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Indirect Dispossession: Domestic Power Imbalances and Foreign Access to Land in Mozambique


  • Madeleine Fairbairn

  • Many thanks to the Rural Association for Mutual Support (ORAM) and to J. David Stanfield (Terra Institute) for research support in Mozambique as well as to the Scott Kloeck-Jenson Fellowship of the Global Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison for the funding to get there. I am also grateful to Joseph Hanlon, Ingrid Nelson and the anonymous referees for feedback on an earlier version of this article.


Rather than treating the global land grab as a top-down phenomenon driven by global markets or foreign states, this article instead highlights the crucial mediating role played by the host state and domestic elites through a case study of Mozambique. I first introduce the domestic institutional framework, particularly the national Land Law and the institutions that determine the economic value of land. I then argue for an analysis of large-scale land acquisitions that brings into focus the effects of domestic power imbalances on determining the outcomes of foreign demand for land. I examine the ways in which domestic inequality may shape foreign land acquisitions through a typology of the sources of power that give domestic elites a privileged role in relation to foreign investors. The five sources of domestic power considered are: traditional authority, bureaucratic influence, historical accumulation, locally-based business knowledge and networks, and control over the development agenda. Finally, I conclude that the emphasis placed on the actions of the foreigner by both opponents (via framings of land acquisitions as neocolonialism or imperialism) and proponents (via solutions rooted in corporate codes of conduct) may obscure the ways in which pre-existing domestic inequality conditions the outcomes of these deals.