All posts by Julian Yates

Julian Yates

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.

A Place for Poor People? Peri-Urban Land & “Development” in Lesotho

This post was contributed by Charles Fogelman, and is part of a series on ‘Rending land investible‘, guest edited by Jenny E Goldstein and Julian S Yates.

Charles Fogelman is a Research Fellow with the Cultures of Law in Global Contexts Project and a Ph.D. candidate with the Department of Geography and GIS at the University of Illinois. He tweets at @charlesfogelman.

The title of this piece comes from a conversation I had with a senior unelected official for the city of Maseru, the capital of Lesotho. As he described the planned sprawling 18-hole golf course in a village on the outskirts of town, I asked him what would happen to the poor people who currently used the land for small-scale agriculture. “The city is no place for poor people!” he told me. His perspective, in direct conflict with discourses of international development, demonstrates a key tension between the objectives of poverty reduction and economic growth.

My dissertation project investigates that tension via the logics and impacts of a major land reform project in Lesotho. My presentation at the AAG meeting in Chicago will focus specifically on the uses of mapping and other technologies in Lesotho’s land reform, while other elements of my work focus on gender and authority. For this piece, however, I want to talk about my project more broadly to investigate what “development” means in the context of Lesotho’s land.

Land Act 2010 is the centerpiece of legislation that sets the rules for land reform in Lesotho. Together with several other laws, the Land Act set out to make land a more legible and exchangeable resource. The biggest element of the law was that it eliminated customary tenure in urban areas and instead mandated leaseholds (de facto titles). As the government minister responsible for the execution of the law phrased it, “The current land reform program in Lesotho is driven by the desire to achieve social growth and development on the one hand and economic growth and development on the other” (Sekatle 2010). The text of Land Act 2010 is nearly identical to its predecessor, but Land Act 1979 failed to successfully disempower customary authorities in land matters.

The reason Land Act 2010 has been successfully implemented is that a $363 million grant from the U.S.’s new development wing, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), provided the funding to measure, map, adjudicate and deliver the leaseholds that the law requires. In 1979 these expensive logistics were left to individual landholders. Together with wording that removes land allocation power from unelected local chiefs, who were seen as potentially capricious and unsanctionable by their constituents, Land Act 2010 successfully moved urban land tenure to the hands of the market. The goal of making Lesotho’s land an engine of economic growth is consistent with other MCC projects and with the MCC motto – “Poverty reduction through economic growth.” How this market-led land reform works toward economic growth is clear. However, its work toward the goal of poverty reduction is murkier.

The questions I have asked about this reform are rooted in a framework of access. In short, vulnerable people have been granted the right to benefit from their land, but have they been granted the ability to benefit? (Ribot & Peluso 2003). What my work demonstrates is that legal frameworks are necessary but insufficient to provide true land access to vulnerable land users. It is the institutions that govern the execution and application of the laws that are most important. They are the ones who can determine who truly benefits. In Lesotho, the beneficiaries of land reform do not appear to be the poor and vulnerable people said to be targeted by the MCC’s development plans.

That leads to a final point: who are the true beneficiaries of Lesotho’s Land Act 2010 if not the vulnerable people ostensibly targeted? In my research village, two real estate developers are reaping the benefits of secure and exchangeable land tenure. One is building the aforementioned par-71 golf course on half of the village’s former agricultural fields, the other is building a 700-home suburban development on the other half of the fields. Two things are notable about this. First, these developers are empowered by bureaucrats, who are able to influence the votes of the elected officials who are supposed to determine land allocation. The bureaucrats are, like the chiefs before them, unelected officials who can be capricious or corrupt with little ability for public sanction. Second, discourses of “development” that privilege economic growth as the driver of poverty reduction need to be more explicit in how poverty reduction will happen. All the good intentions in the world have not kept economic growth at my research site from trampling on the land access of the poor.

If a development project is to be truly pro-poor, the poor need to truly be at the forefront of planning and execution. These concerns are hardly academic: the MCC is planning a second grant for Lesotho, and their initial plan identifies “Poor land management and allocation systems” as a “binding constraint to economic growth” in Lesotho. A further U.S.-led redefinition of the social relations that govern land access may lie ahead. Poverty reduction and economic growth are very different things. To truly reduce poverty, institutions and development agencies must target reforms and projects that directly help poor people rather than waiting for the fruits of trickle down to accrue to the poor. Trickle down development like Lesotho’s can create a situation where security of land tenure is for golf courses, not the vulnerable, and the city is truly not a place for poor people.

Investment’s Rituals: Legitimating an Andean Gold Mine

This post was contributed by Eric Hirsch, and is part of a series on ‘Rending land investible‘, guest edited by Jenny E Goldstein and Julian S Yates.

Eric is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Chicago. His research looks at different forms of economic development intervention in Andean Peru’s Colca Valley – from small-scale NGO investments to mining and extractivism – and investigates how they intersect with local conceptions of indigeneity, sustainability, and permanence.


What happens when an Andean family finds gold on its land? Upon my return to the Colca Valley village of Yanque, in Peru’s southern Andes, last year after attending a conference in the United States, my host father Ricardo Flores cautiously approached me.[1] “We may have found some gold on Leonora’s estancia, way up there by Tayta Mismi.” He said this quietly, so as to keep the information a secret.

Because of Yanque’s densely gridded configuration of homes—each of which is the node of a local family’s “archipelago” of properties for dwelling, grazing animals, and growing crops (Murra 1972)—any talk of gold had to be hushed. Property lines aren’t always clear, and this applies both to the horizontal and—as we’ll see just below—vertical dimensions of land. Now, it was certainly clear to the Flores family. Leonora’s birthplace was close to the estancia property, located several kilometers from Tayta (Lord) Mismi, a mountain peak (Apu) that is the village’s main water source and thus a hugely important ritual site. Her family’s alpacas had grazed on that land. But the family did not yet have the documentation to prove it. And based on the Flores’ past experiences with Peruvian bureaucracy, this made the land vulnerable: anybody with better access to experts could easily make a claim to the property.

That was not the main source of urgency for the Flores family, however. Buenaventura, one of Peru’s largest mining enterprises, had been frantically buying up large expanses of land in the area and showed no signs of slowing down. According to the property map that David, one of the Flores’ sons-in-law, drew with marker on a large piece of graph paper (papelote) as he led an October family meeting at the Flores home on how to go about extracting gold from this land, their property was almost completely surrounded. Given the enterprise’s intimacy with state authorities, which have license to claim subsoil rights and set the terms of prior consultation, the estancia was sure to be seized soon if the family did not act.

The global land rush has been particularly pronounced in Peru, whose mineral resources have been largely responsible for the country’s astronomical aggregate growth. Copper, silver, and gold have made Peru the fastest-growing nation in South America for most of the previous decade.[2] Of course, aggregate growth does not tell the whole story, and wealth accumulation from mining profits has disproportionately benefited elites, tracing familiar historical lines of inequality. These elements’ importance for Peru’s growth has also been a source of ambivalence and anxiety, for mining is a perfect example of completely unsustainable development. During the portion of my fieldwork that I spent in the Peruvian cities of Lima and Arequipa, endless academic and NGO conferences were held to address the worry about what will happen to Peru after the mining boom. 2013 and 2014 saw a flurry of books published with titles like “What can be done about Peru?” (Ghezzi and Gallardo 2013). When Lima hosted the 2014 UN conference on global climate change, one of the chants animating the event’s main protest, the People’s Climate March, was this: “There is gold! There is copper! The people are still poor!” (“Hay oro! Hay cobre! El pueblo sigue pobre!”)

Tania Murray Li, in her recent piece “What is Land?”, asks: “why the rush?” (2014: 594). The idea of a land “rush,” Li writes, entails “a sudden, hyped interest in a resource because of its newly enhanced value…Do it now before others spot the value, and profit margins decrease.” For the Flores family in Yanque, Buenaventura was the reason to rush. A second reason to rush was a distinct source of pressure: many of the Flores men, manual laborers and, in one case, an entrepreneur who had just shuttered his video game café business, were unemployed. If Leonora’s estancia really did have gold in its depths, this was the time to find it: mineral prosperity stood to save family members from intense economic desperation.

They snapped into action. They are, at present, engaged in a costly race against time to formalize their property title, constitute the family as an enterprise, and fulfill the other bureaucratic rituals necessary for convincing authorities that they are legitimately entitled to mine the property, against the specter of the state’s usufruct rights and Buenaventura’s profound political advantage.

So this was the Flores family’s first task: get the necessary documents in order. In theory, we can see how land titles serve as protective devices. The Andes and, much more intensely, the Amazonian region of Peru, have seen an “epidemic” of illegal artisanal mining, whose practitioners tend not to meet state regulations or undergo the inspections necessary to be cleared for an extractive activity that poses high risks to substantial parcels of land. These artisanal miners also risk invading territories that belong to others who are often politically weaker than them, and subsequently destroying those territories. If a land title can offer protection, the quest for this protection is another story: state bureaucracy is a significantly more difficult structural obstacle for a small family whose members have limited schooling and even more limited political capital than it is for a large mining corporation.

The Flores family is simultaneously racing to render the site investable by seeking a different kind of permission: the land’s. This permission can be attained through the pago a la tierra (offering to the earth), a ritual fundamental to life in much of the Andes which involves an elaborate process of breathing on and burning, in a highly regulated way, an assemblage of materials including coca leaves and an alpaca fetus. For this ritual, and in order to work the land, a constant supply of chicha (fermented maize and barley) also had to nourish the land, as well as its workers, and making chicha was itself a labor-intensive activity requiring days of preparation. On another of David’s papelotes at the Flores family meeting was a budget, which contained a category he labeled “investments.” Investments here did not only include machinery, the costs of copying and processing documents, gasoline for the truck, and food costs. It also included each of those ritual elements essential to any kind of labor that uses the land to cultivate prosperity.

This second set of tasks was key for rendering the land investable on the family’s—and the land’s—own terms. The consequences of failing to conduct the pago or doing it wrong could be grave, ranging from simply finding no gold to deadly accidents and bad luck on the site and beyond. Even before finalizing the title (something which has yet to happen), Flores family members had made a number of trips to the site lasting up to several days, where they excavated samples for laboratory analysis to attain a better sense of how much gold might be awaiting them. During those trips, they also had to make the place habitable. This means that in a much more mundane way, rendering land investable at the supra-terranean level also has directly to do with transforming the property into a livable space. Labor was required to cook both the chicha and enough food to last each work trip, and to keep the small shelter adequately warm in hostile cold conditions at what was an extremely high altitude. When I accompanied them to the site in January, our project for the day was to re-thatch the small shelter’s old rooftop in preparation for longer stays.

So let’s return to the fundamental discussion question we are each addressing here: What is land? Yes, it is a source of supplies and nutrition, the ground beneath our feet, a commodity, a place, a space, and even that small site on which physical occupation by one person excludes physical occupation by another (Li 2014). But it is also an animated environment, a spirit, a kind of political actor (De la Cadena 2010). The earth and the ground were specifically described as a mother during many rituals I was able to observe in Colca. A patient nurturer and a protector, yes, but also a being personified as somebody who can get hungry and angry and wreak destruction when displeased.

Beyond the simple opposition between “state”/“official”/“secular” and “local”/“spiritual” registers of legitimation, the Flores’ urgent race to render land investable brings multivalent ontologies and ethics into the space of explicit acknowledgment and valuation. And making these things explicit, all together and at once, is not only a common feature of ritual as an interactional genre. This is also a strategy for not leaving anything out, for covering all the bases and pulling out all the stops. In this effort, the Flores family challenges Buenaventura, the state, and just as importantly, the whims of the land itself by recruiting, engaging, and framing on their own terms—while always careful not to resist outright—that which our panel organizers have called “the capitalist-centric framing of rendering land investable.”


De la Cadena, Marisol. 2010. Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections beyond Politics. Cultural Anthropology 25(2): 334-370.

Ghezzi, Piero and José Gallardo. 2013. ¿Qué se puede hacer con el Perú? Ideas para sostener el crecimiento económico en el largo plazo. Lima: Universidad del Pacífico/PUCP

Li, Tania Murray. 2014. What is land? Assembling a resource for global investment. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 39(4): 589-602.

Murra, John V. 1972. “El ‘control vertical’ de un máximo de pisos ecológicos en la economía de las sociedades andinas” (pp. 427-476). In Iñigo Ortiz de Zúñiga (1967-1972[1562]), Visita de la provincia de León de Huánuco en 1562. Vol. 2. John V. Murra (ed.). Huánuco: Universidad Nacional Hermilio Valdizán.


[1] All names have been changed to minimize the risk of this post revealing the owners of a property that may have gold on it. Note that “Flores,” which is my anonymizing substitute for a Quechua-language surname, is one of the most widely shared surnames of Spanish origin in Peru.

[2] This piece in The Economist describes Peru’s “Asian-style” growth between 2003-2013, and describes the instability of subjection to a “commodity lottery”:

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”. Continue reading