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Building the Politics Machine: Tools for ‘Resolving’ the Global Land Grab


  • Michael B. Dwyer

  • This article is based on doctoral research conducted in the University of California, Berkeley's Energy and Resources Group. I warmly thank my advisors, Nancy Peluso, Jeff Romm, Nathan Sayre and Michael Watts, as well as Jun Borras, Jia Ching Chen, Asher Ghertner, Derek Hall, Christian Lund, Noer Fauzi Rachman, Malini Ranganathan, Kevin Woods, Megan Ybarra and anonymous reviewers for Development and Change for critical feedback and encouragement on earlier versions. The Social Science Research Council (with funds provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation), the National Science Foundation, and the University of California all provided essential sources of funding.


The recent proliferation of transnational land deals has put the long-fraught relationship between international cooperation, national development and local dispossession back in the political spotlight. This article argues that transnational land access cannot be resolved as a political question without a better understanding of the material, legal and administrative geographies that accompany and enable it. Using evidence from Laos, the paper illustrates two tools for ‘resolving’ the global land grab geographically: first, a biographical or trajectory-based approach that connects specific land grabs to larger development landscapes (e.g. of urban infrastructuring); and second, genealogies of property formalization that interrogate and deconstruct the legal geographies of land access, both on and off the map. The paper concludes by suggesting that these tools have purchase elsewhere as well.