Search By Topic


When the land is needed, but the people are not

A series of live coverage updates from Global Land Programme’s 2019 Open Science Meeting in Bern, Switzerland.

26 April, 3:30 pm CET

There is a “comforting” but wrong narrative that people displaced by large-scale agricultural projects will find employment from those projects or move somewhere like a city to find it there, according to anthropologist Tania Li of the University of Toronto.

It is based, she says, on the incorrect assumption that historic patterns of population movement will hold in the modern world.

In the past, people have moved from country to city as development has occurred, for example, during the Industrial Revolution.

But Li says there is no reason for this to happen in places like emerging Asia or sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, there are reasons to suggest it will not.

“Why would you expect the same transition to occur in every part of the world, especially in an era of globally circulating capital?” she said in an interview at the Global Land Programme. “Capital can land anywhere.”

It is for similar reasons that Li disagrees with World Bank suggestions that the solution to rural issues in developing countries lies with large-scale agriculture projects.

“Do the head count,” she said. “These areas of large-scale land acquisition are rarely empty. There are people already living there, gaining livelihoods there. You have to take this as a baseline and then look at the number of jobs created.”

In most places there will be a deficit – more jobs displaced than created.

Li pointed to her own research on palm oil plantations. There is one person working for every 10 hectares, she said.

What is needed, Li reckons, is for institutions to “plan for the heterogeneity” of different areas of population and not assume a traditional migratory pattern to accompany development.

Explore the Future Earth blog for more coverage from the Global Land Programme’s 2019 Open Science Meeting. You can view the plenary keynotes on the free online livestream from the event, and follow minute-by-minute coverage on Twitter at @GlobalLandP or use the hashtag #GLPOSM to follow attendees’ posts.