Social and Environmental Dimension of Large-Scale Land Acquisitions, Part 2

A political cartoon showing giant hands extending from the sky grabbing at pieces of land while smaller individuals, who were tending to that land look on in anger

The acquisition or leasing of large tracts of land in the Global South by investors—both foreign and in-country—has grown dramatically. Many of these transactions represent agricultural investments in land where crop and livestock production will occur and where there is sufficient water. Indeed, water availability is often a major driver of such land purchases. Most of the acquired land, however, is in low- and middle-income countries where indigenous peoples often govern the land and water and view them as common property. Here, farms are small-scale, low-yield holdings where products go to local markets. Investors seek to make profits by increasing crop production through large-scale commercial agriculture, focusing on commodities with high-export market value. Investors often make promises up front that by bringing new technologies and jobs, their investments will benefit local communities and reduce poverty; however, these claims are highly contested. If investments fail, they can leave local people with degraded land and depleted water supplies, while also displacing them to marginal lands or forcing them to migrate long distances.  

Decisions over the use and sale of land at global scales, as well as their associated social and environmental impacts, are not easy to trace—transactions usually lack transparency. Thus, understanding the extent and impact of large-scale land acquisitions (LSLA) requires detective-like research approaches in which quantitative and qualitative information together reveal patterns and stories. 

This lesson involves three sessions. This second session (Part 2) asks learners to explore textual material and scholarly sources to extend their understanding of LSLA in the countries they were assigned in the first session. It ends with an assignment to write an editorial. In the first session (Part 1), learners gathered numeric and textual data from an open-access database to help support their understanding of LSLA. The third session (Part 3) gives learners time to complete their exploration of textual documents and ends with a homework assignment to develop a well-researched, evidence-based editorial suitable for an outlet such as The New York Times

This multi-part lesson would also be excellent if it follows all or parts of the lesson “Introduction to Qualitative Methods for Sustainability: Narrative and Identity in Climate Beliefs.”

Assumed Prior Knowledge
Suitable for all levels—undergraduate and graduate—with some additional suggestions for more advanced learners.
Learning Objectives
  • Understand the environmental and social dimensions of LSLAs.
  • Undertake socio-environmental research using both quantitative and qualitative data to reach an evidenced-based conclusion.
  • Practice writing that seeks to influence others with an evidence-based argument. 
Key Terms/Concepts
land, water, and commons grabs; common property rights; sovereign wealth fund; natural capital; subsistence farming; food security; technological spillovers; Global South; commodity farming; editorial
Teaching Assignments

A direct extension of the group work done in Part 1, this Part 2 session is suitable for a 50- or 75-min. session, depending on how much time is given to number 3 below. Prior to the session, the instructor should upload the “Textual Resources for LSLA” to a site accessible to the participants. Open-access versions of each of the articles are also available if the instructor wants to post those to the shared site; this may save the learners time.

  1. (20 min.) Have learners gather together in their previously assigned groups to review and discuss the Land Matrix data they have collected in the context of the questions posed during the last session. The instructor should remind them of the questions (e.g., pointing them to their handout or slide 9 from the last session). Each group should prepare a series of PowerPoint slides to share with the other participants and designate a person(s) to report out.

  2. (25 min.) Give each group ~5 minutes to report their findings. Next, facilitate a 5–10 min. discussion of the broad questions they addressed but now with a focus on how results compare across the regions, especially those in Africa vs. Latin America and those from countries with higher vs. lower incomes. Have the participants consider the income levels in the countries they studied in the context of average income in their own country and those countries to which investors are based.

  3. (5–25 min.) Instruct participants that they should now explore textual material that will provide context and a deeper understanding of the LSLAs in the countries they focused on in the Land Matrix database. To serve as a starting point, they can use articles listed (or provided online as appropriate) in the “Textual Resources for LSLA.” Learners can do the exploration independently or in their original groups. For 50-min. class sessions, this task will continue in the next session (Part 3). If they choose to continue working in groups, each member could read an article or two then share thoughts on what they read online. The goal is to enrich understanding of how LSLA occurred in their focal countries and what if any impacts or benefits there were for the local peoples (e.g., small farm holders). This “understanding” along with what they learned from the Land Matrix database work is meant to inform their writing assignment in the next session (Part 3).

    Note to Instructor: This part of the assignment should be very open-ended such that learners will likely start by reading some of the resources provided but they should feel free to search for additional information. The instructor should encourage learners to pay attention to the sources of the information and the potential for bias for or against land acquisitions.

Background Information for the Instructor
  1. The tragedy of the grabbed commons: Coercion and dispossession in the global land rush

    • This is one of the early and widely read articles focused on LSLA as the taking of commons property; it argues that the commons land previously governed by locals was robust to changes from within (e.g., from the peoples) but was vulnerable to the exogenous forces that led to their acquisition. The article is useful in providing an example of strong scholarship that relies on textual documents and qualitative social science methods such as qualitative comparative analysis.

    • Dell’Angelo, J., D’Odorico, P., Rulli, M.C. et al. (2017). The tragedy of the grabbed commons: Coercion and dispossession in the global land rush. World Development92, 1-12.

  2.  Reframing the land grab debate: The need to broaden and deepen the agenda

    • This article is useful because it emphasizes the changing face of land grabs. Historically, LSLAs were viewed in the context of colonialism or wealthy foreign investors buying up large tracts of land. The author argues that over time the nature of acquisitions has become far more complex, involving more actors and more reasons to “commodify the environment” under the auspices of neoliberal policies.

    • Zoomers, A., & van Westen, G. 2013. Reframing the land grab debate: the need to broaden and deepen the agenda. Global Environment, 6 (12): 228-248.



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