Cash crops in the wildlands: Different worlds are at stake

Naomi Millnerby Naomi Millner, University of Bristol

No-one is forced [to leave their homes]. This is an absolute lie. The people around Gambella are inhabiting the place in a very scattered manner” Ethiopian government (quoted in BBC news online 2012)

The quote is taken from the latest Sub-Saharan ‘land grab’ episode to hit the media headlines – this time we are brought to the western wildlands of Ethiopia, where, Human Rights Watch (2012) reports, approximately 70,000 indigenous people have been relocated into villages that lack adequate food, farmland, and healthcare facilities. In the wake of this national ‘villagization’ program (a mass displacement of peasant farmers from land, rebranded as a ‘community development and transformation’ project) large tracts of land are to be sold to Saudi Arabia and China to grow more than one million tonnes of rice. Ethiopia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hailemariam Desalegn, said the arrangement was an advantage to the country – the lowland area being leased is difficult to plough and often infested with malaria. Moreover, cash crops will meet the country’s urgent obligations to its debtors (BBC news online 2012).

Having begun writing on the new forms of enclosures and articulations of the commons arising from recent media attention to corporate land acquisitions, I had intended to move onto a broader terrain. However, partly through the correspondences and exchanges which have followed these posts, I have found my new material arising from the same themes. A personal email from a media representative of the New Forests Company (the transnational corporation involved in the recent Ugandan furore) reframed the issue in a new light: Directing me toward articles in the Ugandan press, as well as the NFC’s own literature, my interlocutor encouraged me to consider the company’s mis-representation in the heavily-biased Oxfam report. Could I not see that the NFC had carried out its consulting duties with attention to every minute bureaucratic detail? Could I not understand that the NFC was part of an international effort to guarantee global carbon futures through its commitment to faultless corporate standards? Here I’d like to consider the understanding of the environment that makes such counter-claims so powerful, and so difficult to dispute.

A key issue many raise is with the wilful renaming of inhabited land as blank space, and the insistence on acting, contra all evidence, as if things were so. The opening quotation offers a case in point – “the people around Gambella are inhabiting the place in a very scattered manner”, claims the Ethiopian government. Spokespersons deny any problems with the transaction: “It is true that we are providing access to land on a lease basis for 25 years for local and foreign developers. We have about three million hectares of land which is not inhabited by anybody” (quoted in BBC news online 2012). Many of the peasant farmers have never had a formal title to the land, and therefore the land is, legally speaking, ‘uninhabited’ or ‘under-utilized’; moreover, anyone currently living from the land is not a legal resident and can be legitimately relocated. A similar logic is operative in the NFC’s (2011) defence. Their arguments rest partly in a basic misunderstanding of the popular objection – it is not a question of whether what they are doing is legal, either by corporate standards, or by Ugandan law. No, objections were primarily of an ethical nature – the problem is that the laws themselves are wrong. Which is to say, that they follow the interests of the rich and powerful, and can be changed to suit transnational commerce. It is not an question of whether the eviction of farmers from their homes and land can be conveyed in terms of the latest legal guidelines for best corporate practice; it is an issue of holding such guidelines accountable to voices and presences which are not in their interest to acknowledge.

Or is it so simple? We take sides on the media reports based on our feeling of the world that’s at stake. But what if the worlds in question are different worlds? According to recent social-scientific and geographical work, it is helpful to understand that these disagreements can also be thought of in terms of ontological differences. By ‘ontological’ I mean differences based on a particular notion of reality or existence. Developers can frame what they are doing as ethical and desirable – and even believe it – partly because of the modern idea that nature is a passive field for wealth production. The ‘environment’ which corporate investors delineate is mapped out in terms of its capacity to multiply (carbon, cash crops, credit), but is disconnected from the eco-social relations which give context to this capacity. This is part of the theoretical argument made by social theorist Bruno Latour (2004; 2005), who wants to debunk the modern dualism between nature and society (the idea that the natural world and human meaning-making are two discrete sets of processes), showing instead how ‘naturecultures’ are assembled through histories and networks of material objects, and through conceptual translations. The importance of this theoretical work for disagreements over corporate investments is that it raises the multiple ‘worlds’ at stake in a given struggle for the use of land – the contrasting accounts of who or what inhabits it, and of what defines a politics of its future. Hence it becomes, first, a matter of the power relations through which a given world appears or disappears. And, second, of addressing the practices through which one story of the land comes to erase or negate all other claims.

Mario Blaser’s (2009) article on a sustainable hunting program in Paraguay develops Latour’s point. Following the reasoning of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s (1998) work on Amazonian cosmologies, Blaser suggests that conflicts in conservation programs can be associated with different and complexly interested perspectives on the world. Both anthropologists draw out the notion of ‘multinaturism’ as a counterpoint to the usual sociological emphasis on multiculturalism. Multinaturism refers to the multiple naturecultures which inhere in any particular environment. A multinaturalist perspective focuses on what kinds of worlds there are, how they work and interact with each other. This is in contrast with a multiculturalist lens, which looks to disentangle many cultural interpretations of one given nature. The indigenous forms of knowledge interrogated in these papers are based in conceptions of worlds (‘ontologies’) which presume intimate connections between land, animals, people and processes. But, being highly problematic for the modern idea of the land as a backdrop and productive resource for human systems, such worlds are frequently overwritten and excluded. Recalling Jacques Rancière’s (1999) articulation of the political situation of disagreement, de Castro (2004: 9) refers to such an erasure as a type of ‘communicative disjuncture’, “where the interlocutors are not talking about the same thing, and do not know this”.

For political theorists like Rancière, the politicisation of such erasures is a matter of making evident the difference between the worlds in question, in such a way as to disturb the dominating (i.e. modern, western) narrative. Drawing on concepts of naturecultures and ontologies, recent social-scientific and geographical work has begun to explore how such a politics might be introduced into research into geographies of material resources and sustainability (Hinchliffe 2002; Hinchliffe et al 2005; Bakker and Bridge 2006) in such a way as to destabilise the hegemony of the modern ‘world’ over all other possible worlds. Above all, such research has emphasised that a politicisation of ‘wildlands’ is not primarily a case of making excluded actors appear within an already-established political assembly, nor a case of addressing ‘wrongs’ in terms of what is now legal (Hinchliffe et al. 2005; Puig de la Bellacasa 2010; 2011). Instead it is a question of addressing the power relations and processes through which such spaces are made to appear ‘blank’ (Papadopolous 2010; Whatmore 2006). It’s not just for ‘us’ (whoever the ‘us’ is now) to recognise the claims of uncounted others in ‘our space’, but rather for the acknowledgement that our world is not the only one present – in short, that there are different worlds at stake.


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BBC news online (2012) Ethiopia forces thousands off land – Human Rights Watch. BBC News 17 January (last accessed 23 January 2012)

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