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The Dynamics of Land Grabs in Africa

November 22, 2013
Gambella, Ethiopia

Gambella, Ethiopia

I’m blogging from the African Studies Association meeting in Baltimore this week, where I’ve been able to attend some interesting panels. While there are a surprisingly small number of panels on African agriculture here, those that have taken place have been quite good.

Tom Lavers’ paper on land grabs in Ethiopia presented some interesting theoretical connections between land tenure and the reach of the state. His argument began with the observant that much of the literature on land grabs in Africa has centered on the belief that such land deals represent an erosion of national sovereignty insofar as they culminate in transfer of control over land to non-state (usually foreign business) actors.

However, in his presentation, Lavers argued that in the Ethiopian case, land acquisitions are generally taking place not in highland areas held by smallholder farmers but in lowland areas used by pastoralists who generally operated beyond the reach of the state. In this instance, land grabs do not signal a surrender of sovereignty but its assertion, an expansion of the reach of the states to relatively remote lowlands traditionally neglected by the government in Addis Ababa. Supporting this argument is the fact that in Gambela, his case study and a region where the government has designated up to 42 percent of land for possible land deals, land acquisitions are being accompanied by efforts on the part of the state to move 70-75 percent of the population from more remote settlements into villages. Such efforts, he asserts, can thus be read collectively as an effort to project state authority–and more broadly sovereignty–into the furthest reaches of the territorial boundaries of Ethiopia. It’s a very interesting argument that deepens the debate over the questions and grabs in Africa.


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  1. If state power is being used to displace pastoralists in service of foreign actors, it still means a loss of sovereignty because the state does not emerge stronger/consolidate authority (future events here will be shaped by outsiders, not by the state). Yes, the state is asserting its authority in displacing the pastoralists but if they have been traditional residents of this area then they are losing their rights and sovereignty as well. This is not a happy development for anyone, it would seem.
    Thanks for this interesting post!

  2. drbausman permalink

    Reblogged this on Sahel Green Food.

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