Paper Review: Brilmayer and Moon’s chapter on “Regulating Land Grabs: Third Party States, Social Activism and International Law”

Land grabbing and other actors: an inherent feature of transnational production

Author: Giulia Caddeo

This blog engages with Brilmayer and Moon’s chapter on Regulating Land Grabs: Third Party States, Social Activism and International Law” in order to discuss a striking and remarkable fact of the world of today: the transnational grabbing of land for agricultural purposes. The authors deal with this issue in a manner that is complete and exhaustive. They provide the reader with tools for understanding the main actors and complexity of the subjects involved: the international and trade law, the economic science, the citizens and the civil society.

The commodification of land with the goal of profitmaking

From the beginning of the article, Brilmayer and Moon highlight that land grabbing is basically a story of commodification of land for the financial markets. This situation is observed with a worry, especially from the perspective of the international law. The problem is that the land cannot simply be a commodity. Actually, land is not a commodity unless it is constructed as such. Indeed, it contains natural resources that can be exploited commercially, but it is much more: it is the place of traditions and communities; it is the source of soil and life; it is a crucial element in the ecological cycle of the planet; it is the shrine of food, water and pollen; it is how small-scale farmers all over the world can sustain themselves, an much more.

Transforming land into a commodity means, therefore, reducing its meaning to that of its monetary value, but also depriving it of any other value and utility. It is dispossessing the planet and humanity of the multiple and complex essence of land. For the authors, this point is crucial. In their words, land grabbing is the “dispossession of indigenous population, [the] appropriation of ancestral lands, entrenchment of chronic hunger, potentially permanent environmental degradation, extermination of endangered species, and contamination or depletion of water supplies”FOOTNOTE: Footnote.

Notwithstanding these characteristics and these concrete differences, international law and particularly international trade law consider those States as equalFOOTNOTE: Footnote. Contracts and agreements drawn up amongst them are valid, on the basis of the fact that every subject involved shows the same valid will. Yet, this scenario of formal equality creates real inequalities, relevant with regards to human rights and State sovereignty. In fact, given that lessor States are often poorFOOTNOTE: Footnote, acquiring land from them is an important way similar to the act of stealing part of their sovereignty in territories that often strategic compensating them financialy. The local people remain without the land, housing and the possibility to cultivate products for their sustenance, while wealthy States or multinational companies use it to control natural resources, produce goods and exploit human resources at a low price.

Land as a pillar of neo-colonialism

In the article, the current scenario is described as new colonialism. Countries in the Global South, previously subordinated to the rich North because of political and economic reasons, remain in a similar situation of dependency and subjugation. I do agree with the authors. However, there is a further point to be made: if it is possible to observe a sort of dependence of developing countries governments by rich ones, it is also true that now rich countries are not anymore the main actors in the global scenario and that neo-colonialism is not a State business anymore. The main protagonists are, now, transnational enterprises. Their strength is expressed in the fact that they can exploit the advantages of any legislation in the world to make profit. It is hard, for States, to oblige them to have specific duties. For these reasons, they are economically more resilient and stronger than States. Lessor States in particular, have important things in common. According to the authors:

“aside from the fact that they tend to be cash-strapped developing counties […]they generally score low in commitment to democracy and high in the prevalence of corruption. Because these countries suffer from long-term disinvestment in the agricultural sector or have history of conflicts, they tend to be heavily reliant on foreign food aid; in addition, most lack clear legal protections for land title”FOOTNOTE: Footnote.

Democratic deficit, corruption, dependence on food aid and weak legal regimes for protection of property rights are thus the underlying characteristics that operate beyond land grabbing and appropriation of land. Rather than being an unexpected and exceptional circumstance, the enclosure of vast tracts of land for commercial interest is, therefore, the expression of centuries of economic and political subordination. And law can hardly come to the rescue when commodification is at stake. On the contrary, the lack of effective legislation both in the home and host country of investors is one of the main reasons why peasants are dispossessed of their territories and removed from their communal lives.

In the specific case of ancestral land that is discussed in the article, government officials are aware of the situation, but they choose to ignore them in written and positive laws and rights, probably with the goal of adapting the legislation to the western criteria and also for the political and strategic reasons that were previously explained. This process has grave consequences for the health conditions of rural people as well, in creating poverty and food insecurity.

Food aid and the creation of new forms of dependency

Another interesting point that is analyzed in the chapter is that of food aid and the creation of a different form of dependency. Brilmayer and Moon point out the link between the food aid and the land grabbing: the States that are engaged in long term leasing of lands are those that are more dependent on food aidFOOTNOTE: Footnote. Therefore, food aid makes the process of land grabbing easier, as the former guarantees what the latter takes away: the source of sustenance for the population.

Aid programs are provided by voluntary, non-governmental but also by governmental organizations and States. In these cases, it is possible to grasp the relationship that occurs between food aid and neocolonialism: developed countries prefer to help the developing ones with this mechanism, because, through the food aid, the link and the dependence of the developing countries with their population is strongly maintained. As consequence, the governments of the developing countries are not motivated to find concrete solutions for their population. The population, on the other hand, is not spurred and helped in learning new methods and skills, because it feeding is the task of other actors. In these conditions, developing countries are in a permanent situation of crisis, they do not become able to develop their own technologies and abilities to self-sustain.

It is not simple to think about a solution truly capable of solving this situation. What certainly makes for the complexity of the issue is the problem of sovereignty. In fact, in these cases, private actors and rich countries interfere in the State sovereignty of developing countries, while, at the same time, the governors of these states do not respect the needs and the rights of the population. Consequently, the latter is not in the condition to express itself, to evolve and to maintain its traditions. Therefore, what lacks is not only the respect of state sovereignty, but particularly the popular one. People are not in the conditions to be independent, informed, emancipated. Taking into account the data and the reflections in Regulating Land Grabs: Third Party States, Social Activism and International Law it seems that a solution could be found through involving the voice of the civil society.


The work of Brilmayer and Moon shows how complex and historically constructed the land grabbing phenomenon is. It mainly depends on the fact that food production today links many different actors and realities, multiplying the areas that can be reached by market forces but also the places and reasons for struggle. The large-scale acquisition of land is one of the most remarkable aspects of this paradigm: transnational enterprises helped by assertive governments can add new territories and resources to their pile of commodities and budget, but an increasing number of peasants, concerned citizens and legal activist is ready to react.











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