Resistance, acquiescence or incorporation? Introduction to land grabbing and resistance

Ben White, Ian Scoones, Marc Edelman, Ruth Hall, Saturnino M. Borras and Wendy Wolford | 05.22.2015

Abstract: Political reactions ‘from below’ to global land grabbing have been vastly more varied and complex than is usually assumed. This essay introduces a collection of ground-breaking studies that discuss responses that range from various types of organized and everyday resistance to demands for incorporation or for better terms of incorporation into land deals. Initiatives ‘from below’ in response to land deals have involved local and transnational alliances and the use of legal and extra-legal methods, and have brought victories and defeats. The relevance of political reactions to land grabbing is discussed in light of theories of social movements and critical agrarian studies. Future research on reactions ‘from below’ to land grabbing must include greater attention to gender and generational differences in both impacts and political agency.

Keywords: dispossession, land grabbing, large-scale land acquisitions, land tenure, peasants, resistance, contentious politics, agrarian change


Critical scholarly analysis of processes of agrarian change has long emphasized peasant agency and aimed to uncover forms of resistance, even in the midst of dispossession, oppression and processes of social differentiation. This collection draws on the rich base of existing scholarship to ask: in the midst of the ‘global land grab’, what are the political reactions ‘from below’? While some reactions from people directly affected may involve resistance, the essays in this collection suggest that understanding the diversity of reactions from below requires critical empirical investigations of responses in specific situations. We thus frame ‘political reactions from below’ in a wider way, to refer to responses that extend far beyond ‘resistance’ in its many manifestations, and range from mobilizations seeking to improve the compensation for people’s expulsion from their land to demands to be inserted into land deals as workers or contract farmers to counter-mobilizations against land deal resisters. Beyond the local level, highly varied responses by societies and states at national levels and in international multilateral fora and transnational movements also call for more detailed and critical assessment by social scientists.

In the midst of enclosures and commercialization of land and other natural resources across the global South, tensions and synergies mark political reactions ‘from below’ to global land grabbing. A fuller understanding of the politics from below around land grabs brings us to some classic concepts in critical agrarian studies, including the dual front of ‘struggle against dispossession’ and ‘struggle against exploitation’, as well as the question of the state. Yet even this classic political economy-based framing of people’s struggles may not fully capture the range and complexity of the politics around contemporary enclosures where the ecological dimension has become increasingly prominent. But an important starting point is to draw on concepts and analytical tools in critical agrarian studies, such as agrarian class politics and everyday forms of peasant resistance. Analytical tools from identity politics will also be relevant in understanding politics from below around global land grabbing.

When land deals gain momentum, they trigger complex political dynamics – expected and unexpected, intended and unintended – within the state and in society. Early media reports, as well as activist and academic discussions, often assumed that land deals expel people from the land and that those expelled – typically referred to as ‘local people’ or ‘local communities’ – engage in ‘resistance’. Recent research, however, indicates that what happens on the ground is more varied and complex (e.g. White et al. 2012; Wolford et al. 2013; Edelman, Oya, and Borras 2013). When land deals hit the ground, they interact with social groups within the state and in society that are differentiated along lines of class, gender, generation, ethnicity and nationality, and that have historically specific expectations, aspirations and traditions of struggle. These reshape, limit or make possible different kinds of land deals. As the contributions to this collection show, political debates and academic research have increasingly picked up differentiated impacts and variegated political reactions to land deals.

This collection addresses these questions and builds on a series of Journal of Peasant Studies (JPS) editions over the past five years that have interrogated the phenomenon of global land grabbing through the lens of critical agrarian studies. It brings together papers originally presented at the Global Land Grab II International Conference1 organized by the Land Deal Politics Initiative (LDPI2). This follows a JPS Forum on Global Land Grabbing II which dealt with methodologies and the limits to existing approaches to enumerating, explaining and assessing the impacts of land deals (Scoones et al. 2013), and a JPS collection on The New Enclosures: Critical Perspectives on Corporate Land Deals (White et al. 2012) which drew together a broad spectrum of papers outlining the contours of the phenomenon, and which drew from the Global Land Grab I International Conference,3 also organized by the LDPI. These in turn followed the first JPS Forum on Global Land Grabbing (Borras et al. 2011) which, ahead of the Global Land Grab I conference, outlined a research agenda for understanding the current land grab. This initial JPS collection of papers drew attention to the ways in which questions and approaches from within critical agrarian studies could help to systematize our knowledge and make sense both of the drivers of land grabbing and of the changes in agrarian economies and societies that land deals set in motion. The current collection aims to build on these contributions and to challenge dominant framings of rural and peasant communities across the global South as either passive victims or unified resisters of land grabs.

Stay in the loop with Food First!

Get our independent analysis, research, and other publications you care about to your inbox for free!

Sign up today!

To cite this article: Ruth Hall, Marc Edelman, Saturnino M. Borras Jr., Ian Scoones, Ben White & Wendy Wolford (2015) Resistance, acquiescence or incorporation? An introduction to land grabbing and political reactions ‘from below’, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 42:3-4, 467-488, DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2015.1036746

Access this article and the full issue at Taylor and Francis Online. Available for free download for a limited time.