A fenced rice paddy field in Gunung Simpang, West Java, Indonesia, CIFOR/Yayan Indriatmoko

Landscape transformation: what does power have to do with it?

Understanding power dynamics

TORONTO (Landscape News) — Conflicts over land usually involve a range of actors with a variety of interests in the landscape. To solve such conflicts, it is first necessary to understand the ways in which they apply various kinds of power to claim access to land and to exclude others.

This was the take-home message of a GLF Digital Summit on Friday titled Landscape transformation—what does power have to do with it?

The session was moderated by Bimbika Sijapati Basnett, a scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), which is headquartered on the outskirts of the Indonesian capital Jakarta.

The panelists were Tania Murray Li, Derek Hall and Philip Hirsch, authors of the book Powers of Exclusion: Land Dilemmas in Southeast Asia.

“When we started writing the book, the prevailing concept was that land dilemmas can be solved by installing the right formal regulations,” said Tania Li, a professor of anthropology at Canada’s University of Toronto. “But the more we looked, the more we realized there are many powers that determine who has access to what. The formal domain was only one—there were many other powers at play as well.”


In many parts of the world, rural landscapes are undergoing rapid transformations, driven by agricultural expansion, natural resource extraction, and infrastructural developments. These transformations involve different actors, such as small-scale farmers, large-scale corporations, conservation agencies, local governments and forestry departments, to name just a few.

These actors may all claim the same land. For example, small-scale farmers and large-scale corporations compete for land to cultivate crops, mining companies are interested in what is below the land’s surface, while conservation agencies may want to prevent any expansion of land use.

When interests collide, questions of power become relevant. Often, more powerful actors, such as oil palm plantation companies, will be more effective in claiming land than less powerful actors such as subsistence farmers. However, these outcomes are not fixed. All actors have different types of power, which they can use to hold on to land, and to exclude others.


Derek Hall, associate professor in the Department of Political Science and the Balsillie School of International Affairs at Wilfrid Laurier University in the city of Waterloo in the Canadian province of Ontario, explained that the concept of exclusion is at the heart of their analysis.

Exclusion sounds bad, he said. But all productive land use requires some kind of exclusion, he added, explaining that it can also apply to an organic farming cooperative, for example. It will need assurance that its lands will not be taken away, and this means that other potential users are excluded.

“So, we’re not opposed to exclusion, in a general way,” Hall said. “We were interested in the reasons and justifications for different kinds of exclusions, and how they are changing.”

In their book, Li, Hall, and Hirsch identify four “powers of exclusion” that are key to understanding conflicts over access to land.

The first is regulation, which relates to the formal and informal rules that govern access to land, such as the rules that determine boundaries. The second is force, which can take many forms, including violent threats, fences, and arson. Third, the market determines to a large extent who can access land through prices. And finally, there is the aspect of legitimization, which refers to the appeals that people make to justify their claim to the land.


Based on her research on the social impacts of oil palm plantations in Indonesia, Li offered the following example: For a large-scale oil palm company to establish a plantation, it will need a formal license granted by the government, but this will probably not be enough. For instance, it may also need elements of force in the form of fences and guards.

Money and markets will play a role as well, as the company may need to pay off some officials here and there. And, finally, the company will legitimize its claim to the land, by arguing that oil palm plantations will bring development and jobs to the area.

According to Philip Hirsch, emeritus professor of human geography at Australia’s University of Sydney and research affiliate at Thailand’s Chiang Mai University, the first power of exclusion—regulation—may give a false sense of security.

Hirsch made his point by giving the example of special economic zones, which are being established in several parts of Southeast Asia.

Governments create these zones because they are believed to attract investments and spur economic development, which is used as a justification for the forced displacement of farmers to make place for industries.

In some cases, the government would simply override the regulations that were supposed to protect the farmers living in the area, with new regulations that allowed the eviction of farmers—even those who had formal land titles.


Towards the end of the online summit there was time for questions. Several attendants wondered how the framework could be used to develop practical solutions to land conflicts.

According to the panelists, the framework helps to prevent simplifications, which is necessary to prevent unrealistic expectations. For example, it is sometimes assumed that win-win solutions can be found by putting all stakeholders around the same table. This is way too simplistic, Li said. Win-win solutions are often unrealistic, because there are different levels of power, and because people have different ideas about what is good and desirable.

Philip Hirsch stressed that the framework does not generate universal policy prescriptions. Instead, it should be used to analyze processes and dilemmas in a certain area. It helps to untangle the complexities, which is needed to develop appropriate interventions.

The framework is applicable in any region or context, Hall said. Moreover, he emphasized that it should not only be used to analyze cases of dispossession, but also to analyze how people are able to hold on to their land and thus exclude others.


INTERVIEW: Prioritize smallholder cultivation of oil palm in Indonesia, urges researcher Tania Li



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