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The Law and Land Grabbing: Friend or Foe?

Liz Alden Wily
  • Corresponding author
  • Affiliated Fellow, Van Vollenhoven Institute, Universiteit Leiden, Leiden, The Netherlands, P. Box 1642-00621, Nairobi, Kenya
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Published Online: 2014-07-17 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/ldr-2014-0005


This paper reflects upon the role of law in the contemporary surge in global large-scale land acquisitions. Its point of reference is the land security of several billion rural poor who traditionally own and use untitled lands that are classified as state lands or unowned public lands in national laws. Most of the affected lands are off-farm areas including forests, marshlands, and rangelands. Investors target these lands in belief they are unowned. Governments concur, selling or leasing these lands on grounds of being technically the lawful owner and despite awareness that these lands are occupied and used. Despite the longstanding nature of such conflicts as well known and long debated, the present land rush brings unresolved contradictions between statutory and customary law and associated meanings of property firmly to the fore. Using Sub-Saharan Africa as the example, this paper examines the legal effects. It is shown that while millions of local land rights are threatened, the land rush also vitalises demands for improved national law status for unregistered customary rights, including those such as forest and rangelands purposely held by communities in common. To this extent, the contemporary rush could prove as much legal friend as foe to majority land rights in agrarian economies. This is partly because the current rush, unlike those that have gone before it, occurs in an environment of advanced popular communication, emergent mass empowerment, and has the advantage of a pre-rush era of legal improvement in the handling of indigenous and customary land rights that has established alternative precedents. Opportunities to coerce modification of classical dispossessory paths of economic growth strongly exist. Global advocacy for secure community land rights is rapidly advancing.

Keywords: land rush; customary rights; collective entitlement; capitalist transformation; real property


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About the article

Published Online: 2014-07-17

Published in Print: 2014-12-01

Citation Information: Law and Development Review, Volume 7, Issue 2, Pages 207–242, ISSN (Online) 1943-3867, ISSN (Print) 2194-6523, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/ldr-2014-0005.

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©2014 Law and Development Review.

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