A. Goetz: Land Grabbing and Home Country Development

Land Grabbing and Home Country Development. Chinese and British Land Acquisitions in Comparative Perspective

Goetz, Ariane
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Rezensiert für 'Connections' und H-Soz-Kult von:
Michaela Böhme, SFB 1199, Universität Leipzig

In recent years, perhaps nothing has stirred as much controversy in academic and media circles as the issue of “land grabbing”. Since the global food price crisis of 2007/08, sensational media reports, academic fact-finding missions, and studies by NGOs and other civil society organizations have turned the spotlight on the dramatic rise in interest by foreign investors to buy or lease farmland across the developing world and, in particular, Sub-Saharan Africa. Several claims figure prominently in the “land grab” debate: the centrality of land deals related to offshore food production as food insecure states face rising global food prices; the dominance of China as the “biggest land grabber” in Africa; the notion that land deals from liberal countries follow a fundamentally different investment logic, placing profit-seeking rather than food security at the center of their investment activities; and the framing of land deals as either a development opportunity, bringing much needed investment to “underproductive” farmland, or as an act of dispossession that displaces and expels local communities from their lands.

In her monograph Ariane Goetz provides a thorough critique of many of these key assumptions shaping contemporary “land grab” debates. Goetz’s argument starts from the main tenet that standard explanations of “land grabbing”—state-capitalist countries securing resources offshore for consumption back home, on the one hand, and investors from liberal countries looking for new sources of financial profit, on the other—fail to account for why and how land deals happen. While “land grab” research has paid much attention to the social and political dynamics of transnational land deals in the countries and communities receiving investment, accounts of why investments happen in the first place “remain surprisingly homogenous and superficial” (p. 25). Going beyond such standard explanations, Goetz argues, requires an in-depth analysis of the structural and contingent factors within the context of the investing country, or, in other words, a detailed look at the “home country factors” that condition why and how transnational land deals take place.

To do so, Goetz offers a comparative assessment of 40 “land grab” projects by Chinese and British investors that occurred in Sub-Saharan Africa from 2000 to 2015. While China is used as a seemingly emblematic case of “state-capitalist” investment driven by food security concerns, the UK is selected as a country commonly considered to be representative of the market-based, profit-seeking type of land investment. Across 8 chapters, Goetz provides a comparative political-economic account of how domestic institutions, investment policies, dominant ideologies, and development trajectories have shaped each country’s land deals in Africa and comes to a surprising conclusion: land deals from both countries are characterized by a high-degree of institutional similarity in terms of their agendas, ideologies, and investment patterns. Land deals from China and the UK, Goetz argues, both crystallize an international development paradigm that seeks to “push the limits” of capitalist accumulation beyond national borders and “fight the limits” imposed by national resource constraints and domestic development trajectories. In short, then, while there are obvious differences between land investment from China and the UK, Goetz finds that these are not decisive in explaining why and how land deals happen.

As the author delves into the political economy and development trajectories of her two country cases, she challenges many of the widespread beliefs about the supposedly antithetical investment agendas and practices shaping Chinese and British land deals in Africa. For example, in chapter 5 of the book, Goetz argues that assumptions about the state-centric nature of China’s investments are often mistaken. Instead, she emphasizes how recent reform processes have yielded a model of “neoliberal governmentality” (p. 171) that is characterized by state fragmentation, the rise of “bureaucratic entrepreneurs”, and shifting state-market relations. According to the author, this neoliberal shift in China’s bureaucratic structure implies that the central state is not always and necessarily in control of the investment activities of an increasingly powerful and heterogeneous group of sub-state actors. As (geo-)political and economic interests intersect in novel and complex ways, Chinese land investments, Goetz insists, are often just as much driven by the need for profits as are investments from the UK. The author also identifies striking similarities in a development rhetoric of “win-win” and “mutual benefits” that characterizes both Chinese and British investment discourses. Taking the reader through her comparative account of the political-economic factors that drive Chinese and British land deals in Africa, Goetz shows how, contrary to standard explanations, land deals from China and the UK are not so much characterized by substantial differences but, rather, are reflective of a shared international development regime where “’land grabbing’ investment is the material expression of a particular idea of modern development” (p. 10).

Goetz is not alone in her efforts to critically interrogate “land grabbing”. Indeed, in recent years, scholars have called on “land grab” researchers to challenge the untested assumptions, problematic dichotomies, and causally used concepts of what is perceived as a highly politized and biased debate.[1] In practice, this has inspired a new round of grounded, empirical studies in which scholars have begun to complexify the actors, processes, and practices underpinning African land deals. Prominent contributions to this critical body of “land grab” literature have come, amongst others, from scholars such as Deborah Brautigam, who, based on extensive fieldwork, eloquently dismantles simplistic assumptions about the nature of Chinese land deals in Africa.[2] In contrast to these actor-centered studies, Goetz’s structural approach tends to produce a more abstract and less empirically-grounded account. Despite the author’s ambition to “account for the mix of structural and individual, strategic and contingent dynamics at work” (p. 115), the agencies of those entrepreneurs, firms, and institutions engaging in land deals “on the ground” remain largely black-boxed by a structural language of “patterns”, “processes”, and “drivers”. Moreover, by using nation-states as central units of analysis in her comparative framework, Goetz risks re-essentializing land deals as “Chinese” or “British”, thus creating some conceptual tension with her stated goal to challenge the facile dichotomy of “state-capitalist” versus “liberal” that characterizes much of the “land grab” debate. Hence, to the extent that Goetz’s conceptualization of land deals remains situated in the nation-state context, their puzzling transnational features are overlooked.

Nonetheless, by offering a nuanced comparative analysis of two key actors often mistakenly represented as antithetical in the “land grab” debate, the book makes a timely and relevant contribution to one of the most controversial issue shaping contemporary processes of global restructuring. The book will be of interest to scholars in the fields of comparative political economy, agri-food as well as development studies.

[1] Marc Edelman, Carlos Oya, Saturino M. Jr. Borras, Global Land Grabs: Historical Processes, Theoretical and Methodological Implications and Current Trajectories, in: Third World Quarterly 34 (2013) 9, pp. 1517–1531.
[2] Deborah Brautigam, Will Africa Feed China? Oxford, New York 2015.

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