The tragedy of the grabbed commons: Coercion and dispossession in the global land rush


Rural populations around the world rely on small-scale farming and other uses of land and natural resources, which are often governed by customary, traditional, and indigenous systems of common property. In recent years, large-scale land acquisitions have drastically expanded; it is unclear whether the commons are a preferential target of these acquisitions. Here we argue that the contemporary global “land rush” could be happening at the expense of common-property systems around the world. While there is evidence that common-property systems have developed traditional institutions of resource governance that make them robust with respect to endogenous forces (e.g., uses by community members), it is less clear how vulnerable these arrangements are to exogenous drivers of globalization and expansion of transnational land investments. In common-property systems, farmers and local users may be unable to defend their customary rights and successfully compete with external actors. We define the notion of “commons grabbing” and report on an exploratory study that applied meta-analytical methods, drawing from the recent literature on large-scale land acquisitions and land grabbing. Informed by political economy and political ecology approaches, we coded selected cases on the basis of acquisition mechanisms, claims and property rights, changes in production system, and coercive dynamics, and explored the interactions between the different variables using association tests and qualitative comparative analysis. We found that the majority of the cases included in this analysis (44 of 56) could be examples of commons grabbing.

Publication Type
Journal Article
World Development

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