Tijo Salverda: Aiming to keep capitalist accumulation in check: The role of the global land rush’s fiercest critics

This post is part of a feature on “How Capitalists Think,” moderated and edited by Patrick Neveling (University of Bergen) and Tijo Salverda (University of Cologne).

Following the concurrent 2007/2008 financial crisis and the global food crisis, investors’ appetite for (agricultural) land around the world has increased considerably. As a consequence, rural residents have been pushed off their lands, or their movements have been restricted because of new forms of enclosure (White et al. 2012), leading to an outpour of concerns about the “global land rush.” Critics such as international peasant movements, NGOs, journalists, (activist) scholars, and, in a more ambiguous way, international governance institutions have campaigned against the negative consequences of investors’ appetite for land. In particular, campaigns by GRAIN, Via Campesina, Global Witness, and Oxfam have increased awareness among the public. The extensive number of academic publications also demonstrates the scholarly attention devoted to the issue (e.g., Anseeuw et al. 2012; Borras 2016; Zoomers et al. 2016).

What has received less attention is how investors respond to the concerns raised by their critics (Salverda 2018). Investors, agribusinesses, and other market actors involved, however, have often expressed their concerns about the widespread attention devoted to the negative consequences of the global land rush to me. By no means, though, has this led to the end of harmful practices, as illustrated in GRAIN’s 2016 The Global Farmland Grab in 2016: How Big, How Bad?, and Global Witness’s 2016 Tainted Lands: Corruption in Large-Scale Land Deals.

A closer look at one European agribusiness, which purchased close about 38,000 hectares of titled land in Zambia’s Central Province, nevertheless demonstrates that even when critics do not succeed in taming capitalism, their efforts may still have an impact, as they may force capitalists to rethink their business strategies. Acknowledging this may also open up the discussion as to whether anthropology’s implicit distinction between capitalism’s “usual suspects,” the capitalists, and the rest, their alleged victims, is as binary as often assumed—even if this may be “disturbing to people who still dream of a simpler, Manichean world of good guys and bad guys” (Maurer and Mainwaring 2012: 181). Instead, it may be more of a continuum, from the most unscrupulous capitalists to more moderate ones, “ordinary” capitalists, critics with and without an aim to dismantle capitalism, and (still too many) genuine victims.

More justice than would have otherwise been the case
Since 2015, I have conducted ethnographic research at and around the aforementioned European agribusiness’s Zambian operations at numerous intervals, visited its Europeans headquarters, and met with relevant actors in its home country, ranging from NGO representatives who fiercely oppose the increasing commodification of land to development finance institutions (DFIs) supportive of the company. In Zambia, I also spoke to numerous rural residents and (local) political actors—unfortunately, neither these actors nor the agribusiness and its critics wanted to be named in my research outputs. Following from this, it is not easy to present unambiguous empirical evidence demonstrating that the European agribusiness acted in particular ways or changed its course of action because of the (potential) critique it faced. Yet, as in other cases when elites are not all-powerful and have to respond to the power of other, less powerful actors (Salverda 2010, 2015), the business approach in Zambia included responses to rural residents that matched some demands from critics.

Commercial farm operations in Zambia’s Central Province (photograph by Tijo Salverda).

Commercial farm operations in Zambia’s Central Province (photograph by Tijo Salverda).

This is most vividly illustrated in the globally contested issue of resettlement of residential populations and the question of compensation. In the case in question, residents on purchased land could be regarded as illegal squatters because under Zambian law they held no land titles. Yet the European company, although they had purchased the very same land with legal titles, offered compensation beyond that stated in international guidelines. Residents received not only brick houses but also (small) titled plots of land. As interactions and interviews with the company’s employees showed, this offer was partly driven by the agribusiness’s fears of being labeled as a land grabber, both locally and, especially, internationally. Accordingly, several Zambian and European employees explicitly expressed their dislike for an NGO that had openly accused the company of land grabbing.

This shows that the European agribusiness, while of the opinion that it had not acted as a land grabber, because it had purchased titled land, still offered leeway to locals. To the NGO making such accusations it was, however, of lesser concern whether the land has been legally acquired. In its aim to defend rural residents’ access to land, a large investor will always limit or take away their ability to produce food. Nevertheless, rural residents do not necessarily share this critique. Though they were not oblivious to power imbalances, many of them actually expressed their support for the agribusiness’s arrival. The hope was that it would provide employment, buy their agricultural produce, and share knowledge.

Other critics in the case of the global land rush also have different views other than that expressed by the NGO’s outspoken stance. They may criticize big capital, but apart from mitigating the negative consequences, they demonstrate little interest in dismantling capitalism. Thus, while some critics, such as the NGO, are evidently very critical of capitalism, others, including (some of) the rural residents, may rather be considered “ordinary” capitalists. In certain instances, the latter’s main aim may only be to gain a bigger piece of the (capitalist) pie; or it could be that after they have received a bigger share, they will shift their position and no longer voice their (initial) concerns. On the critics’ side, then, the continuum continues, with critics who are only marginally critical of the global land rush and merely aim to regulate to facilitate, to actors who prefer to regulate to mitigate negative impacts and maximize opportunities, and, at the far end, to the fiercest critics, whose aim is to regulate to block and rollback (Borras et al. 2013).

What both the Zambian case and the global land rush more generally demonstrate is that the fiercest category of critics is often not very successful in preventing or reversing the (commodification of land) process. Nevertheless, they may still have an impact on shaping the conditions of accumulation processes. As an insider said during an interview, “the whole issue of global land grabbing keeps [the agribusiness] on its feet. It knows that [the critical NGO and others] are snooping around.” Interestingly, in its European home country, a government official working for the ministry responsible for development programs appreciated the aforementioned NGO for similar reasons. Even though he disagreed with the NGO on numerous grounds, he argued that its work helps the ministry to sharpen its own policies and sensibilities regarding land issues. In that sense, whether one sides with the fiercest critics or not, with their vocal and critical stance they play an essential role.

Market actors, such as the European agribusiness discussed above in brief, may often be dismissive of their strongest critics. Yet it is probably only with independent critics that remain very skeptical of consensus and/or collaboration and continue to draw attention to excesses of the global land rush, or other excesses of capitalism, that market representatives feel the urge to respond. Moreover, critics with a more liberal stance and/or in favor of capitalism would probably not have felt the same urge, or even existed, if not for the vocal presence in the global debate of “regulate to block and rollback” critics.

A manager of Coca-Cola once told me that they only work with NGOs that are “prepared to engage, and not just stand on the sideline and throw bombs.” Yet, what the above shows is that those “bombs” are very much needed. Outspoken campaigns, fierce critique of capitalism, and/or quick-and-dirty research, even if the empirical evidence is not always sound, are important to try to mitigate capitalism’s negative consequences. Oxfam, for instance, would certainly have had less leverage in pressing the Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, and Illovo Sugar to take up their responsibilities were it not for the rough-and-ready work as well. What tends to be accomplished may certainly not reflect the fiercest critics’ initial goals, but it may nevertheless offer more justice to the ones suffering the most from the global land rush than would have otherwise been the case.

Tijo Salverda is a Researcher at the University of Cologne’s Global South Studies Center and a Research Associate at the University of Pretoria’s Human Economy Programme. This blog contribution is based on his current project, which investigates how investors/corporations involved in large-scale land-based investments in Africa, in particular Zambia, respond—or not—to concerns raised by critics such as civil society, NGOs, rural residents, (activist) scholars, journalists, international governance institutions, and the like.


Anseeuw, Ward, Liz Alden Wily, Lorenzo Cotula, and Michael Taylor. 2012. Land rights and the rush for land: Findings of the global commercial pressures on land research project. Rome: International Land Coalition.

Borras, Saturnino M., Jr. 2016. “Land politics, agrarian movements and scholar-activism.” Inaugural lecture presented at the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam, 14 April.

Borras, Saturnino M., Jr., Jennifer Franco, and Chunyu Wang. 2013. “The challenge of global governance and land grabbing: Changing international agricultural context and competing political views and strategies.” Globalizations 10 (1): 161–179.

Maurer, Bill, and Scott D. Mainwaring. 2012. “Anthropology with business: Plural programs and future financial worlds.” Journal of Business Anthropology 1 (2): 177–196.

Salverda, Tijo. 2010. “In defence: Elite power.” Journal of Political Power 3 (3): 385–404.

Salverda, Tijo. 2015. The Franco-Mauritian elite: Power and anxiety in the face of change. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Salverda, Tijo. 2018. “Facing criticism: An analysis of (land-based) corporate responses to the large-scale land acquisition countermovement.” Journal of Peasant Studies, published online 21 March. doi:10.1080/03066150.2018.1439930.

White, Ben, Saturnino M. Borras Jr., Ruth Hall, Ian Scoones, and Wendy Wolford. 2012. “The new enclosures: Critical perspectives on corporate land deals.” Journal of Peasant Studies 39 (3–4): 619–647.

Zoomers, Annelies, Alex Gekker, and Mirko T. Schäfer. 2016. “Between two hypes: Will ‘big data’ help unravel blind spots in understanding the global land rush’?” Geoforum 69: 147–159.

Cite as: Salverda, Tijo. 2018. “Aiming to keep capitalist accumulation in check: The role of the global land rush’s fiercest critics.” FocaalBlog, 13 April. www.focaalblog.com/2018/04/13/tijo-salverda-aiming-to-keep-capitalist-accumulation-in-check-the-role-of-the-global-land-rushs-fiercest-critics.