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Univ. of Kentucky College of Law

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

African Farmers Booted Off Land They Thought They Owned

For anyone interested in international property issues, the NY Times reports on a conflict between subsistence farmers in Mali (who unkowningly don't have good title to the land they farm) and international agricultural investors:

Across Africa and the developing world, a new global land rush is gobbling up large expanses of arable land. Despite their ageless traditions, stunned villagers are discovering that African governments typically own their land and have been leasing it, often at bargain prices, to private investors and foreign governments for decades to come.

Organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank say the practice, if done equitably, could help feed the growing global population by introducing large-scale commercial farming to places without it.

But others condemn the deals as neocolonial land grabs that destroy villages, uproot tens of thousands of farmers and create a volatile mass of landless poor.

Steve Clowney

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This painfully illustrates one of the downsides of capitalist globalization (facilitated by the political powers-that-be: from the State downward). In India, activists (notably, but not only, those on the Left, including Communists) have resurrected the Gandhian notion of gram rajya (village autonomy or rural democracy) to fight such land grabs (with varying degrees of success). Of course this concept was, with Gandhi, part and parcel of other “Euclidean” constructs or utopian concepts (sawarj, swadeshi, sarvodaya, satyagraha, ahimsa, etc.), some of which are completely forgotten or ignored today.

This is also a reminder of the fact that in the so-called developing countries or emerging polities (with regard to common processes of ‘modernization,’ democratization and integration into the global economy), spatially localized resources

“are frequently neither private property nor state property, but COMMON PROPERTY [capitals in lieu of inability to italicize]. In poor countries communal property rights to resources are often based on custom and tradition; they aren’t backed by the kinds of deeds that could pass scrutiny in courts of law. [....] In poor countries the local commons include grazing lands, threshing grounds, swidden fallows, inland and coastal fisheries, rivers and canals, woodland forests, village tanks, and ponds. Being spatially localized, their use can be monitored by members of the community. [....] Communal property rights enable members of a group to reduce individual risks by pooling their risks. Moreover, the incentive to pool risks that are associated with the use of any particular resource depends on the other risks people face, it depends on their remaining sources of income, on transaction possibilities in other spheres of life, and so forth.”

As Partha Dasgupta also explains, the communal management of local commons doesn’t imply open access: they are open typically only to those whose kinship ties and community membership is thought to confer historical rights in this regard. Dasgupta notes case studies have concluded that such communal property rights and management “have prevented rural and coastal communities from experiencing the tragedy of the commons.”

Finally, these are exquisite examples of the various means used to facilitate and sustain cooperation and non-market interactions outside the legal power of the State. Alas (at least in the short-term; relatedly, this may be a case of taking one step backwards in order to take two steps forward--which is not a normative policy endorsement of this strategy), the growth of modern markets in these countries often has “an adverse effect of the functioning of a local, non-market institution,” prompting, for instance, the weakening of prevailing social norms (e.g., of reciprocity, authority, and trust) which, in turn, leads to the precipitous deterioration of communal management systems: one reason why ‘free trade’ simpliciter sans consideration for those who are vulnerable to the (inevitable?) erosion of communitarian practices is ethically disturbing and defective economic and political policy.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Dec 29, 2010 6:48:14 AM

Erratum: swaraj

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Dec 29, 2010 7:14:59 AM

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