Land Grabbing and the Perplexities of Territorial Sovereignty

Published date01 February 2022
Date01 February 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Political Theory
2022, Vol. 50(1) 32 –58
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/00905917211008591
Land Grabbing and the
Perplexities of Territorial
Anna Jurkevics1
The recent phenomenon of land grabbing—that is, the large-scale acquisition of
private land rights by foreign investors—is an effect of increasing global demand
for farmland, resources, and development opportunities. In 2008–2010 alone,
land grabs covered approximately 56 million hectares of land, dispossessing
and displacing inhabitants. This article proposes a philosophical framework for
evaluating land grabbing as a practice of territorial alienation, whereby the private
purchase of land can, under certain conditions, lead to a de facto alienation of
territorial sovereignty. If land grabs alienate territorial sovereignty, it follows
that inhabitants can claim a violation of the people’s right to “permanent
sovereignty over natural resources.” However, because sovereignty is entangled
in the historical and contemporary causes of land dispossession, I cast doubt on
this strategy. Territorially sovereign regimes often undermine democratic land
governance by obstructing participation in activities such as zoning, land use,
property regulation, and environmental stewardship. These activities, which I
theorize as practices of “world-building,” are key to democracy because they
give occupants a say in the shape of their common home. The perplexities of
sovereignty in matters of land governance suggest that establishing democratic
participation in rule over land requires fracturing sovereignty.
land grabbing, sovereignty, territory, property, democracy, permanent
sovereignty over natural resources, Locke, Kant, Arendt
1Assistant Professor, Political Science, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Corresponding Author:
Anna Jurkevics, University of British Columbia, 1866 Main Mall – C308, Vancouver, BC V6T
1Z1, Canada.
1008591PTXXXX10.1177/00905917211008591Political TheoryJurkevics
Jurkevics 33
Today in Indonesia, more than 11 million hectares of land (approximately
42,500 square miles) are devoted to oil palm harvesting, most of which takes
place on plantations. Tania Murray Li, who conducted field research in the
province of West Kalimantan from 2010–2015, describes the world of the
palm oil plantation:
Plantations in Indonesia . . . are intended to transform so-called underutilized
land, held by millions of villagers under customary forms of tenure, into spaces
of productivity. . . . Plantations begin with the production of a tabula rasa.
Bulldozers (and sometimes fire) remove all tree cover, carve terraces into
hillsides, and obliterate signs of former land use. . . . Material transformation
extends to human settlements, as plantation concessions are seldom empty of
prior habitation. . . . Smaller hamlets, rice fields, rubber and mango trees, and
grave sites are destroyed. The new built forms are overwhelmingly linear:
plantation roads are laid out in straight lines, carving plantations into regular
blocks. The roads have no signposts, and no names, merely numbers written in
code. Social relations are deliberately thinned out. Blocks of worker housing
are isolated from each other, tucked away in the middle of the sea of palms. . .
. On some plantations workers line up in rows for morning roll call. . . .
Plantations have jurisdiction over workers’ conduct, and small misdemeanors
are handled “in house.”1
This description of plantation life in a contemporary private agribusiness
venture is remarkable yet unexceptional. It describes but one of many worlds
created by increasing global demand for food, biofuels, and resources.
Indeed, the number of large-scale agribusiness and extraction sites is sharply
increasing in Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, South America, and even
parts of the global North.
The large-scale capture and monopolization of land is by no means a new
phenomenon; human history is rife with examples of dispossession via con-
quest, settlement, enclosure, and private acquisition. However, the 2007–
2008 financial crisis and concomitant spike in world food prices caused a
transformation in global land markets that led to the sharp increase in land
deals we are seeing today. Land markets in the global south have been
expanding at such a rapid pace that a new designation has emerged: “land
grabbing,” which refers to the large-scale (>10,000 hectares) private acquisi-
tion of land rights. In 2010, the World Bank reported that land grabs covering
approximately 56 million hectares of land had been announced or transacted
in 2008–2009, compared to an average 4 million hectares in previous years.2
As a point of reference, 56 million hectares of land is larger than France.
Land grabs often cover hundreds, even thousands, of square miles of land.3
Many purchases are made by the sovereign wealth funds of net food

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