Workshop Report: “Constructions, Representations, Productions. Exploring Historical and Contemporary Imaginations of Land”
By Michaela Böhme
Recent dynamics in the global food system – such as large-scale farmland acquisitions by corporate and state investors, processes of farmland financialization and assetization, or the increasing use of digital technologies – have drawn renewed attention to questions of land use and land control. Starting from the assumption that (new) understandings of land are highly consequential for the way land is appropriated and used, Project C4: “Land Imaginations: The Repositioning of Farming, Productivity, and Sovereignty in Australia” brought together an interdisciplinary group of international scholars in a two-and-a-half day workshop at the Collaborative Research Centre (SFB) 1199 in Leipzig to explore the multiple and conflicting ways in which land is (re)imagined across different historical and geographical contexts. The workshop focused on two interrelated issues: Empirically, the workshop brought together contemporary and historical perspectives on the multiple and shifting understandings of land, unpacking the tangible implications historically embedded imaginations and imaginaries have for contemporary land relations. Conceptually, the workshop explored how the concept of “imaginations”—understood as a creative process of envisioning other possible worlds—and the notion of “imaginaries”—an unconscious spatial framework through which people order their knowledge of the world—can help scholars make sense of transforming land relations. By combining a diverse range of empirical perspectives on transformations in land relations with the conceptual vocabulary of imaginations/imaginaries, the workshop contributed to the debate on “imaginations” as one of the key dimensions through which the SFB 1199 investigates processes and practices of space-making under the global condition.
The workshop opened with a public lecture by Eduardo Toledo (International Nuremberg Principles Academy). Approaching the workshop theme from the perspective of international criminal law, the lecture offered insights into evolving interpretations of criminal corporate liability by the International Criminal Court and their potential to increase the accountability of transnational corporations involved in cases of land grabbing, illegal exploitation of natural resources, and the destruction of the environment. Informed by his own legal work for affected communities in Ecuador, Eduardo Toledo provided a glimpse into the changing legal architecture governing the social and economic relations of land use and land control between local communities and transnational corporations. In the following two workshop days, three thematic panels and nine sessions allowed workshop participants to present historical and contemporary perspectives on the processes and actors that shape land relations across a wide range of geographies and contexts.
The empirical examples presented by participants at the workshop centred around three overarching themes. First, a number of case studies addressed questions of access to land and the principles upon which access is (or should be) organized. Examples from land titling campaigns from Timor-Leste and Cambodia pointed to the problematic market-based and legalistic imaginaries that shape land titling programs, thereby highlighting their highly political nature (Shona Hawkes, Brisbane) while, on the other hand, also stressing the potential of such campaigns to disrupt ongoing processes of enclosure and create moments of rupture in seemingly continuous processes of violent land grabbing (Alice Beban, Massey University and Laura Schoenberger, York University). Daniel Münster’s (University of Heidelberg) contribution on changing land relations in India further highlighted the complexity of issues around land access by showing how settler migrants moving into Northern Kerala at the end of the colonial period mobilized a discourse of justice and redistribution to forcefully appropriate land at the forest frontier.
A second theme focused on environmental imaginaries and knowledge productions and their transformative impact on landscapes and land use practices. In Diana Davis’ (UC Davis) account of urban developments in nineteenth-century San Francisco, Anglo-European arbocentric imaginaries and French afforestation practices are the key dynamics in San Francisco’s century-long transformation from a sand dune ecosystem into a heavily afforested city. Similarly, imaginaries of the fertile black earth of Russia and Ukraine dating back to a series of scientific expeditions conducted in eighteenth-century czarist Russia (Xue Wang, Leipzig University) have promoted the construction of the black soil region as a breadbasket where, to this day, images of fertile soils are invoked as a prime device to attract investment to the region and construct farmland as a financial asset (Oane Visser, International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague). Taking us to Latin America, Raoni Rajao’s (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte) explored the role of maps, remote sensing imagery, and land-use models in the conceptual reinvention of the Amazon as “Green Hell” into a planning space for economic development. Other contributions highlighted how increasing environmental concerns about biodiversity are reshaping the relationship between land use and land conservation in the context of European agricultural policy (Paul Swagemakers, University of Vigo), explored the potential of alternative spatial planning concepts to integrate agriculture into urban landscapes (Ivonne Weichhold, University of Luxembourg), and showed how settler and frontier imaginaries have produced material sites of exclusion in relation to land and water use in Southern Australia (Lia Bryant, University of South Australia). Discussions also demonstrated how past environmental imaginaries have left material legacies inscribed in today’s landscape, which shape current agrarian trajectories. For example, Brian Kuns (University of Stockholm) used a political ecology approach to demonstrate the influence Soviet land-utilization planning and the resulting agricultural landscape have had on post-Soviet agrarian change in southern Ukraine. Grounding political ecology in an ethnographic analysis, Tanya Richardson’s (Wilfrid Laurier University) account of dwelling practices in the Ukrainian Danube Delta town of Vilkovo, on the other hand, highlighted how Soviet and post-Soviet environmental imaginaries and materialities have in turn modified residents’ relations with their town’s aquatic and terrestrial spaces.
A third lens through which participants approached the theme of the workshop focused on the shifting social norms and values ascribed to land. Evolving political and economic prerogatives and their impact on the repertoires of norms and values associated with land were addressed in Katharina Lange’s (Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin) account of how aspirations to national independence and prosperity during Kurdistan-Iraq’s “golden decade” came to be reflected in new and contradictory ways of imagining and valuing land. Cynthia Gharios (University of Leipzig) demonstrated how neoliberal economic principles embedded in Morocco’s Plan Vert have been encouraging farmland investments that view land as a mere commodity to be farmed for commercial returns, while Michaela Böhme (University of Leipzig) highlighted the multilayered understandings of farmland’s value that underpin Chinese investments in Australia. Another issue raised was the impact of processes of financialization on the social norms and values associated with land. Tracing the genealogy of imaginations of land as an asset class, Anna Hajdu’s (Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Transition Economies, Halle) and Oane Visser’s (International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague) contribution demonstrated how changes in US agrarian relations in the 1960s and 1970s gave rise to new finance and accounting models that allowed farmers to derive new income streams from their farms based on capital gains. Taking us to present-day Australia, Sarah Ruth Sippel (University of Leipzig) unpacked the financial processes and practices through which farmland investors actively reimagine land as a financial asset whose value is derived from the income stream it generates rather than its productive quality to produce food. Stefan Ouma and Tobias Klinge (Goethe University Frankfurt) added a regulatory perspective to the debate, analysing the role of New Zealand’s Overseas Investment Office in opening up New Zealand to foreign investment from financial actors. However, the workshop also highlighted how the financialization of farmland can be more than an instrument of capital mobilized to generate returns for investor money. Broadening the perspective on financialization, Valentine Cadieux (Hamline University) explored scenarios of “positive” financialization in the US state of Minnesota that seek to benefit people and communities rather than extracting value from them.
The debates over the course of the two workshop days demonstrated the potential of an analytic of imaginations/imaginaries as a productive way of thinking through the immense, complex, and diverse processes transforming land relations across time and space. These processes involve multiple actors with diverse and often contradictory agendas who produce, maintain, subvert, or contest dominant ways of imagining and relating to land. As the wide range of empirical examples illustrated, reimagining meanings and affordabilities of land is not only a tool in the hand of powerful economic agents and state actors but also involves smallholders, student volunteers, agricultural economists, researchers, planners, farmers, town dwellers, urban communities, and consumers. These groups sometimes take surprising positions in contestations of and struggles over dominant land relations. For example, while agricultural smallholders are often seen as victims of land enclosure and dispossession, they become active agents of land grabbing at the forest frontier in Münster’s account of changing agrarian relations in Northern Kerala. Similarly, Ouma and Klinge argue that New Zealand farmers often embrace financialized strategies of ‘farming for capital gains’ rather than resisting the reimagination of land as a financial asset. On the other hand, Cadieux’s scenarios of “positive financialization” present financial tools as a counterintuitive strategy of local communities to challenge exploitative and value-extracting land relations.
The discussions furthermore illustrated the remarkable power and durability imaginations and imaginaries can acquire and the consequences this has for present-day landscapes. Arbocentrism and afforestation practices in Davis’ account of San Francisco as well as the extraordinary persistence of black soil narratives exemplify how certain notions about land, its meaning, and uses can become hegemonic across time and space. However, durability is not only achieved through practice and discourses but also through the materiality of the landscape itself in which past environmental imaginaries are inscribed. Materialities shape contemporary land relations and practices even as political systems collapse (as in the case of post-Soviet Ukraine) or settler colonies (such as Australia) transform into modern nation states.
When, though, do major transformations in land relations and their associated imaginations/imaginaries take place? And are there specific conjunctures that are more favourable to the emergence of alternative imaginations? These were some of the questions raised by Juan Ignacio Staricco (National University of Cordoba, Argentina) in the final comment and wrap-up session. While the workshop did not arrive at a final answer, numerous contributions pointed to the importance of moments of crisis in rupturing dominant ways of perceiving and interacting with land. These range from capitalist accumulation crises to ecological and social turning points in smallholder agrarian landscapes. The resulting transformations in land relations have often proven to be problematic—as highlighted by various accounts of continuous processes of financialization, commodification, or enclosure. But there is also reason for hope as communities and actors all over the world continue their struggles for inclusive, recuperative, and equitable ways to relate to and use land.
Michaela Böhme (SFB 1199, Leipzig U, Germany) is a research assistant working in the SFB Project C4: “Land Imaginations: The Repositioning of Farming, Productivity, and Sovereignty in Australia” headed by Dr. Sarah Ruth Sippel. She earned a joint MA degree in global studies from the University of Leipzig (Germany) and the University of Wrocław (Poland), during which she focused on China’s changing role in world affairs and the political, social, and economic processes currently transforming China. Her current research focuses on how Chinese investments into Australian agricultural land transform Australia’s food production system and explores the conflicting imaginations of land that play out in this process.
Citation: Michaela Böhme, Workshop Report: “Constructions, Representations, Productions. Exploring Historical and Contemporary Imaginations of Land”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 13.06.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/10187.