Political Theory 50 (1):32-58 (2022)

The recent phenomenon of land grabbing—that is, the large-scale acquisition of private land rights by foreign investors—is an effect of increasing global demand for farmland, resources, and development opportunities. In 2008–2010 alone, land grabs covered approximately 56 million hectares of land, dispossessing and displacing inhabitants. This article proposes a philosophical framework for evaluating land grabbing as a practice of territorial alienation, whereby the private purchase of land can, under certain conditions, lead to a de facto alienation of territorial sovereignty. If land grabs alienate territorial sovereignty, it follows that inhabitants can claim a violation of the people’s right to “permanent sovereignty over natural resources.” However, because sovereignty is entangled in the historical and contemporary causes of land dispossession, I cast doubt on this strategy. Territorially sovereign regimes often undermine democratic land governance by obstructing participation in activities such as zoning, land use, property regulation, and environmental stewardship. These activities, which I theorize as practices of “world-building,” are key to democracy because they give occupants a say in the shape of their common home. The perplexities of sovereignty in matters of land governance suggest that establishing democratic participation in rule over land requires fracturing sovereignty.
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DOI 10.1177/00905917211008591
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