The dramatic expansion of global land-grabbing processes, a term used to describe large scale commercial land acquisitions, usually from the rural poor, has garnered significant attention in geography and related fields in recent years. It is within this context that Sara Vigil’s new book offers a fresh perspective on the dynamics of land grabbing by comparing two different place-based contexts, one in West Africa and the other in Southeast Asia.
Vigil has organized the book to draw from three comparable case studies of agricultural land grabs and deforestation in Senegal and Cambodia to examine the triad relationship of land grabs, environmental change, and migration. All case studies focus on agricultural land grabs that replaced previously forested land and have gained national and international attention for environmental degradation and out-migration. Vigil’s methods of empirical observation include extensive ethnographic research, including semistructured interviews and focus group discussions with the affected people of Senegal and Cambodia, and participatory interviews with affected communities. She conducted key informative interviews with local government officials.
In the book’s first chapter, “Exploring Variegated Geopolitical Ecologies,” Vigil discusses interrelations between environmental changes, migration, and land grabbing. Through multiscale and circular approaches, the author analyzes how broader geopolitical ecologies are narrowed down to national contexts, exhibited through case studies that reflect how they are transferred differently on three types of landscapes. Chapter 2, “From Colonialism to Neoliberalism,” draws on archival research to document continuities between land grabs that undergirded European colonialism in Africa-Asia, and land grabs we see today under neoliberal economic policies. The author created a linear relationship between how the colonization, postcolonization, and neoliberalism periods are linked to each other in Senegal and Cambodia, and how the past shaped the current phenomena where the most privileged take advantage of their power to control resources and manipulate economically vulnerable people.
Chapter 3, “Green and Migration Grabs,” builds on considerable recent work within geography on conservation-based land grabs, focusing on how the tenure and agricultural policies of Senegal and Cambodia have been reformed to justify the environmental and migration circumstances in maintaining a balance between capital accumulation and political legitimization. In this scenario, migration became more scathing in Senegal, while environment was more critical in Cambodia. Chapter 4, “Expulsions and Destruction,” uses three case studies to demonstrate that land grabs are a result of multiple chronological events conflicting and overlapping with one another. The author carries out a microscale inspection of land grabbing to understand its impacts on migration and environment. In the final chapter of the book, “Self-fulfilling Risks,” Vigil demonstrates how socioeconomically vulnerable people were marked as criminals rather than the political elites. The author exemplifies with the two case studies of Cambodia how the safeguard of natural resources and adaptation turned into crimes against humanity, as well as maladaptation practices. Then again in the case of Senegal, in the post landgrab period, how peaceful negotiation led to further criminality and violence which lead to international insecurity.
Vigil’s book can be situated within a growing literature on green grabbing and environmental migration within geography. By linking the concepts of environmental change, migration, and land grabbing, Vigil demonstrates through in-depth empirical work that these three geographic processes are deeply interwoven and should be examined together to fully understand current dynamics.
A particular strength of Vigil’s book lies in its comparative and historical approach, which provides a deep analysis of how colonization and postcolonial neoliberal economics have played out in distinct yet related ways in Southeast Asia and West Africa. Vigil’s selection of case studies offers astonishing examples of land grabs and deforestation at large scales. Her historical analysis is thorough, despite being spread across three entirely different regional case studies. The book offers an insightful explanation of the complex and interrelated dynamics of different types of land grabs and how organizations at the national and international levels try to justify them.
Vigil’s storytelling, and her inclusion of case studies, gives the book a unique and comprehensive flavor. It makes excellent source material for graduate seminars in postcolonial geographies, critical development studies, and political ecology, and a fruitful read for anyone working with concepts of land grabbing, plantation agriculture, development, environmental migration, climate change, or deforestation in the Global South. Although a discussion of the challenges and critiques of microfinance would have been helpful, Vigil’s book makes a powerful contribution to work on land grabbing and environmental migration within geography and cognate disciplines.—Najiba Rashid, Oregon State University