By Izabela Delabre, University of Reading
On 16th November, an article in The Guardian reported how the Tanzanian government was breaking its promise to 40,000 Masai pastoralists. It claimed that the government was going ahead with plans to evict the Masai people and turn their ancestral land into a reserve for the royal family of Dubai to hunt big game. Within one week, 18,000 people had signed a petition run by the campaigning community, Avaaz, against the proposal. As the online petition gained supporters, President Jakaya Kikwete tweeted: “There has never been, nor will there ever be, any plan by the government of Tanzania to evict the Masai people from their ancestral land.”
In a following article on 25th November, Ole Kulinga, an elder and traditional leader from Loliondo, the affected district, said: “Without our land, we are nothing and this commitment from the president lets us all breathe a sigh of relief. But hunters want this land more than anything and we will only feel safe when we have permanent rights to our land in writing.” A community leader, Samwell Nangire expressed caution, noting that Kikwete said on Twitter that there had never been a plan to evict the Maasai. Nangire stated that wasn’t true.
Since 2008, we have been exposed to countless stories reporting on “the global land rush” and “land grabs.” From rising food prices, to growing demand of biofuel crops, investors are taking an interest in agricultural land as never before. In a Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers paper, based on her Plenary Lecture at the 2013 RGS-IBG Annual Conference, Tania Murray Li addresses the question, what is land? Entitled “What is land? Assembling a resource for global investment,” the article stresses land’s materiality, its multiple affordances and the quality it shares with other resources: its intrinsically social character. In order to address the “so-called global land grab or land rush,” she examines the inscription devices that have made land into a resource available for global investment.
Drawing on research among indigenous highlanders in Indonesia, Li states that, for the purpose of analysis, the English word ‘land’ carries cultural baggage that needs to be made strange – not all peoples have this word, not everyone “lumps together the same set of material substances under one label, nor do they assemble material and social relations into equivalent forms.” In her research area, it was only around 1990, when a new element was added (cacao), that land started to be treated like a commodity. This required the indigenous highlanders to invent a term, lokasi, for a socio-material entity that did not exist before (Li later adds that most of this cacao was later killed by an incurable virus).
Land’s material emplacement means that, usually, the people located within the geographical area will have a say on its use, be it through democratic processes or the exercise of force, such as resisting eviction. Assembling farmland as a resource for global investment uses the work of multiple actors drawing on discourses, inscription devices and modes of calculation already available, such as maps, grids, surveys and images. These devices, when pulled together, may produce an expanded capacity to envision “under-utilised” land as a globally important asset capable of producing food, profits and reducing poverty.
However, if the anticipated high returns do not materialize – licenses or funds may not being secured, or the intended crop does not grow well – investors may lose interest. The land would still be there, but it would no longer be a global ‘resource’ attracting investment. Land would therefore be considered in new and different ways.
T. M. Li 2014. What is land? Assembling a resource for global investment. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 39(4): 589–602.
Tanzania accused of backtracking over sale of Masai’s ancestral land. The Guardian, November 16
Tanzania’s Masai ‘breathe sigh of relief’ after president vows never to evict them. The Guardian, November 25