer would lead to violence, usually outsourced by regional Communist Party leaderships to mafia-type thugs. In Ethiopia all land was ‘owned’ by the state and thus could be allocated regardless of the rights and livelihoods of those who lived on it. In Latin America and South East Asia, continuing right now, violent coercion is the norm, whether it be for mining, palm oil, hydro-electricity or sugar plantations. In India, the law was used to exercise compulsory purchase. The official in charge of Andrah Pradesh’s Special Economic Zone (SEZ) was clear about why this was necessary: farmers would not sell unless forced, in most cases not even at market rates. At first the British compulsory purchase law of 1894 was used, stretching interpretation of its ‘for a public purpose’ clause to the limit. Then, in 2005, a new law demanded by domestic Indian real estate capital established that the notional ‘productive’ function of such zones was reduced to 35% of the land that could be allocated in the SEZ name. In Russia, where the debt of collective farms played a role in their disappearance in the post-Soviet period – and where peasants trying to stake claims to their land had encountered bureaucratic difficulties and because “often people in remote areas do not have the money in order to formalize their land shares”[19]– land was acquired in a de facto style by oligarchs with their capital from oil and mineral privatisations. These transactions were then legalised in 2002. In the USA itself, government has hastened the collapse of smaller farms with low-interest guaranteed loans to corporate agriculture with the monopolisation of the livestock industry one outcome.




From Laos to Ethiopia, long-term leases were signed over to a range of ‘investors’ with no consultation to those affected and often against a backdrop of coercion. What then is the motivation of such states? In all, there are liable to be elements of corruption even when industrialisation or efficiency is the main claim. In Kenya land has been part of intra-elite political bargaining over rewards. In China corruption by local Communist party bosses has usually been used to inflate their achievements as shown in economic growth statistics, whereas in the case of the highly sought farmland of Ukraine, corruption is endemic and is used by foreign capital. In other instances wars have given land grab opportunities to state-backed forces as in ex-Yugoslavia and modern day Syria. In the case of Myanmar, a terror campaign against a minority people has been the means, and in Israel, post-facto colonial legitimation of what has been taken by force.


These instances however are not a sufficient explanation of what is happening.In Africa the external pressure of debt was powerful enough to privatise communal land, and not only in the case of rice, a food for domestic consumption as well as export: mostly creditor power required mono-crops for export. This was the basic colonial model and a simple means for the siphoning off of debt repayments. In other instances, plantations were genuinely thought to be a means of modernisation, even if on a top-down basis, as can be seen from the statements of the regional governor in Gambella, Ethiopia: “Lands you are using are not utilized. We have investors coming who will use it more efficiently. Against those who resist we will take all possible action.” This was his message in 2012 to local communities subject to involuntary displacement under the label ‘villagization’. This was not how things were seen by those affected, as described by a land grab witness from Benishang in the same country (one in which, not coincidentally, food insecurity has been a constant): “This is not development. Investors are destroying our lands and environment. Bamboo is crucial for us. It is used for food, for cattle, for our beds. Homes, firewood, everything. They destroy our forests. They grow sorghum, maize, sesame, but all is exported.”


Although such a belief in modernisation might be genuine, it is also belief in a specifically Western capitalist version of it. This does not amount to corruption as it is defined in the West, but many African leaders and administrators have become habituated to a view of the world refracted through the capitalist lens, as a result of their dealings with international finance institutions.“In some cases governments might have been managing aid and adjustment regimes for years. It is unsurprising then, that a highly integrated milieu has emerged in which key civil servants, technicians and ministers have established areas of political management with in-country aid donors and World Bank/IMF missions. This ‘realm of governance’ is identifiable in a series of political practices, clustered around regular meetings with donors and creditors, workshops, seminars, audit and policy management processes.”[20]This is not the corruption beloved of the Western media, but a developing mutuality of interests between the functionaries of the creditor-investor world and the domestic elitesthat emanated from colonially-created ‘traditional’ hierarchies.


It’s an old-fashioned version of modernisation in the manner of Robert Boyle in 1670: “The veneration, wherewith men are imbued for what they call nature, has been a discouraging impediment to the empire of man over the inferior creatures of God.”[21] In the present, this view of the world does not even consider the right to self-determination when it comes to models of development, dismissing cosmologies with a different relation to nature, as backward. In the process it claims its projects are the only alternative to poverty, ones like dams for hydroelectricity to be constructed for ‘the greater good’. As with mines it is invariably peasants and most of all, Indigenous peoples in China, Indonesia India and Latin America who are displaced for the ‘greater good.’ Being less of a greenhouse gas emitter than hydrocarbons, despite the methane they produce, hydro-electricity might be expected to receive a generic ‘greater good ’ label, but that is to ignore the question of existing river livelihoods and, given the rationale for land grab, how efficient they are.

The Belo Monte dam on the Xingu river in Amazonian Brazil a country which already generates 75% of its electricity from hydro – with the energy needs of mining and oil extraction paramount – was pushed through and finally completed in 2016 despite its displacement of people from a satisfying way of life; the sacking of regulatory officials who would not approve it; being able to produce only just over a third of its projected maximum output; felling 15,000ha of forest; and radically decreasing river flow.[22] The dam is a fait accompli but resistance to other projects is growing on the continent though it has cost lives like that of Berta Cáceres an activist for the Lemka people of Honduras whose opposition to the Agua Zarca dam led to her being murdered in 2016. It was clear that the dam would dry up the Gualcarque river which irrigated their land. In 2019 staff and officials of the dam´s buildersDesarrollosEnergéticos S.A.controlled by part of the country’s oligarchy were convicted of her killing. It took some months after the event and other murders for two European  ‘Development’ agencies and a trans-Latin American development bank to pull out of the project.[23]

Where possible conflict between the modernity of hydro-electricity and the environmental and social  complaints of those affected was recognised, as in the case of the World Bank backed Pangue dam in Chile, built by ENDESA, the state power company, the critical Downing report on its impact was held back by the head of the Bankuntil it was too late to be effective. Among the affected people were the much put-upon but actively resistant Mapuche.




It is the World Bank -so self-righteous and yet so selective in its application of the virtue of ‘transparency’ -which, most of all that has provided ideological justifications for land grabs of the ‘efficiency-entitlement’ and modernization type. More than any other institution it has actively–to use one of its own buzzwords – ‘enabled’ it. While denying, any such ideological intent the Bank has consistently equated efficiency with private property and, implicitly, with large-scale capital. The congruence with the interests of capitalist agribusiness is clear from Cargill’s – an agribusiness giant – Vice-President Paul Conway for whom the key to resolving the current global food crisis, as determined by him, is “to make better use of the land in Africa and, at the very heart of that, is better property rights”.

The Bank’s own matching ideology was inaugurated with the Berg Report of 1981 that, as we have already touched on, instigated ‘structural adjustment’ and its emphasis on cash crop export. It has also had the power to define what is ‘efficient’, what land is ‘marginal’, ‘sustainability’, ‘yield gap’ ‘good practices’ and other key notions. It has claimed all these as factors of and for food security.[24]This claim, which is usually made for the whole ‘global population’, does not fit well with how cereal crops have accounted for only 20% of land use on land that has been grabbed, as opposed to over 50% for oil seeds and sugar for bio-fuel.

The Bank’s own ‘good practices’ involve  ‘benchmarking’ countries with its ‘Enabling the Business of Agriculture’, whose ranking system incentivizes governments to “reform their agricultural sectors to allow the increased use of chemical inputs and commercial seeds, foster private titling of land and create favourable import and export conditions for agribusiness”. Such ranking is based on metrics created in the USA, in the context of[25] an oligopoly of agri-business including private seed companies.


The Bank has in effect been able to impose – through the pressures of debt/aid and Western political clout – what it justifies: classic colonial-pattern, export-led agriculture. This began with the abolition of taxes on food exports, further weakening the budget and thus ‘capacity’ of the state[26], and was followed by the Bank’s highly selective investment-support decisions that created the infrastructure for exports such as ports, which were a particular focus in the 1990s.[27] Just as in cities where infrastructural development is skewed in favour of linking wealthy parts of the city, bypassing swathes of urban geography inhabited by the poor, and focusing instead on expressways and airports, so too do the transport and storage infrastructures for small farmers suffer from chronic underinvestment, making it hard for them to get their surpluses to market. This in turn justifies them being labelled as inefficient. It’s one more case of capital having the power to create the circumstances which justify its original wishes. This is not exclusive to Bank policies. China’s ‘Belt and Road’ project is heavily skewed to ports, exports and ‘economic corridors’. In Latin America the IIRSA (Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America) a vast transport and communication web which will require swathes of land taken for ‘the greater good’, is meant to connect isolated rural areas with the coast but is clearly aimed at improving export corridors with easy access to profitable natural resources and crops like soya for export. It will benefit mining companies, agribusiness and international grain traders like Cargill who with MV Cargo are building a grain terminal at the Ukrainian port of Yuzhnyi. Similarly the Beira ‘economic corridor’ now being financed by a Dutch public-private consortium is for the export of primary commodities as is The Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor.


The Bank’s interference on the ground has had the consistent aim of the privatisation of land. An early example of its meddling with Indigenous land right systems where there had been no local demand for it was the Ivory Coast Rural Landholdings Project in 1989. Here ‘objective’ and ‘neutral’ mapping served as “technocratic tools for transforming Indigenous tenure systems characterized by multiple and open-ended land rights to more restricted and exclusive arrangements”[28]in a context in which the Bank estimated that only 10% of African land was officially titled.[29]More recently it has pushed the land titling ideas of Hernando de Soto, and, under the banner of ‘transparency’, seen blockchain as a means of achieving a cynical utopia in which each peasant can become a capitalist.[30]These will not be magically transformed with ´transparency`when there is no equality of access to land or land titling, especially for women. There is no ambiguity however, in the statements of the head of the Bank’s Agriculture and Rural Development Department, Jürgen Voegele: “When done right large-scale farming can provide opportunities for poor countries with large agricultural sectors and ample endowments of land. To make the most of these opportunities however, countries will need better secure local land rights and improve local governance. Adopting an open and proactive approach to dealing with investors is also needed to ensure that investment contributes to broader development objectives.“ Objectives, as determined by The Bank; ‘done right’, as determined by the Bank; ‘opportunities’, as defined by the bank all using the premise of a terra nullius, here euphemised in terms of ‘ample endowments’ of land. The giveaway is ‘local land rights’ with ‘large-scale farming’ all in the same breath.




Through its International Finance Corporation arm, the World Bank has the power to implement real world developments. One instance of its investment has been in the Dinant Corporation, a palm oil plantation owner in Honduras, and in the Banco Ficho as its main creditor.[31]

Dinant, whose PR tells of its pride in its Honduran heritage,is owned by one of Honduras’s most powerful families. Land grabs by such families in the 1990s, which privatized collective landholdings protected by no modern contracts, amounted to 70% of peasant lands in the lower Aguan valley, an especially fertile area. Since the ‘legal’ coup of 2009,[32] this oligarchy has had even greater flexibility and has used even more violence, expelling smallholders from their land to such a degree that in 2017 those in the village of Panama, surrounded by Dinant plantations, took the Bank’s IFC to court over its complicity in the killings of 100 people by Dinant guards. In neighbouring Guatemala, the agribusiness giant Cargill has been supplied by another murky palm oil concern.[33]


Cargill one of the biggest agribusinesses in the world which in turn supplies food manufacturers like Nestle and Pepsico is also active in both the corn, sugar and ethanol business in Brazil. As a‘flex-crop’, sugar can switch between food sugars and ethanol according to international price. Its plantations have spread over great expanses of land, displacing other rural activities and the people dependent on them in a country already marked by extreme inequality. Over the ten years from 2006, the area converted to sugarcane in Brazil nearly doubled from 4.8 to 8.1million ha. Producers are comprehensively linked into the global capitalist markets of food, feed and fuel. Recently, owing to global price shifts, it has been corn-ethanol which has grown most rapidly.


The grabbing of land that this has required is also enmeshed in the international financial world. Some half-hearted legal restrictions on foreign ownership have been overcome by joint operations with large-scale Brazilian capital. As in many other instances, it is Chinese landholdings in soya in the country that are most publicized, but their investment and holdings are far less than those of the USA, EU, Argentina and Japan. Some of that investment reveals the sheer scale of the capital involved – most notably the giant TIAA pension fund, based in the Unites States, which also has a stake in Guatemalan palm oil.[34]


Elsewhere in the world, the World Bank’s IFC has supported another land grabber, the Vietnamese rubber baron HAGL through its investments in Dragon Capital, a Vietnamese private equity fund, itself an HAGL investor.[35] HAGL took advantage of the weak government of Laos and the corrupt one of Cambodia. Its CEO’s starting point? “I think natural resources are limited and I need to take them before they’re gone” with the result that in Laos the company “grabbed land from indigenous communities and decimated ancient forests”.[36] Whether dispossession is directed at creating a wage labour class or only brings it about a by-product of land being a tradeable asset,[37]or doesn’t create one at all, varies from case to case. In Laos’s Attapeu province those who lost land to HAGL had little choice and were exploited with particular intensity on the company’s 10,000 hectare sugar concession, which it gained for financing the South-East Asian games, hosted by Laos in 2009. 12-hour working days were the norm and took place under constant supervision with a ban on smoking and talking. The consequences were very real: a UN Development Programme found that Hmong populations displaced from upland villages suffered mortality rates of up to 30% when they were forced to give up their traditional livelihoods.[38]


In Cambodia the company’s IFC backers have had to smooth out a deal with resisting villages on its behalf in 2017 despite the high level of state repression in the interests of grabbing by domestic and international capital. [39]Here land dispossession has contributed to the making of a new working class, young women in the cut, sew and trim industry. Rural land enclosers such as South Korea have subsequently been able to exploit women who were forced off the land in its outsourced clothes factories. Here resistance has been shifted to those factories where proletarianised young women have won major wage demands against the odds.


In other parts of the world where not even the most exploitative textile and clothing sector has developed as a source of an alternative income, resistance to rural land grab may be stronger. In India, the resistance to land grabs for Special Economic Zones is fierce, led by farmers who see no prospect of computer ‘back-office’ employment in them, which is why the state must make the initial grab.[40]Writing at the time of the Mozambican Peasant Union’s success in putting a stop to the 35 million hectare Brazil-ProSavannah soyabean project in the fertile Nacala Corridor, Christopher Tanner noted in 2004 that here, unlike in the Europe of the past, “this will be a country that is not about to embark on a labour-intensive Industrial Revolution generating thousands of jobs.” As a consequence in Mozambique now, the Beira Agricultural Growth Corridor project and the concurrent “Vision for 2035 for port development” will take land for its access road from small farmers, leaving them to struggle with insufficient compensation, a high unemployment rate and an overcrowded ‘informal’ sector.“ “Skilled labour in Beira is imported from foreign or Maputo-based firms that have no interest in incorporating farmers or informal local labourers.”[41]


At a time of dispossession, eviction and increasing inequality, the sector of work most rapidly expanding is, understandably, ‘security’. There are the activist military, police and corporate militias who carry out evictions like the Red Ants in South Africa, and it is the same corporate thugs who protect the mines and plantations. In the supermarkets of Western cities and a whole range of buildings in cities of the South, ‘security’ is everywhere. Young men stuck in uniforms with one insignia or another stand about bored all day,[42] both as symptoms of or solutions to what economists call ‘underemployment’, and at the same time as cheap boundary markers of exclusion.




At The World Summit on Social Development in Johannesburg in 2002, in the heavily barricaded Sandton Convention Centre, “delegates from the world’s environmental elite were handing out social responsibility awards to the corporate world, including awards to firms that have been involved in the appropriation of the resources of the poor”.[43] At one level this is simply PR talk for luxury tourism, as in the claim that “Sustainability has always been at the forefront of Hamilo Coast’s vision of providing premier beach-resort living in the country” –a claim made by Shirley C. Ong, executive vice president for the company in 2018. When the company took over the coast it evicted 10,000 peasants and 1,000 fisher people in the process.[44]The coastal ‘project’ will involve building four golf courses and two marinas as well as the exclusive resort. Other water hungry golf courses have been constructed under an eco-development banner in India, China and Myanmar, despite local resistance.

“Eco-tourism” has, however, become more than just PR; it is part of a worldwide strategy of victim-blaming. A process of environmental degradation by capital – deforestation, soil depletion from mono-cropping, over-use of nitrogen-based fertiliser and pollution of water – is transformed into a problem of local small farmers and pastoralists. Thus Tanzania Conservation Ltd., part of Thomsen Safaris, which charges $535 a night for eco-tourist lodges on land that was lived on by the Maasai people for centuries, now prohibits it to them, as the result of a deal with the Tanzanian state.

From one perspective such prohibitions are an absolute assertion of private property rights. Its defence and sanctions reinforce the removal of food self-sufficiency for the dispossessed, just as the original enclosures were accompanied by the death penalty for poaching. Bamboo is out of bounds to the Ethiopian, berries, mushrooms and beehives to the dispossessed Russian peasant.

From another theyconstitute a colonial strategy of using environmental concerns as a rationale for the expropriation of land. Complicit in this is that part of the ‘green’ movement that refuses to see that the crisis it proclaims is a product of capitalism, stemming from capital’s necessarily private interests and compulsion to accumulate. In furthering land grabs, the rights of those living in certain areas must be undermined: it is they who overgraze; they who are responsible for deforestation for firewood. In February 2019 the Indian Supreme Court overturned the 2006 Forest Rights Act and ruled that Indigenous people living “illegally on forest land should move”. The ruling was prompted by various wildlife conservation groups who aimed their fire at minority ‘tribal’ people. The demand made is that up to six million people prove with documents their right to be in the ‘ancestral’ lands with the assertion that India’s forests are being relentlessly eroded by humans in areas of wildlife.Calling this a ‘land theft on an epic scale’ Stephen Corry of Survival International pointed to how it would lead to wholescale misery, impoverishment, disease and death “and do nothing to save the forests which the tribes people have protected for generations.”[45]

In the cities of India like Delhi meanwhile, “bourgeois environmentalism”[46]is at work in the business of class cleansing. It defines the “self-contradictory logic of the increasingly affluent lifestyles of the middle class, resulting in environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity on one hand, and the primarily middle-class-rooted agenda conservation agenda (protected parks, sanctuaries for wildlife) and beautification movement, clean and green urban spaces.” In Delhi the Commonwealth Games was a lever in the class cleansing process, but it also involved judgments from the High Court of Delhi who simplified the complex problem of the Yamuna river pollution into one whereby “slums had destroyed the natural beauty and ecology of the river”. Court verdicts dealing with slum evictions also showed a shift from a stipulation that “the right to livelihood” is an “important facet of the right to life” to viewing slum dwellers as encroachers on public land, as squatters.[47]Such selective targeting, as Baviskar says, let “the more powerful polluters and encroachers off the hook”.



The eviction of people from agricultural land and forests has consequences for land in urban areas. It does not wholly account for the whole rapid urbanization of many parts of the world – in Africa “urban expansion largely results from in-situ natural expansion” – but can have visible and dramatic consequences as for the evicted of Honduras and Guatemala. For them arriving in the city on the worst of terms and faced with institutionalized violence, they have become the ‘caravans’ facing Donald Trump’s dehumanising language of the encloser and colonist unchanged from the 17th century onwards.

At the same time the city too has become another investment opportunity for surplus capital, which has inflated property prices and rents having the effect of a  ‘class cleansing’ from Western inner cities. A variety of ‘public-private partnerships’ there and in cities of the South have changed their geographies, at the expense of the poor and in which corruption is a bigger factor. One tactic has been the use of major sporting events in the interests of real estate ‘development’[48]. More generally transformations have come from changes in planning and tenure laws and in zoning; the class-based provisioning of infrastructure; the enforcement of formal land tenure arrangements; and criminalising the street life and economies of the poor.

Some of these mechanisms have been described in the case of Accra, capital of Ghana. The privatisation of public land for elite development projects was accompanied by the eviction of ‘squatters’ from the city centre and the ‘cleansing of street hawker’s from the city’s public spaces.[49]


The eviction of ‘squatters’ as in Delhi, Kigali and other cities is usually done in the interests of  ‘development’, private and public-private. In Vienna it took 1700 police and a tank to effect the removal of 31 politicized squatters in the way of such development while in Salvador, Bahia in Brazil it took an explicitly racist form with the eviction of black-skinned families from the centre.[50]Real estate developers along with aspirations like ‘world city’ are prime movers.  Public-private violence is often used as in Jakarta in 2008 when 3 people were killed and 150 wounded defending ‘illegal’ homes in the sub-Kojadistrict in the interests of the private Pelindo company that runs the airport and wanted the land for a road and rail link to it.

What is common is how different mixes of coercion, physical and financial – debt, taxation, lack of rent controls and changed in welfare payments – in countries with very different ‘standards of living’, poor and working class citizens are forced out to the outskirts of cities. This is underlaid by privatization of public land and public housing in response to the influx of capital. Property in inner London was equated with being a ‘reserve currency’. Unpaid lengthy travel to work is one consequence, less physical and social infrastructure another. Khartoum, capital of Sudan, is experiencing the full effects. Real estate capital from the Gulf and Asia has come in waves as the city promoted itself as the ‘Dubai on the Nile’ and as evidenced by the proliferation of real estate agencies in the city. At the same time a demographic explosion linked to an influx of the displaced from land grab and drought in different parts of the country.[51] It led to violent evictions and displacement of squatters to the outskirts of the city where land prices also took off. In 2005 a demolition operation in the Soba Aradi area of the city and the ‘rehousing’/displacement of its residents to an unserviced desert site some 40 kilometres north of the city saw ten police killed and hundreds arrested.[52]Present day resistances have developed into political protest against the regime.

What events in Khartoum also revealed is how tenuous the power of property titles and how contingent their validities in relation to political and financial power. The obsession with land titling as a solution to all problems and being spearheaded by the World Bank led in one of their titling projects in Phnom Penhwhich began in 2002 to a devastating series of slum fires and the move of 23,000 squatters from tracts of untitled land in the heart of the city. As elsewhere they were dumped on relocation sites outside of the city from which the cost of commuting consumed the wage they had been earning before the fires. Some sold cheap before the titling programme (which increased land prices 10 times), to elite groups with the knowledge of titling’s consequences and the financial leverage to take advantage of it. Others were simply simply evicted. As with rural land the idea that titling is beneficial to all when it occurs in a context of inequalities of access, knowledge, finance and existing ownerships, is a deceit. More,“formal land holdings are more likely to be lost by poor people than informal ones precisely because they are marketable”. Being marketable they are primed for those with capital.

This is of a pattern. More or less all governmental and institutional powers and their ideological backers take it as a given that redistribution of land in the context of massive inequality is out of question. Where the dispossessed re-occupy land or try to, as in Brazil they are labelled as ‘reactionary’ and met with violence. The ‘objectivity’ and neutrality of their projects and conceptions of modernisation is an obvious falsehood, assuming not just that the private interests of capital can be neutral but denying the inequality of power to enforce those private interests. The notion that with titling each slum dweller and peasant can become an entrepreneur is a cruel joke of a utopia.

[1] A number of whom are named on a poster in this book.

[2] Coined in 1990 in Issue 10 of Midnight Notes, the journal of a collective that included present contributor George Caffentzis with his text on New Orleans

[3] Father Gijil, Saggio di Storia Americana, Rome 1780-4


[4] Disasters have been used in other parts of the world for similar ends. “When the tsunami came, it did what the fire couldn’t: it cleared the beach of Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka completely.” Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine, 2007. She describes how hotel industry lobbyists had been pushing to relocate the fishermen of the Bay before the Tsunami: 24 fishing huts had been burned down in mysterious circumstances. A wave of “land theft” swept across Southeast Asia, obscured by the aftermath of the tsunami. Thailand, Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka all imposed ‘buffer zones’ as part of their ‘coastal re-development’ post-tsunami. In Sri Lanka and India in particular, high-end tourist businesses and large-scale fishing industries were exempted from the new rules.


[5] One of several vicious clergymen and ‘well-wishers’ quoted by Marx in Volume I of Capital with similar sentiments.

[6] Afro-Colombians have the same misfortune, to be on land under which are copper and gold and for this reason suffered much of the violence of the country.

[7] In 2014, five years after conflict at Bague in the Peruvian Amazonas in which both police and Indigenous protesters were killed, the government gave the police and army what amounted to a licence to kill human obstacles.

[8] Protests focus not just on the loss of land and its sacred places, but also on the plundering of water and its contamination.

[9] In 2009 the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) estimated that between 15 and 20 million hectares of farmland in developing countries had ended up in the hands of external investors since 2006.The Land Matrix, which aggregates statistics for known and projected purchase sand grabs, shows an increase from 62 million hectares in August 2015 to 72 million hectares in October 2016 (including intended and failed deals) – and the figure is still on the rise. The International Land Coalition talks of 200 million hectares between 2000-2010, the majority in Africa.


[10] Land Matrix statistics show China, both the state, private capital and mixtures of the two, as a minor agricultural player in Africa, with barely one-third of that obtained by US investors.

[11] Claimed at a JetFin AGRO conference in Geneva in 2011, a centre for pension fund investment in agriculture.

[12] In ‘saving’ the capitalist world economy in 2008–9 by means of an injection of liquidity – while scrupulously avoiding any risk of redistribution of wealth or ‘socialist’-directed investment by governments – QE involved lending money to banks at zero, or close to zero, interest rates. The banks could then re-lend in a manner that simply inflated asset prices, like those of real estate.

[13] And ‘mistakes’ were made. The Indian-owned Siva group, for example, went bankrupt after amassing a farmland portfolio of nearly one million hectares for oil palm plantations. Likewise, the king of the Kenyan flower business was brought low by a 300,000ha concession in Ethiopia, and, at a large-scale commercial level, the ‘wonder bio-fuel’ jatropha was proved a failure by the abrupt pull-out of the Shell oil company. Such investment depended on movements in the price of petroleum oil, but jatropha yields were judged to be disappointing. However, on a smaller scale jatropha as a bio-fuel has worked successfully in countries of the ‘Global South’.

[14]  Susan Payne of Emergent Asset Management, 2011. Cited in

[15] In the especially severe shrinkage of Latvia’s economy after the 2008 crisis, which also saw a spurt of foreign investment in its forest land, trees were being cut at an unsustainable rate to such a degree 2016 half of its managed forests lost their Forest Stewardship Council’s certificate. It was typical too of primary commodity export: the Swedish manufacturing sector, despite promises, did not develop timber processing in Latvia. In other instances it is a matter of what trees are grown, as in resistance to water-hungry eucalyptus plantations in Brazil, Chile and Portugal. Once again it was Swedish timber companies who bought up land for this purpose in the early 1970s, at a time when the Portuguese state was pressured by the debt involved in fighting colonial wars in Africa. In Chile the aim of doubling wood product exports from $2 to 4 billion, with a doubling of land for eucalyptus and pine, represents a major threat to the survival of its native forests.

[16] From export credit guarantees to transport for trade infrastructure to low-interest guaranteed loans to agri-business.

[17] The need to invest a new pool of petrodollars in the 1970s led to large-scale dollar-denominated lending around the world. When, as a classic ‘sound money’ banker, Paul Volcker took charge of the US Federal Reserve, he sharply increased US interest rates, which averaged 11.2% in 1979, to a peak of 20% in June 1981. The result was that repayments on what had already been borrowed in the dollar became much more expensive. In the period 1980–92, debt service payments increased to $1.6 trillion more than the actual debt itself and was accounting for something like a quarter of all export earnings.

[18] The proposal was defeated by popular protest and prompted a subsequent coup.

[19] Tamara Semenova of the pro-peasant organisation Kretsyanskiy Front, cited in Visser, O. Et al Oligarchs, ‘Megafarms and Land Reserves’, Journal of Peasant Studies 39.

[20] Graham Harrison, Neoliberal Africa: The Impact of Global Social Engineering, Zed Books, 2010

[21] Robert Boyle founding fellow of the Royal Society and governor of the New England Company, 1670

[22] In the case of the Belo Monte dam, corruption was at the heart of the project. It was a source of money for the long interlinked engineering companies and the political class in need of electoral finance. In the process Environmental Impact Assessment processes are being cut. The experience of the displaced is also characteristic: “We can never find anyone in charge to speak to.”See Mirilene Cardoso Ribeiro and Sue Branford, ‘The hydroelectric threat to the Amazon basin’ in Voices of Latin America, ed, Tom Gatehouse, Latin American Bureau, UK, 2019

[23] This is not an isolated case. Prompted by its political instigator 3 newly landless farmers on the island of Flores, Indonesia were executed in 2006 after 5 years on death row for ‘stirring up communal tensions’ which amounted to opposition to the dam on the river Posi. In China, long prison sentences have been given for accounts of the displacement of peoples and irrigation failures of dam projects.

[24] Given the dominance of the Bank by US political figures, it is hard to reconcile this assertion with Reagan’s Agriculture Secretary John Block’s assertion that “The idea that developing countries should feed themselves is an anachronism from a bygone era. They could better ensure their food security by relying on US agricultural products.” Where free trade deals have been made with the USA it has destroyed the livelihoods of farmers in Mexico and Peru.

[25] This line is pushed especially hard in Ukraine, ‘the bread basket of Europe’ as it was called. Leasing has allowed the entry of and expansion of agro-holdings involving US, British and other foreign capital as well as domestic oligarchs like Rinat Achmetov, making the ban on foreign purchase of land a minor obstacle.

[26] It was when the Argentine government of Cristina Kirchner attempted to introduce a tax on agricultural exports that she came under constant attack from the institutions, think tanks and opinion-makers who have such an influence on Western politics. Export capital demands low labour costs to stay competitive and maintains no direct (which is to say capitalist) interests in the domestic economy and its aggregate demand.

[27] In more recent times it has been China that has been most active in port building both internally – the biggest in the world – and externally. Chinese-financed ports have either been completed or are under construction in Myanmar, Argentina, Pakistan and Tanzania.

[28] The maps present an incomplete view of these tenure systems due to their exclusive focus on the rights of agriculturalists and lineage heads. With maps in hand, government officials can now get on with the business of issuing land titles to selected individuals in the project area. The project thus constitutes the first step in the establishment of private landholdings as a structural condition of agrarian change.

[29] Securing Africa’s Land for Shared Prosperity: A Program to Scale Up Reforms and Investments, World Bank, 2013

[30] Cynical, in this case, because the proposal ignores all of the inequalities of power under which claims could be made.

[31] Palm oil, whose production levels have risen exponentially on a world-wide level, doubles up as a staple in a wide range of processed foods and as a biofuel. Malaysia and Indonesia are the main producers with companies like GAR (Golden Agri-Resources) and the IOI Corporation (in which the Swiss banks UBS and Credit Suisse have stakes). IOI has been accused of illegal clearing of forestland; illegal encroachment on peatland, with the power to simply redefine such areas; and illegal logging. Deforestation in Indonesia is on an epic scale: in 2015 it caused a smog that brought everyday life to a standstill. On palm oil´net environmental effect there is no consensus, in that as a fuel it produces less carbon emissions than other biofuels while deforestation reduces ‘carbon capture’. When the business is ‘exported’ to Africa and especially Central America, its overt role in land grabs becomes clearer

[32] The Honduran ‘legal’ coup set a precedent by being un-condemned by the US Administration. It was swiftly followed by another in Paraguay and evidently had some influence upon the downfall of Brazilian President Dilmar Roussef.

[33] REPSA and its owner Grupo HAME have been accused of contaminating the Pasion river, destroying the livelihoods of around 12,000 families, and of human rights abuses. This in a country where 72% of murders are not investigated. It is also linked to the world of international capital, with connections to major agribusiness traders Cargill and Wilmar. Despite a RESPA campaign of victim blaming, the latter companies finally suspended dealings with it when a shaming campaign coincided with charges of bribery and corruption.

[34] As it expanded both its client base and its farmland fund, TIAA sidestepped an attempt by the Brazilian state to restrict foreign ownership with a  2010 law, by joining the sugar giant Cosan, and it has been accused of purchasing already-cleared Indigenous forest land in the northern states of Piãu and Maranhão, some of it from Euclides De Carli, who is accused of illegally seizing over a million hectares using armed men. In Brazil between 44 and 90 killings of environmental and land defenders were recorded in 2017. In 2019 the new President Bolsinaro’s overtly nationalist campaign is facing pressure not just from the Chinese, to whom he took a hostile approach in his campaign, but also the agro-biuisness lobby that supported him, to scrap the 2010 law.

[35]These IFC investements started in 2002 and in 2016 were further augmented. Up until now HAGL has a strong market from the Chinese auto industry for rubber but there was a switch to that a switch to palm oil when it was more profitable having  a harvesting maturity of 3 years as opposed to seven for rubber. Deutsche Bank also had a stake in the company but was shamed into offloading it, whereupon it was immediately acquired by the major Swiss bank Credit Suisse. The company though has overreached itself in taking land as a speculative asset; its upmarket property development in Yangon, Myanmar’s capita; has had to be rescued by the Vietnamese Central Bank and forced into a merger with rivals Thaco.

[36] In 2012 the International Food Policy Research Institute listed Laos among seven countries in the world in which international land deals account for more than 10 percent of the total agricultural area.

[37] Saskia Sassen argues that in the contemporary financialised world, “The land is more valuable to the global market than the people on it.”

[38] In a very different place, Iowa in the USA where small farms are being broken by agri-business an ex-farmer says “It’s going to be like Russia with serfs. If you want to work on a farm, you’ll have to work for them. We’ll give you a job, but you’re going to be working on our terms.” Nick Shutt, cited in ‘How America’s food giants swallowed the family farms.’, The Guardian, 11/03/2019

[39] The legal method of land grabs in Cambodia is the Economic Land Concession, whereby land can simply be reallocated as ‘state private land’, as happened when the Phnomh Penh Sugar Company was awarded a 99-year lease on 9000hectres in 2006. The 10.000ha limit can also be got around as by another sugar export company, the Koh Koh, which got 2 such adjacent plots by using two different names. Both are linked to the international market with 5 year deals with Tate&Lyle which is now part of American Sugar Refining Inc.

[40] M.Levien ‘Special Economic Zones and Accumulation by Dispossession in India’, Journal of Agrarian Change, Volume 11 Issue 4, 2011

[41] A. Zouma et al, ‘The Rush for Land in an Urbanizing World’. The two projects both involve European public money, Dutch, English and Norwegian, and the port project is a Dutch public-private affair. Such ‘corridors’ developed around the infrastructure for international trade are being projected everywhere. The Chinese ‘Belt and Road’ has them earmarked all over Asia.

[42] There is nothing so tiring and humiliating as having to pretend to work, as is well described in Ed Dorn’s novel By the Sound.

[43] Kojo S. Amanor, Land and Sustainable Development, Zed Books, 2008

 [44]The company is owned by the country’s richest man Henry Sy and had the backing of the Philippines Agrarian and National Reclamation Plans, as well as the use of the police to counter any resistance.

[45] There are alarming precedents. In January 2014 the15,000 strong  Indigenous Sengwer people were evicted from their ancestral homes in the Embobut Forest with the pretext that they were accelerating degradation of the forest. The Kenya Forest Service used the tactics of the 19th century Highland Clearances, torching over a thousand homes.

[46] Amita Baviskar, ‘What the Eye Does Not See: The Yamuna in the Imagination of Delhi’, Economic & Political Weekly.  10 December, 2011

[47] This shift away from ‘the ‘right of livelihood’ being abstracted from place happens at the same time in rural Myanmar with the abolition of ‘the tiller’s right to the land.’

[48]  In an open letter from Chinese intellectuals at the time of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, they said they took no comfort in grandiose facilities or Chinese medals. “We know too well how these glories are built on the ruins of the lives of ordinary people, or the forced removal of urban migrants, and on the suffering of the victims of brutal land grabbing, forced eviction and exploitation of labour.”

[49] “To attract private developers and tourists, the latter mechanism featured a ‘decongestion exercise’ to remove hawkers and remove other ‘chaotic’ space users. A strong aesthetics narrative, in line with ‘dirt-and-disorder narratives employed in many cities accompanied the narrative.” Femke van Noorlooos et al ‘Land in urban debates’ in Urban Studies, 2018. Such removals have been made in Quito, were crucial to the Delhi ‘transformation’ described above, and were made in Beijing before its 2008 Olympics. Elsewhere it is street drinkers and the homeless in general who are constantly harassed.


[50] Foreclosures, that is, evictions of people from their homes for falling behind with mortgage payments in US cities like Boston, fall mostly on African-American citizens. Citizen of all colours in that country might well find themselves living in a tent on city outskirts.

[51] Four million hectares transferred to foreign private investors between 2004-13, more than any other country surveyed by the World Bank.

[52] Mixed with some like the Alsunut Development Company’s project has involved a grab of formerly agricultural land in the city, the ‘peri-urban, a major area of land grab in the context of expanding cities and with projects like the Beira Corridor.