Rendering Land Investible: Multiple Ontologies and Materialites in the Global Land Rush

Savage Minds welcomes guest bloggers Julian S Yates and Jenny E Goldstein.

Jenny E Goldstein is a doctoral candidate in geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her current research looks at agricultural development, degraded land, and the politics of scientific expertise in the peatlands of Indonesian Borneo.

Julian S Yates is a doctoral candidate in geography at the University of British Columbia. His research focusses on the reproduction of indigenous environmental knowledge in the Peruvian Andes.

As guest editors for Savage Minds this month, we aim to stimulate some debate on a question raised by anthropologist Tania Murray Li: “What is land?” (Li, 2014). This debate is, we hope, transdisciplinary. We are two geographers (from UCLA and UBC, respectively), who took inspiration from the above question to organize a track of sessions at the Association of American Geographers annual meeting in Chicago (April, 2015), which will feature Tania Li and Wendy Wolford (geographer by training, sociologist by discipline) as discussants. These sessions also draw from our participation in the interdisciplinary Summer Institute on Contested Global Landscapes at Cornell University last year. Through our work there, we examined the role of knowledge production in land management practices within the context of global land grabbing.

What we hope to do this month, therefore, is further this productive interdisciplinary conversation around ontological questions of land, building on anthropological perspectives on the multiple meanings of land and connecting them to geographical narratives that expose systems of value creation in relation to land and natural resources. Throughout the month, the participants in the AAG track of sessions – who are also from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds – will be contributing their thoughts on the notion of “rendering land investible”.

We open the month’s contributions by revealing our motivations for engaging in this debate. We hope that the questions we pose will provide a provocative foundation for further contributions from our group of participants, as well as from interested readers.

There’s been a substantial amount of scholarly research published on global land grabbing, the contemporary process of large-scale land acquisition for agricultural production, recently (several special issues in the Journal of Peasant Studies, such as this one, for example). While we were thinking about how we might advance this broader conversation in conjunction with our interest in the politics of knowledge and expertise, we came across Tania Li’s very recent piece in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, “What is land? Assembling a resource for global investment”. She thinks through land in terms of its materiality, the “inscription devices” that makes legible, and the ways in which land means different things to — and does different things for — different actors. So, using Li’s piece as a kind of springboard, we invited presenters to use their own case studies to explore how and why certain actors choose to invest in (largely agricultural) land in faraway places, how material characteristics of that land render it easily investable or not, and the technologies and forms of knowledge that enable such investment.

There are, of course, multiple ways of using such a springboard. In noting the emphasis that Li placed on the uniqueness of land, for example, we were struck by the Polanyian influence and the parallel to ‘fictitious commodities’. Li goes on to draw on Polanyi, which perhaps reflects the political-economically oriented nature of her approach. Although Li points to the potential of multiple ontologies of land, she focussed very much on a capitalist ontology, adding her own touch in terms of exposing the techniques of rendering investible: calculability, the creation of value, tools, expertise, discourse, etc. Rendering land as a resource, she argued, relies on the social and cultural relations that define it as such. This is a kind of social constructivist approach, then, more than a whole-hearted attempt to locate land within a broader ontological turn.

Nonetheless, we can take inspiration from Tania’s approach to ask some deeper questions about multiple ontologies of land, particularly if we want to stress how the capitalist ontology of a global land rush might be challenged, contested, or resisted from alternative worlds. This is, perhaps, a slightly risky route of investigation. As anthropologist Zoe Todd recently pointed out in her blog piece, ‘ontology’ risks becoming a euphemism for ‘colonialism’, largely in an intellectual sense as scholars begin to adopt (or appropriate) the ‘alternative cosmologies’ of non-Eurocentric worlds. So how can we – as scholars operating largely according to established, Western epistemological and ontological orientations, and yet conducting fieldwork in Indonesia and Peru, respectively – begin to open the question of land to diverse ontologies without simply speaking for those ontologies? How can we challenge the assemblage exposed by Li? What “potential lines of fracture” (Li, 2014: 600) might emerge that are not just about failed investments, but more about the ways in which “ecologies can also bite back” (ibid.)? How can we account for this biting back without simply externalizing it from the capitalist-centric assemblage of rendering land investible? Can we even have a conversation that addresses both multiple ontologies of land and a critique of capitalist techniques and discourses of rendering land investible? We’re looking forward to our presenters’ responses to these questions and others in the coming weeks before our conference session, and also to comments from readers!

Julian S Yates is a doctoral candidate in geography at the University of British Columbia. His research focusses on the reproduction of indigenous environmental knowledge in the Peruvian Andes.