Professor of Law and Development
Head, International Development Group, Department of Urban Studies & Planning
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
From Sovereignty to Property (and back): The spatial transition of colonial and developmentalist claims over land
Central to the question of land grabs around the world is a tension between the sovereignty of States – and its internal manifestation in the form of eminent domain – and the property rights of individuals and communities. It is through such state action that land grabs are made possible – long term leases, land acquisition for private companies in the name of development or for nationalist reasons in the name of ‘public interest’, etc are common devices. It is the argument of this paper that elitist and exclusionary understandings of territorial sovereignty and property have led to the displacement of millions over time, and will continue to do so until these understandings are replaced by more democratic and progressive understandings of sovereignty and property. The reason behind these exclusionary understandings must, I contend, be traced to a double move: the political economy of capitalist spatial transition from colonialism to development, as well as a legal transition from the idea of sovereignty as territory to the idea of sovereignty as property. A ‘political economy’ understanding of land and property brings us face to face with the global commodification of land-based resources as well as state-building projects. On the legal front, sovereignty is no longer just control over territory as required by classical international law; sovereignty is also the supreme property right over land and all productive assets towards global commodification. Such a transition was characterized by several legal, political and economic shifts which are important to understand.