Contemporary Land Enclosures in Central Sudan: Troubling the Romanticization of the ‘Commons’

Thursday Lecture Series

  • Audience open exclusively to Columbia faculty, students, and invited guests
  • All others interested in attending, please email SOF/Heyman at [email protected].

This talk situates contemporary Saudi and Emirati large-scale land investments in central Sudan within a layered history of enclosures and unequal landed relations shaped by legacies of colonialism and enslavement. Prevailing approaches to the study of contemporary land grabs in Africa tend to characterize them as a tidal wave that is hitting the continent, pitting powerful land grabbers against those who are dispossessed, in a binary conflict of opposites. This approach often situates the process of land grabbing within a narrow temporal frame and glosses over landless actors such as pastoralists and agricultural workers. In this talk, I propose an approach to the study of contemporary land enclosures that conceptualizes them as a set of historically situated negotiations and contestations, shaped by different notions of space, land ownership and belonging. Using a fine-grained analysis of several moments drawn from ethnographic fieldwork in the Gezira region of central Sudan, I argue against a tendency within the contemporary literature on land grabs to romanticize and de-historicize ‘the commons’ and the social relations that govern access to communal land and water resources. My aim is to trouble the romanticized idea of ‘community’ that prevailing conceptions of the ‘commons’ rely on, to show how rights and access to land in central Sudan has long been shaped by hierarchical social relations. To do so, I demonstrate that ongoing processes of land dispossession are gendered and racialized, while examining how race, class, gender, class, and enslaved descent shape the different forms resistance to these processes can take.