Development by Dispossession: Terra Nullius and the Social-Ecology of New Enclosures in Ethiopia


  • I thank the members of the New Enclosures Research Working Group at Cornell for comments on a draft of this article, and Charles Geisler in particular for conversations over the past two years that have allowed me to clarify the arguments of the essay. Contact Fouad Makki, Cornell University, Department of Development Sociology, 107 Academic Surge A, Ithaca, NY 14850, 607–255–6237, e-mail:


One of the alarming features of the intersection of the world economic crisis with the global food and energy crises has been the tidal wave of large-scale land acquisitions it has unleashed. By enclosing the village commons and extinguishing the customary rights of smallholders, these land grabs are accelerating trends toward large-scale industrial farming and tenure rearrangements favoring international agribusiness. This article situates these developments in the social space of Ethiopia and a specific historical context of transformations in state and property relations. By critically analyzing the designation of the commons as empty or underutilized spaces awaiting redemptive development, it highlights the ways in which the legitimizing claims of terra nullius efface the complex ecologies and distinctive spatial dynamics of social reproduction in the zones designated for enclosures.