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Social scientists look at global 'feeding frenzy' for land

Members of the ISS Contested Global Landscapes Team
Jason Koski/University Photography
Members of the ISS Contested Global Landscapes Team. Front row, left to right: Wendy Wolford, Sara Pritchard. Back row, left to right: Steven Wolf, Paul Nadasdy, Raymond Craib, Nancy Chau, Jon Parmenter and Charles Geisler.

Victims of the U.S. real estate slump may not feel it, but there's a worldwide rush to buy land going on.

Nations from China to Saudi Arabia as well as corporations and private investors are buying up enormous tracts of land around the world at a rate 20 times faster than in previous years. They're trying to hedge their bets against the next food crisis, or profit from growing crops that can be made into alternative fuels like ethanol. Elsewhere they are buying up water and subsurface rights.

A group of Cornell social scientists will be collaborating over the next three years to look at the financial, political and legal implications of this trend. Cornell's Institute for the Social Sciences (ISS) theme project, Contested Global Landscapes, is taking place 2012-15.

"Land deals are indicative of and also generating really important transformations in the four areas that we'll concentrate on: property, governance, political economy and livelihood. We're using land deals as a window onto broader transformations at this current moment," said Wendy Wolford, the Polson Professor of Development Sociology, who is co-leading the project with Charles Geisler, professor of development sociology.

"We're expecting some big ideas to arise form this group project," Geisler added. "We know that global climate change is altering sea levels and reducing the size of continental coastal zones -- some of the most productive ecosystems on the planet. At the same time, a feeding frenzy is under way as nations vie for new places to source their food. These contexts are critical to understanding shrinking 'global hectare' trends as well as the precarious state of everyday people dependent on lands in the global South."

The international community began to take notice of large-scale land deals in 2009, when Madagascar's government arranged a deal to lease one-third of its arable land to Daewoo Logistics, a South Korean company, for raising food crops. The lease prompted panic, protests and eventually a coup in Madagascar.

"If you look at it historically, land grabbing has been going on for a long time, especially in Africa. But it was the fall of the Madagascar state that made the international community really say, 'Well, this is a problem and can topple governments,'" Wolford said.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the main site of large-scale land acquisitions because the apparently "underutilized" arable land and the potential for improved yields are substantial. "Some say this wave of land acquisition is exactly what we need to feed the world's growing population and meet the demand for alternative energy," Wolford said. "Others say it's just the colonial scramble for Africa repeated, it's 1884-85 all over again. And, in truth, it's a little bit of both."

The eight team members will look at the phenomenon through different lenses. Nancy Chau, professor of applied economics and management, researches new land policies in China that are geared toward rational management of rural and urban space but are often shaped more by local politics and aspirations of industrial development. Grabbing the oceans, or "sea-steading" -- living on permanent dwellings on the oceans beyond international jurisdiction -- is the focus of Raymond Craib, associate professor of history. And Paul Nadasdy, associate professor of anthropology, analyzes land claim negotiations between the Canadian government and the Kluane First Nation.

Steven Wolf, associate professor of natural resources, looks at the nexus between vast land deals and forestry resources. Geisler is investigating the ways in which public and private forces make land deals compulsory despite their characterization as free market transfers. Wendy Wolford is pursuing "South-South" land deals, particularly Brazil's investments in parts of Africa.

Other team members are Jon Parmenter, associate professor of history, and Sara Pritchard, assistant professor of science and technology studies.

The team has joined a network putting on the Second International Conference on Global Land Grabbing, which will be held at Cornell Oct. 17-19. Nearly 200 scholars from around the world will attend, with the director-general of the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, José Graziano da Silva, delivering the keynote address. Wolf and Geisler will present their respective research, team members will chair sessions and Wolford will give introductory comments.

The team is in planning mode for the rest of this academic year. In 2013-14, Wolford and Geisler will co-teach a yearlong seminar on the issues central to global land grabbing, with other team members and project affiliates as guest speakers. Conferences and other scholarly work are also planned. The team will complete their project in year three and put in place a framework for continuing land research at Cornell.


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