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The Journal of Peasant Studies
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From boomerangs to minefields and catapults:
dynamics of trans-local resistance to land-grabs
To cite this article: Leah Temper (2018): From boomerangs to minefields and catapults:
dynamics of trans-local resistance to land-grabs, The Journal of Peasant Studies, DOI:
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2017.1398144
Published online: 16 Jan 2018.
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From boomerangs to mineﬁelds and catapults: dynamics of trans-local
resistance to land-grabs
This paper explores the political processes that activists engaged in contesting land
grabbing have triggered to connect claims across borders and to international
institutions, regimes and processes. Through a review of cases of land-grab
resistance that have led to project cancelation or suspension, I argue that contextual
elements of the land grab and shifting geopolitics highlight the need for adaptation
and reﬁnement of models of transnational advocacy, historically structured in
North–South patterns. For example, while some elements of the boomerang pattern
of transnational advocacy are still relevant, changing realities call for new
empirically enriched models. To this end, I outline two typologies of political
contention that can help us conceptualize multi-scalar interactions between activists
to demonstrate the impact of local resistances at larger scales –‘the catapult effect’
and the ‘mineﬁeld effect’. This paper contributes to calls for further theorization to
understand how feedback processes between international discourses, meso-politics
and conﬂicts and resistance at local sites of production impact the implementation
of contested land deals.
Keywords: transnational activism; social movements; politics of scale; ﬁnancialization;
advocacy; contention; certiﬁcation
In 2008, a Dallas, Texas-based company headed by a former US ambassador leased
600,000 hectares of land (about the size of Singapore) in Mukaya Payam, Lainya
County, in the world’s newest state: South Sudan. The lease, for 49 years (extendable to
100) came at a price of USD 25,000 (USD 0.04 per hectare for the duration of the
lease.) A contract signed between the Nile Delta Trading Company (NTD) and the
Mukaya Payam Cooperative grants the company the right to exploit timber without limit-
ation, to plant and harvest palm oil and jatropha, to develop wood-based industries, and to
exploit any resulting carbon credits.
The deal was brought to the attention of the community only three years later when the
contract was posted on the Oakland Institute website. The community mobilized, launching
protests and sent delegates to the state governor and the president. One odd thing was that
the Mukaya Payam Cooperative was a ﬁctitious entity that had never existed; and the deal
was signed by inﬂuential elites claiming to represent the community. By the time the ruse
was discovered, NTD had already subleased the land three times through three separate (but
afﬁliated) companies. Furthermore, the stated lease area exceeds the county’s own bound-
aries (Wudu 2011).
© 2018 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
The Journal of Peasant Studies, 2018
This land deal and the murky politics surrounding it are not so different in substance
than many other deals documented so often in this journal. What is different in this case
is that the government appeared to side with the community and the project appears to
be stopped, while resistance to other large-scale projects in the country has been met
According to The Oakland Institute the ‘success’was a result of ‘the combined force of
the US-based Oakland Institute’s research and advocacy on African land deals and local,
democratic activism in South Sudan’(OI 2011). At ﬁrst glance, the story appears to
follow a familiar pattern, whereby transnational activists intervene to help press domestic
claims within a closed national context. Yet the fact that the local community was not
even aware of the case until the Oakland Institute published the data suggests that
perhaps other dynamics were at play here.
This contribution enquires into the resistance against land deals and the complex
dynamics between local and trans-local actors exempliﬁed by the case above. Empirical
evidence demonstrates that resistances have managed in some cases to stop, slow or roll
back the implementation of land deals. Meanwhile numerous policies have been developed
at regional and national levels to regulate foreign land investment. The aim thus is to under-
stand how contentious activism has contributed to reversals and project cancelations of
large-scale corporate land investments, with the hope of elucidating dynamics of struggle
in global to local mobilizations and the interactions that lead to changes in target actors.
Attention on ‘the global land grab’has focused primarily on foreign purchases of land,
placing the phenomenon within new forms of globalization. In such globalizing contexts,
resistance to agrarian change now connects actors across a wider variety of spatial scales
than ever before, and activists must learn to operate within multi-layered opportunity struc-
tures whereby international opportunity structures interact dynamically with domestic
structures (Della Porta and Tarrow 2005). Yet cases such as the one in South Sudan call
for another look at how articulations between actors in trans-local social mobilizations
have been theorized as well as the impact of extra-local activism on the outcomes of
Responding to calls for greater scrutiny of political resistance from below to land-grab
deals (Borras and Franco 2013; Hall et al. 2015), this paper draws from a wide range of
empirical cases to examine how counter-power is exercised and networked across assem-
blages of actors contesting land grabs.
The paper is organized as follows. Following this introductory section, I introduce the
methodology and then turn to the theoretical background of our study, reviewing the litera-
ture on transnational activism and the politics of scale. The third section turns to examin-
ation of how transnational actors have framed the land grab, mobilized around it and
inﬂuenced governance processes. Section 4 examines a range of cases where resistance
has led to state or corporate project suspension. I argue that while some of these fall
under a classic ‘boomerang pattern’whereby external pressure is brought to bear to inﬂu-
ence the outcome of local conﬂicts (Keck and Sikkink 1999), other cases demonstrate the
limits of this model, particularly in a context where core–periphery dynamics are shifting.
To address these new dynamics, I propose several new models that build on existing the-
ories around these interactions to illustrate the varied ways pressure is exerted across scales
and under what conditions contentious politics lead to behavior changes in target actors.
Drawing on theoretical literatures on agrarian resistance, contention and ‘politics of
scale’, the paper discusses the relationship between macro, meso and micro levels of acti-
vism and the feedback processes between them, highlighting some of the limitations of
‘boomerang’politics and arguing that transnational campaigns that are not anchored
locally will be transitory spatial and temporal successes. I end with ﬁnal thoughts and a call
for further research.
This research is based on participant observation with GRAIN, World Rainforest Move-
ment and other transnational advocacy networks (TANs) as part of the EJOLT project
(www.ejolt.org), as well as an exhaustive review of gray and academic literature, two
ﬁeld trips to the Tana Delta, Kenya (in 2008 and in 2010), and numerous interviews
and discussions with activists from GRAIN, Nature Kenya, other organizations and
affected communities. It stems from scholar-activist research with agrarian movements,
as well as experience working in a non-governmental organization (NGO) focused on
agro-ecology and agrarian issues. The analysis further draws upon the rich literature on
the ‘global land grab’that appeared from 2011 to 2013, including special issues and
The cases covered by comparative overview in this contribution (see Table 1 for more
information on each) were found through a methodological search of words such as ‘project
failed, stopped, suspended’and other relevant terms from farm-landgrab.org (maintained
by GRAIN), a scoping review of the academic literature, and cases of resistance entered
into the EJatlas (www.ejatlas.org), a global database of ecological conﬂicts and resistance
movements (Temper, del Bene, and Martinez-Alier 2015; Martinez-Alier et al. 2016)of
which the author is a co-director. The atlas is part of a wider and ongoing process that
aims to combine the ‘activist knowledge’of environmental justice organizations and the
analytical perspectives of activist-scholars to track geographies of resistance, build horizon-
tal links between activist-scholars both within and outside the academy, and enrich com-
parative research into the dynamics of socio-environmental conﬂicts across scales.
For each case, the type of conversion, the stated use, the form (lease, smallholder, etc.),
the organizations and social movements active in the campaigns at international, national
and local levels, and the claims made were studied, and a temporal analysis of the outcomes
was conducted. Sources included gray literature such as NGO reports and newspaper
articles, as well as in-depth case studies from academic journals, and semi-structured inter-
views with involved actors in some cases. These cases have been mediatized either due to
the open contention of local communities who managed to have their voices heard or
because of transnational groups who have ‘down-scaled’to support particular struggles.
Though they are few in number, such cases can assume great political and symbolic
value in the world of activism, because they offer evidence that resistance can hinder the
implementation of land grabs and because they give insights into the effectiveness of differ-
ent strategies and tactics. It should be noted that while these cases were selected for their
contingent outcomes, processes of resistance are never linear but are ﬂuid and dynamic,
and subject to reversals and shifting contexts. For this reason, this paper adopts a compara-
tive perspective to identify recurrent mechanisms and processes. This comparative perspec-
tive favors analytical breadth rather than depth and is an attempt to complement the high
volume of in-depth case studies published in this journal and elsewhere, which this contri-
bution has drawn from, with a transversal analysis.
This paper is written from a position of engagement and solidarity, yet following
Edelman (2009), it aims to step back and adopt a critical perspective so as to probe the
weaknesses, dilemmas and challenges in social movement organizing in agrarian politics
that can contribute to improved strategizing, aiming to contribute to a scholar activism
that can support such movements (Borras 2016).
The Journal of Peasant Studies 3
Table 1. Cases of transnational contention to land grabs.
Type of conversion
legislationName of conﬂict From To
Tarda, In Tana
(BI), Royal Society
for the Protection
of the Birds
Nature Kenya (NK),
Mangrove Forest Biofuels
50,000 Action Aid (AA),
Kenya, NK, EAWLS,
Site Support Group
for the Dakatcha
3. G4 Oil seed
28,000/estate BI, RSPB,NK,
out of 160,000
BI, RSPB, AA,
NK, EAWLS, KWS,
Lower Tana Delta
5. SEKAB/ Eco-
& Co & Eneco
Village lands and
out of total
World Wildlife Fund
Rights Research and
Monitor of Forest
and Governance in
7. New Forests
Foreign Forest and
27,000 Oxfam,Uganda Land
The Journal of Peasant Studies 5
Table 1. Continued.
Type of conversion
legislationName of conﬂict From To
Domestic Forest Flex-crop
14,600/estate Uganda Land
Coalition of Uganda
Fast African Bicycle
the National Forestry
Authority, King of
Buganda, Govt. of
Norway, EU, World
9. Al Tamimi
Farmland Irrigated food
15,922 Rural Code ofﬁcer Farmers,local
Jatropha 38,000 RSPB,Action-aid
11. Sen Huile
20,000 GRAIN, Recommon,
Bidew Bou Bess
Council for Rural
moved to new
12. Nile Delta
Multiple land uses Crops, biofuels,
600,000 Oakland Institute,
Diaspora in Juba
Food, ﬂex and
1.3 m Collectif por la
defense des Terres
based in France)
Canceled by new
The Journal of Peasant Studies 7
Table 1. Continued.
Type of conversion
legislationName of conﬂict From To
Centro Terra Viva
Foreign (US) Food crops,
73,086 Oakland Institute,
(CED), Reseau de
Lutte Contre La
Faim, Struggle to
Foro de Agricultura
Familiar, Grupo de
por una Vida Digna,
Ecologista Piuke de
movilizados por la
Region del Alto
Valee, Rio Negro
de La Plata
Stopped by the
High Court of
72,000 World Rainforest
Indigena del Pueblo
Shawi de San
Indigenous groups or
The Journal of Peasant Studies 9
3. Transnational activism, the politics of scale and land grabbing
In the study of transnational activism, literatures from social movement theory and inter-
national relations, as well as scalar theories informed by political economy and political
ecology, provide a theoretical lens to understand how dispersed and diverse actors come
together contingently around common campaigns of justice in transnational mobilizations,
and under what conditions relatively powerless and marginal actors are able to win conces-
sions and shape the behavior of powerful state and corporate actors.
TANs are international networks of actors, including local, national and international
social movements and NGOs, who collaborate on a particular issue and use informational
and symbolic resources to inﬂuence power holders (Keck and Sikkink 1999). The essence
of network activity is the use and exchange of information (Khagram, Riker, and Sikkink
2002). The study of transnational contention seeks to trace the variety of mechanisms and
processes that bring these actors across territorial lines to achieve their aims; and to under-
stand how activists negotiate the boundaries between their domestic political settings,
national governments and international institutions.
For example, the constructivist approach to the study of social movements emphasizes
how groups help create, institutionalize and monitor norms, deﬁned as shared expectations
about appropriate behaviors for given actors (Risse and Sikkink 1999). Norms matter
because they deﬁne the standards of socially acceptable behavior and can then be used
to elicit compliance with those standards by exposing instances of violations. This strategic
(re-)creation of meanings is also termed ‘framing’. As Tarrow explains, frames are not ideas
per se, but ways of packaging and presenting ideas that generate shared beliefs, motivate
collective action, and deﬁne appropriate strategies of action (Tarrow 1998).
Geographers employing a political ecology framework of scalar politics also delve into
how and why activists shift from the local to the national and international level of conten-
tion to achieve their aims. For example, they point to the difference in spatial ﬁxity between
national and global elites, who through capital mobility are able to deterritorialize and carry
out their economic, political and social activities across locations (Perreault 2003;Smith
1996). According to the ‘politics of scale’theory, those engaged in place-based struggles
while being ‘imprisoned in space’can still, however, contest the ‘spaces of ﬂows’of
global capitalism through ‘scale jumping’: by forging alliances with actors at different
spatial scales and with differential access to networks of institutional, ﬁnancial, and political
support to externalize their political claims (Smith 1996).
Tarrow (2005) elaborates six ‘mechanisms of contentious politics’through which acti-
vists approach internationalism in pursuit of their interests. These include: global framing,
internalization, diffusion, scale shift, externalization and coalition forming. The ﬁrst two
involve the use and co-optation of global themes to ﬁght domestic battles; diffusion and
scale shift are means of displacing the claims through space, either moving across levels
or to other sites; while externalization and coalition forming comprise the projection of
claims vertically and horizontally, respectively, to international institutions and groups
with common cause.
Meanwhile from the ﬁeld of international relations, the ‘boomerang effect’, elaborated
by Keck and Sikkink (1999), is a model that aims to describe the process whereby non-state
actors faced with repression and blockage at home seek out state and non-state alliances in
the international arena, with the aim of bringing pressure to bear from above on their gov-
ernment to carry out domestic political change. The model contends that local movements
from countries in ‘the periphery’seek transnational support because they face high levels of
repression and lack the political resources to inﬂuence policy at the domestic level. This
10 Leah Temper
inability to affect the global economic and political decisions that shape their environments
is thus the reason they seek out transnational support from the so-called ‘core countries’.
The boomerang model was also later expanded into a ﬁve-phase dynamic ‘spiral model’
(Risse and Sikkink 1999) that recognized that domestic political change was a longer
term process entailing a variety of political moves.
Several authors have sought to rework and expand the boomerang model. For example,
McAteer and Pulver (2009)developedwhattheyterm‘the corporate boomerang model’to
accommodate campaigns against non-state actors. They describe how local communities
engage in the strategy of creating external linkages to groups such as corporate shareholder
activists to drive change via top-down pressure on the subsidiary’s parent corporation.
Other authors have critiqued the way the model seems to imply that ideas, tactics and
know-how, as well as material resources, are generated in the core countries and spread to
the periphery. For example, Kraemer, Whiteman, and Banerjee (2013) argue that the core/per-
iphery distinction of the boomerang model does not capture the full diversity of conditions
under which movements transnationalize, and have adjusted the model to take into account
the importance of what they dub ‘national advocacy networks’(NANs) in shaping local resist-
ance and transnational dynamics, drawing on the Niyamgiri case in India.
Such critiques point to a weakness in social movement scholarship more generally, where
attention is often focused on the highly visible activities of transnational activists and advo-
cates; and there has been a gap in explaining the potential leverage and impact that grassroots
groups, social movements and local conﬂicts have in the international arena and politics. This
paper aims to contribute to ﬁlling this gap through the introduction of two models comp-
lementary to the boomerang model, which contribute to shifting attention to the dynamic
interplay between activism, transnational institutions and domestic contexts.
4. Land grabs as a case study
Land grabbing is an issue around which transnational mobilization has occurred, and is thus
a useful case study for understanding the dynamics of transnational mobilization and how
transnational activism triggers change. For the purposes of this paper, we focus only on
cases of land grabbing that involve agri-business projects, although the term has been
increasingly adopted as a strategic framing for any project that threatens local food and
land sovereignty. Borras et al.’sdeﬁnition considers that,
contemporary land grabbing is the capturing of control of relatively vast tracts of land and other
natural resources through a variety of mechanisms and forms that involve large-scale capital
that often shifts resource use orientation into extractive character, whether for international
or domestic purposes, as capital’s response to the convergence of food, energy and ﬁnancial
crises, climate change mitigation imperatives, and demands for resources from newer hubs
of global capital. (Borras et al. 2012, 851)
While land grabbing is certainly not new, its current manifestation illustrates ‘new’
elements in the global political economy with implications for international governance
related to agriculture, the global food regime (McMichael 2012) and civil society campaigns
on these issues. The growing distance from farm to plate along global commodity chains,
amid increased speculation on food and ﬁnancialization, makes pinpointing the precise
impact of each investment and identifying the actors involved increasingly harder and
leads to signiﬁcant regulatory challenges (Clapp and Helleiner 2012; Fairbairn 2014).
Shifting geopolitics with increased investment ﬂows from middle-income countries to both
high- and low-income ones mean that patterns of transnational advocacy, historically
The Journal of Peasant Studies 11
structured along a North–South axis, are potentially ineffective on many fronts. Meanwhile,
historical demands such as land reforms are complicated by new mechanisms such as pay-
ments for environmental services (PES), and reducing emissions from deforestation and
forest degradation, which aim to commodify and create new forms of property rights over
carbon and can lead to incentives for further state control over land-based resources (Kar-
senty, Vogel, and Castell 2014).
Finally, resistance against land grabs provides a useful case to study transnational conten-
tion because it straddles several forms of transnational politics: it may entail transnational
sources of problems (foreign purchases of land driven by global conjunctures), transnational
processes of collective action (coalitions across scales) and/or transnational outcomes (govern-
ance processes at the supra-national level) (Imig and Tarrow 1999). These intersecting areas of
governance are transforming the terms of engagement for civil society organizations (CSOs)
involved in land and agrarian issues, creating both new opportunity spaces and new challenges
that call for new theorization of multi-scalar agrarian politics.
5. Framing and governing the land grab
This section gives a brief history and context of transnational framing and mobilization
around land grabbing. It describes how activists have succeeded in creating a mobilizing
‘master frame’around land grabbing that has contributed to pushing land issues back
onto the global agenda, and under which diverse groups ﬁghting against dispossession
have been able to channel long-standing concerns through alliances, but not without stra-
tegic and material divisions among them.
It is widely accepted that the current use of the term ‘land grab’was introduced via a
2008 report by the NGO GRAIN that drew the world’s attention to rapidly increasing
investment in farmland, with the title ‘Seized! The 2008 Landgrab for Food & Financial
GRAIN’s report situated the land grab at the conjuncture of the economic,
climate and ecological crisis and linked it to the industrialization and ﬁnancialization of
the food and farming system (GRAIN 2008). The report included a database of ﬁrst 100
and later 400 cases of documented contracts for land leases or purchases in support of its
thesis on the scale of agrarian change (GRAIN 2013).
GRAIN’s narrative emphasized the role of corporations and governments of food scarce
nations acquiring land, leading to a new breed of neo-colonialism. Yet this ‘simpliﬁcation’
was later critiqued for de-emphasizing the role of domestic capital and obscuring the role of
continuities of elite capture and corruption from the past. For example, GRAIN’s study high-
lighted the role of various Middle Eastern countries buying land in Cambodia to produce food
for export to assure their own food security, yet Baird (2014) paints a more complex picture,
highlighting the role of Cambodian elites in land acquisitions, in collaboration with regional
and global capital, and pointing out that land prices in Cambodia actually collapsed in 2008,
and that land grabbing was already occurring in the 1990s driven by Asian money laundering.
The report served a ‘diagnostic purpose’, while falling under what Benford and Snow (2000,
623) refer to as ‘frame articulation: the process of connecting and aligning events so that they
GRAIN is a TAN that works at the intersection of agrarian and environmental justice. GRAIN’s
mandate, according to its website is ‘to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles
for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems through independent research and
analysis, building alliances and networking at local, regional and international levels’. This small
organization had a role in debates on agricultural bio-piracy and peasant rights to seeds in the
1980s and has been considered a think tank for Via Campesina.
12 Leah Temper
create a new angle, vantage point, or interpretation’. The narrative it constructed resonated with
the public and captured important political space. Further, by situating the phenomenon at the
intersection of multiple crises and environmental justice issues it also facilitated ‘frame exten-
sion’, which opened the potential for broad alliances. Activist coalitions on the issue have
quickly coalesced into a ‘thematic advocacy alliance’, making use of networks around the inter-
section of climate and food issues, indigenous peoples’rights and agrarian justice.
Some scholars, in a critical but comradely fashion, have questioned the usefulness of
databases and the creation of ‘killer facts’that can be harvested from data such as
GRAIN’s (Edelman 2013; Oya 2013). Nevertheless, despite the imperfection and some
problems in the land grab database work of GRAIN, its strategy has been extremely suc-
cessful when viewed through the lens of the organization’s own narrower social movement
objectives to ‘identify and expose developments in global agribusiness’with the aim to help
mobilize various groups broadly opposed to (trans-)national power blocs within the indus-
trial food system (GRAIN 2013). The land grab frame can best be seen as the creation of an
opportunity space that has provided new political openings for actors (including environ-
mental, agrarian justice and human rights groups) to make claims over long-standing grie-
vances. Meanwhile the land-grab frame has also been further expanded, reﬁned and
destabilized by academics, within a new ﬁeld of ‘land-grab studies’, that serves as a
zone of engagement for current understanding on agrarian transformations (Schoenberger,
Hall, and Vandergeest 2017). As these authors argue, while there is no conceptual unity
among those who use the term, it has served to provide a global audience and framing
for issues that were previously framed in national or regional terms, and has produced scho-
larship that can mobilize across the academic–practitioner–activist divides.
Following the highly mediatized food crisis of 2008, land-rights issues and investments in
agriculture have climbed back onto the global development agenda, implicating organizations
ranging from the United Nations (UN)’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to the UN
Committee on Food Security (CFS), the World Bank, the Group of Eight (G8) and Group of
20 summits, the European Commission (through biofuels and land policy) and the African
Union (Margulis, McKeon, and Borras 2013). This represented new attention to land govern-
ance in the international arena, and this opportunity space was exploited to win an important
seat at the table for the representation of the interests of rural social movements through pro-
cesses such as the CFS and the elaboration of the Voluntary Guidelines (VGGTs).
Civil society has taken differing views on how to engage with these processes. Borras,
Franco, and Wang (2013) have grouped engagement with such governance processes into
three competing tendencies: regulate to facilitate land grabs (the position adopted by the
World Bank and the G8 governments that hold that proper governance, clear property
rights and free markets can create a win–win situation); regulate to mitigate negative
impacts and maximize opportunities for mutual gain (the position adopted by the Inter-
national Land Coalition (ILC) and some NGOs such as Oxfam that view the land rush
as inevitable and are tactically trying to take advantage of renewed interest in rural devel-
opment, while honing in on localities where ‘best practices’are not being adhered to); and,
thirdly, regulate and roll back (represented by groups such as Via Campesina, the Inter-
national Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC)
and GRAIN), who take an
anti-capitalist stance and propose a vision of an alternative food system based on food
The IPC is an autonomous, self-managed global mechanism grouping some 45 peoples’movements
and NGOs involved with at least 800 organizations throughout the world. The IPC serves as a mech-
anism for information and training on issues regarding food sovereignty.
The Journal of Peasant Studies 13
sovereignty. The participation of organizations such as IPC, social movements and NGOs
in the VGGT process on the governance of tenure of land and ﬁsheries has been celebrated
by some authors as having produced ‘an unhoped-for political opportunity to challenge the
dominant neo-liberal paradigm’(McKeon 2009, 71) and ‘an experiment …[that] points to
one of the most democratic institutional frameworks for global decision-making …ever’
(Seufert 2013, 184).
It should be noted that the voluntary nature of the VGGTs led even some of the most
vocal supporters to voice skepticism (McKeon 2009,2013), and there is concern from
some camps that codes of conduct make things worse.
GRAIN (2012), for example
likens codes of conduct to ‘regulation of slavery’. While their most virulent invective is
aimed at ‘responsible investment’principles such as the Principles on Responsible Agricul-
tural Investment (PRAI), they also qualify their non-participation in the CFS process as a
strategic decision based on an assessment of where the real power lies:
FAO processes are not a factor at the national or local level. Bilateral trade agreements –
regional treaties such as the Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA),
global corporate agricultural investors and their institutional supporters Bill and Melinda
Gates Foundation’s Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), these are where the
real decisions are made. (Henk Hobbelink, personal communication, 28 August 2014)
However, notwithstanding these differences between those who support codes of
conduct as a means of regulation toward ‘best practices’and those opposed, there exist
important alliances and ‘sandwich strategies’between these groups which are relevant
and important, as Borras, Franco, and Wang (2013) suggest. Oxfam, a member of the
ILC, is one of GRAIN’s primary funders. And GRAIN considers that through exposure
and granting access to Oxfam to communities on the ground, they have not only increased
visibility of those cases, but are also contributing to radicalizing Oxfam itself.
The guidelines represent the ﬁrst internationally adopted human rights document on
land governance and lay the basis for reform that aims to empower vulnerable groups to
stake their rights and claims. Almost all stakeholders support this set of principles and
commit to their implementation, yet the VGGTs remain a soft-law instrument with a
non-binding nature, and as of yet there is no agreement on how the guidelines should
be monitored and implemented (Suárez and Brent 2014). It is thus widely acknowledged
that the rights-based approach is still limited to ‘naming and shaming’and ‘the result of
hard-fought struggles that settle the matter on the terrain of politics, where social groups
with different interests confront each other’(Li 2011), as we shall see in the next
6. Mechanisms of trans-local contention
In the previous section, I provided a sketch of some of the primary campaigns at the trans-
national level, which framed the issue and helped establish norms and standards. In the fol-
lowing sections, I describe diverse ‘mechanisms of contentious politics’employed by
An alternate interpretation of this divide is to understand it as representative of long-standing ‘inside–
outside’strategies. ‘Insiders’engage with institutionalized participation processes in an effort to inﬂu-
ence them. Outsiders put pressure on these and other processes through mobilization, in an effort to
amplify the voices of dynamic social movements on the outside to help create the space for innovative
policy ideas on the inside.
14 Leah Temper
actors across scales with the aim of forcing behavior change in different target actors,
including investors, state actors (domestic and third-country) and transnational institutions.
6.1 Regulating commodity and ﬁnancial markets
One line of attack in transnational mobilization against land deals entailed multi-scalar
attempts to stem the ﬂow of farmland investments. The diversity of ﬁnance sources
(which includes large food traders, private equity funds, banks and pension funds) and
the complexity of the ﬁnancial investment vehicles, as well as the role of the state as
both regulator and enabler in the agri-food sector, combine to make this a challenging
endeavor (Fairbairn 2014) and lead to a diversity of strategies.
At the supra-national level, activists have focused on regulation of agricultural deriva-
tives markets, stemming from analyses which suggested that volatility in these markets may
have contributed to the food crisis in important ways (Clapp 2014). Seeking policy change
at a more structural level, groups in Europe such as Friends of the Earth (FoE) have targeted
the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive (MiFID) II, demanding that MiFID ‘take
into consideration the rights of people and countries to food sovereignty’(FoE 2012a)
and include disclosure and incentives for ﬁnancial market participants to integrate sustain-
ability criteria in their risk assessment. The act, enacted in January 2014, places limits on
the number of contracts on agricultural commodities that banks and other ﬁnance compa-
nies can hold,
and was hailed as a partial victory by many NGOs. However, others are con-
cerned that these provisions will be watered down as limits are to be set at the national level.
Trade and investment law tends to be incorporated and applied more evenly than inter-
national human rights law, for example (Edelman, Oya, and Borras 2013); and accountabil-
ity in ﬁnance capital is an important front in light of the increasing ﬁnancialization of the
agricultural sector and the economy more generally and how it is restructuring capitalism.
However, some authors point out that regulatory solutions may suffer from a lack of infor-
mation on how speculative practices actually impact on food prices
and consequently acti-
vists may be proposing the wrong corrective. This complexity ‘by design’of
ﬁnancialization, combined with the secrecy of the ﬁnancial sector, presents additional chal-
lenges for those contesting land grabs.
6.2 Mobilizing shame
Once norms are established, activists aim to wield them to direct pressure on speciﬁc state,
corporate and ﬁnancial actors. Campaigns related to land grabbing have targeted speciﬁc
companies and investment funds through tactics such as the market-based shame campaign,
which aim to incentivize behavior changes in companies through the use of economic and
The key measure that campaigners hope will tackle food commodity speculation is the imposition of
limits restricting the number of positions that ﬁnancial institutions can hold in commodity derivatives
markets. Position limits place an upper limit –a quantitative ceiling –on the number of contracts other
than bona ﬁde hedging positions which an investor or combined group of investors may hold for a
Staritz and Küblböck (2014) argue that recent commodity price volatility was not a consequence of
the excessive volume of speculative trading, or ‘outsize’derivatives transactions by single market
actors, but a consequence of the cumulative trading practices of thousands of individual traders
who were incentivized to exploit market ﬂuctuations and push prices higher. If this is the case, the
limits on positions will not have the desired effect.
The Journal of Peasant Studies 15
social pressure which threatens damage to their brand value, losing customers through
boycott and a weakened ability to raise capital (Bloomﬁeld 2014).
When deployed trans-locally, this dynamic has been termed the corporate boomerang
pattern. However, ‘distancing’(Clapp 2014) and ﬁnancialization are creating distinct
new challenges for TANs hoping to ‘follow the money.’To exert leverage on speciﬁc
investors, TANs must now disentangle the growing role of ﬁnancial investors, including
banks, ﬁnancial services ﬁrms and large-scale institutional investors in the food system
In 2009 GRAIN published The new farm owners, that looked deeper into the webs of
ﬁnancialization behind the deals (GRAIN 2009). Soon after, an FoE report analyzed the
activities of 29 European ﬁnancial institutions, showing how they were all involved in
the direct or indirect ﬁnancing of land grabbing (FoE 2012b). The report estimated that
by 2017 institutional investors would increase their agricultural investment portfolios by
500 percent. In response, several fund managers, including BNP Paribas, Amundi and
Lyxor in France, and Germany’s Commerzbank and DZBank, closed or overhauled
exposure to agricultural products with ‘soft-commodity’exposure. Barclays announced it
was quitting speculative trading in grains and soft commodities
reasons’. As of 2013, 11 European banks had pulled out of ﬁnancial investment in agricul-
tural commodities. Yet at the same time there has been some backtracking, with Deutsche
Bank reversing its stance (Clapp 2014).
In 2011, another GRAIN report that focussed speciﬁcally on the role of pension funds in
such projects explained why pension funds were a particularly important target (GRAIN
Pension funds are supposed to be working for workers, helping to keep their retirement savings
safe …. For this reason alone, there should be a level of public or other accountability involved
when it comes to investment strategies and decisions. Pension funds may be one of the few
classes of land grabbers that people can pull the plug on, by sheer virtue of the fact that it is
Nevertheless, GRAIN’s divestment call had less impact than desired, with labor unions,
employee-beneﬁts planning bodies and pension managers failing to fully embrace the cam-
paign (Henk Hobbelink, personal communication, 28 August 2014).
6.3 Sustainability criteria and the RED
Campaigns have aimed to leverage sustainability criteria contained in EU policies and
directives, such as the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) to attack particular deals.
RED includes criteria for biofuels related to greenhouse gas savings, land with high biodi-
versity value, land with high carbon stock and agro-environmental practices. In some cases,
the sustainability and operational standards set by RED exposed European companies
engaged in biofuel projects to increased pressure and led to failed investments. SEKAB,
for example, was involved in the promotion of certiﬁcation processes for biofuels globally,
a fact deployed in campaigns from SWEDWATCH and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)
that discredited company claims of carbon neutrality by calculating that the releases from
deforesting one district alone of the wooded mangroves in the Ruﬁji Delta in Tanzania
Soft commodities are tropical agricultural commodities such as coffee, cocoa, cotton, grains, oil-
seeds, orange juice and sugar.
16 Leah Temper
would equal 4 to 20 years of greenhouse gas emissions from road transport. SEKAB was
furthermore a 70 percent municipally owned company and thus directly accountable to
Swedish taxpayers and local stakeholders. As a result SEKAB collapsed in 2009 and sub-
leased the land to a new company, EcoEnergy Tanzania, also Swedish-owned but that
aimed to produce for local consumption (Table 1, case 5; Locher and Sulle 2014).
Bioshape, a Dutch company, lost its principal investor Eneco, a Dutch public electricity
utility, over concerns that sustainability criteria related to RED were not being met, after it
was revealed by WWF that its concession fell within a forest biodiversity reserve housing
seven threatened vertebrate species, and that the company aimed to earn up to USD
6.7 million in proﬁts from logging valuable miombo hardwood timber to partly subsidize
its biofuel project (Valentino 2011). The company was forced to cease its ﬁeld operations
and salaries to local employees in February 2010 (Table 1, case 6).
6.4 Certiﬁcation and round tables
Certiﬁcation schemes and round-table mechanisms such as those for soy and palm oil are
other mechanisms whereby companies voluntarily commit to abide by ethical and environ-
mental standards. Land governance, for example, is not covered under RED but is under the
Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) standards. The New Forest Company (NFC)
in Uganda was forced to suspend planting due to the negative publicity caused by an Oxfam
report that attacked the eviction of illegal squatters by the Ugandan government from
NFC’s plantations (Table 1, case 7 Grainger and Geary 2011). NFC had Forest Council
Certiﬁcation status as well as funding from the International Finance Corporation (IFC),
that holds a USD 7 million equity investment in Agri-Vie, the private equity fund. Follow-
ing the scandal, IFC has called for an investigation (to be undertaken by the company) fol-
lowing its own ‘performance standards in land acquisitions’that were revised in 2012
(Grainger and Geary 2011).
The record suggests that adherence to certiﬁcation guidelines is conditioned by the per-
ception of reputational risk versus potential proﬁts. For example, Herakles, a US-based
agricultural developer linked to one of the world’s largest private equity ﬁrms, Blackstone,
was accused by Greenpeace and the Oakland Institute of converting high-conservation-
value rainforest for its plantation in Cameroon. After Herakles’assessment for the RSPO
was debunked by these NGOs, rather than change its practices, the company decided to
withdraw its RSPO membership in August 2012 before potentially being expelled (Table
1, case 15; RSPO 2012; Chatterjee 2012). After this, Herakles still proclaimed to abide
by the principles on RSPO’s website despite not being a member.
The evidence suggests that while certain investors do respond to public pressure, this
will depend on the form of investment and their vulnerability to such market governance
leverage tactics. Development ﬁnance institutions, agri-food companies with high visibility
and strong brands, pension funds and other funds with high public visibility, and biofuel
companies delivering to regulated markets are under greater public scrutiny. In contrast,
large, international raw material traders/processors, sovereign wealth funds, private
equity funds and listed land aggregators, and individual investors appear less vulnerable
to pressure (De Man 2013).
The Sen-Huile-Senenthanol project is a classic example of opaque investment streams
that serve to minimize leverage, and where transnational shame campaigns proved ineffec-
tive despite years of local, national and international pressure. The project, originally
located in Fanaye, was canceled after a violent confrontation over the project broke out
during a meeting of the rural council, with two people killed and over 20 wounded.
The Journal of Peasant Studies 17
However, after Macky Sall entered ofﬁce in March 2012, a new site was announced for the
project in the special wildlife preserve of Ndiael in the Senegal River Delta. Following mass
outrage, this was later reduced from 20,000 to 10,000 hectares, yet locals claim this still
encroaches on pasturelands and oppose it. A protest in November 2012was dispersed
with tear gas (Koopman 2012).
To unravel the ownership structure of the project, GRAIN and partner organizations
engaged in six months of research, hiring professional investigators and paying bribes
for information (GRAIN, Recommon, CAFS 2013), yet despite major corruption scandals
and the efforts of a local and international coalition campaigning, Italian majority share-
holder Tampieri remained unmoved by the public pressure, demonstrating their impunity
to such pressure tactics. Meanwhile, the 50 percent stake of domestic capital in Sen-
Huile-Senenthanol also points to the diluted power of transnational advocacy and how
counter-movements of powerful domestic elite actors allied with the state can lead even see-
mingly progressive governments to use repressive actions to quell dissent, despite coordi-
nated international and local campaigns.
7. Beyond the boomerang
Contextual elements of the land grab and shifting geopolitics highlight the need for adap-
tation and reﬁnement of the classic boomerang model. This is because spatial and govern-
ance shifts are reshaping global centers of power and undermining traditional forms of
activism. Cases of contentious action against land grabs illustrate these transformations
and can inform further theorization on how feedback processes between international dis-
courses, meso-politics and conﬂicts at local sites of production and resistance shape reper-
toires of resistance outcomes.
First, increased ﬁnancialization is rendering the links between speciﬁc actors and activi-
ties increasingly opaque (Clapp 2014). This means in many cases that campaigns against
speciﬁc companies call for a level of ‘resource mobilization’that few transnational advo-
cacy groups can muster. The six-month investigation to ﬁnd out who owns Senenthanol
is an example of this. And even then, opaque corporate culture renders these actors
largely immune to pressure.
Second, much transnational organizing is based on increasingly outdated ‘core–periph-
ery dynamics’. The old logic, as argued by Smith (2004, 313), was that those in the periph-
ery need support from ‘core’countries because ‘the world-system hierarchy makes both
elite and social movement actors on the periphery …far less able to affect the global econ-
omic and political decisions that shape their environments’. Yet the polycentric nature of
the current land grabs suggests the core itself may be shifting (Margulis, McKeon, and
Borras 2013). Numerous land grabs are South–South deals and activists within investing
countries from the South such as the BRICs
have not yet focused their
efforts on monitoring such investments abroad. While corporations and investment funds
The pressure campaign against Herakles did not succeed in stopping the project; however, it had
other consequences. In 2013 Bruce Wrobel, the chief executive ofﬁcer, committed suicide. The tra-
jectory of the Herakles Farms project and related ﬁnancial difﬁculties seemed to be one factor; accord-
ing to a CNBC article, he took criticisms of it ‘very personally’(Delevingne 2014).
It seems the project has now been canceled, following years of sustained pressure.
BRICs is the acronym used for an association of ﬁve major emerging national economies: Brazil,
Russia, India, China and South Africa.
MICs is an acronym for an undeﬁned group of Middle Income Countries.
18 Leah Temper
from India and Brazil have been major land purchasers, and both these countries have
strong domestic agrarian movements (Rowden 2011), only small steps toward building
such South–South alliances and focusing attention of local activists outward have been
made. A ﬁrst step was a conference organized by the Oakland Institute, the Indian Social
Action Forum, Kalpavriksh, and PEACE in Feb 2013 that brought together Ethiopian
and Indian land rights experts to discuss land grabbing and how the actions of Indian
land investors in Ethiopia resonate with the undemocratic land acquisitions within India
itself (Oakland Institute 2013).
Further, as well as (1) North–South land grabs and (2) South–South land grabs, there are
also (3) North–North land deals, (4) South–North land deals, and (4) within the country-led
land deals. The boomerang and related models have limited application to analyze transna-
tional activism relevant to such dynamics. While it is beyond the scope of this contribution
to examine the dynamics of transnational activism within each of these dyads it is a fruitful
area for future research.
Finally, while shame campaigns can lead to changes in a single corporate actor, they do
not necessarily lead to permanent victories, and unless the state decides to take action, they
may simply usher in another investor to take up the mantle. In the cases of several sus-
pended projects, such as SEKAB, Procana and numerous others, the government either
has re-leased or plans to re-lease the land, or the projects have re-emerged under new
names or new corporate structures. This points to the temporality and transitory nature of
stopping extractive projects by stemming ﬂows of capital without strong involvement of
grassroots ‘place-based’resistance movements and/or state intervention.
To address these deﬁciencies in the boomerang model for describing the dynamics of
transnational contention in the current conjuncture, here I propose two alternate models
that can help us conceptualize interactions between activists across scales –‘the catapult
effect’and the ‘mineﬁeld effect’. These models are illustrated with case studies of local
land grab resistance and their interactions across scales (Table 1). The cases and campaigns
further shed light onto how class and identity politics, the dynamics of coalition formation,
and new communication technologies shape and condition politics from below around
global land grabbing and outcomes of contentious action, demonstrating the variety and
complexity of land deals in societies that are ‘differentiated along lines of class, gender,
generation, ethnicity and nationality, and that have historically speciﬁc expectations, aspira-
tions and traditions of struggle’(Hall et al. 2015, 468).
7.1 The catapult effect
One weakness of the boomerang model lies in its unidirectional implication –it is based on
the assumption that social groups aim to increase their power and inﬂuence by broadening
outward from the local to the global (Perreault 2003). The reality, however, is not so hier-
archal or so linear. In many cases, it is extra-local organizations that aim to gain legitimacy
and broader recognition of their issues through their strategic insertion and representation
into local politics and communities.
For example, returning to the case that opened this contribution, we saw how a transna-
tional actor, the Oakland Institute, was able to mobilize local opposition through infor-
mation politics. The Oakland Institute’s work has focused in large part toward unveiling
the role of US-based institutions in land grabs, as a means to recenter the importance of tra-
ditional Western and Northern countries in land grabs, countering the initial focus on Asian
and Middle Eastern investors. This makes sense –NGOs ally themselves with local
The Journal of Peasant Studies 19
campaigns based on their own speciﬁc agendas and strategies and where they feel they can
make the most impact.
The Mukaya Payam community had not even been aware of the deal until alerted to it
by the Oakland Institute. This may be conceived as the inverse of the boomerang model –
rather than domestic actors looking outward to form alliances, in these contexts, transna-
tional NGOs select allies so as to maximize the level of reform achieved with their available
resources. I term this the ‘catapult model’–a catapult is a ballistic device used to launch a
projectile a great distance without the aid of explosive devices. In this way, through infor-
mational politics and leverage, transnational institutions try to inﬂuence change in their own
domestic contexts by forming alliances or passing information to communities and activists
abroad. How they pick the local groups to support amongst the multitude engaged in
struggle will depend on their own interests, requirements and relationships.
It may occur in such situations that the framing or issue focused on by the transnational
group may not echo with local priorities, leading to ‘friction’(Tsing 2005). For example, in
land-grabbing struggles, the biofuels discourse promoted by extra-local groups under a
‘climate justice’master frame often jarred with that of local actors who often prefer to
focus more on the legal and political rights of affected communities, or on agrarian and live-
lihood or labor rights. Opposition to biofuels is by no means self-evident for rural produ-
cers. For example, writing on BioFuel Africa Ltd. (Table 1, case 10), Boamah (2014)
refers to the anti-biofuel discourse as a ‘populist’one based on a false ‘food-versus-fuel’
dichotomy that has pre-empted possible positive impacts on livelihoods and energy pro-
vision. He argues that as a result, projects with potentially promising outcomes have
been terminated, while others with problematic outcomes have continued to be promoted,
yet these same projects that were attacked for growing biofuels are now growing food for
export on the same appropriated land (Boamah 2014).
Similarly, in the Herakles case (Table 1, case 15), the campaigns of transnational NGOs
that emphasized conservation and the defense of the Korup Park initially alienated the com-
munity and allowed the company to play on the historical antagonism of locals toward con-
servationist organizations such as Greenpeace and the WWF. Locals had seen the
establishment of the park as a government land grab as villagers lost access to their ancestral
lands where for generations they had farmed, ﬁshed, hunted and harvested. In contrast to
this, local organizations gained community trust when community opposition to the
project coalesced around labor injustice issues. More than 60 former employees turned
to local environmental activists for help in securing unpaid allowances and with lawsuits
they had brought against the company.
The catapult model recognizes that external support does not always stem from local
demand for external support, and refers rather to cases where NGOs utilize local struggles
to advance their own agendas. This need not imply a lack of ethical behavior; it simply
entails a recognition that whereas in the boomerang model the local actors are assumed
to seek out the help of international allies, extra-local organizations often aim to gain legiti-
macy precisely through their insertion of the local into national or transnational politics
(Cox 1998). Mac Sheoin (2012) argues that local struggles may be increasingly of impor-
tance to NGOs for legitimacy and expansion purposes. He suggests that local groups, in
contrast to NGOs who may possess greater funds and research capabilities, possess a
form of cultural or social capital which he refers to as ‘struggle capital’or ‘legitimation
capital’, which can give otherwise weaker coalition partners in peripheral countries
greater bargaining power with core country partners in transnational alliances.
While the catapult model brings attention to how local coalition partners contribute to
advancing the agendas of partners in core countries and how cases of local struggle
20 Leah Temper
contribute to framing the issue internationally, it also highlights a more nuanced relation-
ship between groups at different scales. For example, international organizations are
highly dependent on local groups for access, information and logistical support; and
local groups are increasingly able to leverage the resources from partners and their own
‘struggle capital’to ultimately control their desired messaging to advance their own
frames and aims, for example through social media. While not without tensions, a key
such as those surrounding claiming credit for actions, the catapult model is one based on
mutual dependency and symbiosis between local and transnational actors with intersecting
goals and interests.
7.2 The mineﬁeld effect
The spiral model attributes the changing of norms and subsequent reining in of irresponsi-
ble investments primarily to transnational movements working on governance issues (Risse
and Sikkink 1999). However, I would like to suggest that there is a tendency to underesti-
mate the process by which isolated local resistances echo across locations leading to signiﬁ-
cant impacts on governance and capital investment ﬂows at larger scales.
I term the mechanism through which this occurs the ‘mineﬁeld effect’. A mineﬁeld
refers to a situation that may present potentially unseen hazards. I consider that this
dynamic presents when conﬂictive or canceled projects lead to a shift in government
policy, investment trends or conﬁdence due to perceptions of increased danger and ﬁnancial
or political risk (Li 2016). In essence, the investors or other actors become cognizant that
they are entering ‘a mineﬁeld’.
This effect can operate at the company, commodity or state level. For example, in
October 2009, London-based CAMEC, the main investor in the failed project ProCana,
announced that it would no longer invest in biofuel projects, as it planned to focus on its
main investment portfolio, which is mining (Borras, Fig, and Monsalve 2011). Following
the SEKAB debacle, Tanzania temporarily banned all land acquisition projects (Locher and
Sulle 2014). At the commodity level, the jatropha boom in general has gone largely bust.
Namibia provides a telling example. After projects such as LL Biofuels Namibia failed, fol-
lowing the investor’s inability to receive community support for its 30,000-hectare biofuel
project and conﬂict over labor conditions, the government recommended that no larger
scale jatropha-based biofuel industry (exceeding 500 hectares) be allowed in the
Kavango and Caprivi region due to ‘negative impacts on food security and land tenure’.
Regulatory changes and legal action at the country level have also been instituted in
response to sustained local conﬂicts and opposition, often stemming from one emblematic
case. Some countries that have limited foreign investment, such as Argentina, Brazil, etc.,
have done so in the face of the mobilization of strong local movements organized around
discrete cases, rather than external pressure. For example, the law in Argentina was changed
following intense mobilization in Rio Negro, whereby a wide coalition of environmental
organizations, citizens, indigenous communities, church members and government ofﬁcials
legally opposed the Heilongjiang Beidahuang State Farms project, ﬁling for protection
against the Rio Negro Executive branch. The Provincial Court of Justice upheld the
appeal, nullifying the project on the grounds that it would endanger uses of the soil,
water resources and the port and that it thus infringed Rio Negro Provincial Constitutional
Laws. Further, the Mapuche community also opposed the deal and threatened to ﬁle an
amparo (constitutional relief) action due to their rights under ILO 160 being obstructed.
Sovereignty was a key word in these mobilizations, with movements in 2010 issuing a pol-
itical document titled ‘Neither soybean, nor China: food and sovereignty’(Mora n.d.).
The Journal of Peasant Studies 21
Following this case, legislation entered into law in 2012 capped ownership by a foreign
individual or company at 1000 hectares (2470 acres).
This case and others suggest that broad-based coalitions are those most likely to cause
‘mineﬁelds’. This occurs with the coming together of actors with diverse (Mora n.d.), and in
some cases opposing, ideological commitments, who have nonetheless been drawn into a
common struggle. When the conjuncture of long-simmering tensions from multiple
agents collides in a burst of protest or collective action, this may lead to a critical event
that becomes a reference point with longer lasting impact.
Let us take as an example the shifting and opportunistic alliances and interests between
conservationists, farmers and pastoralists, recognizing that the construction of such identity
groups is, of course, a strategic simpliﬁcation, given trends such as the increasing sedentar-
ization of many pastoral groups (Upton 2014). As I have argued elsewhere (Temper 2016),
the increase in land pressure for agriculture has contributed to a softening of the traditional
antagonism between pastoralists and conservationists leading to an alliance between two
streams of environmentalism, the cult of wilderness and the environmentalism of the
poor (Guha and Martínez-Alier 1997), as they strategize toward restricting the conversion
of lands from pastoral to agricultural uses. This was evident in the ProCana case (Table 1,
case 14), when the Limpopo National Park (LNP) and local residents became ‘unlikely bed-
fellows’, with LNP staff helping prepare leaders to spearhead actions against Procana (Mil-
This ‘marriage of convenience’was also seen in the Tana Delta case (Table 1, cases 1,
3, 4), a case that demonstrates both the potential for growing alliances between conservation
and agrarian justice movements to roll-back land grabs, and how land investments can
exacerbate inter- and intra-community conﬂict. In the Tana case, Nature Kenya, a BirdLife
International partner, was able to position itself as the ‘spokesperson’for the Deltaic com-
munities in dealings with the government and the courts. This led to the privileging of
certain positions over others, as can be evidenced by a somewhat comedic headline in
the Kenyan Star that reads ‘Tana Villagers Oppose Sugar Project over Bird Concerns’
While the Orma and Wardei pastoralists were indeed vehemently opposed to the pro-
jects (although not for the birds), local Pokomo farmers were more receptive to the sugar-
cane projects. However, they demanded terms of incorporation as titled smallholders
rather than an estate system as planned. Previous attempts at land titling in the year
2000 based on individual ownership had clashed with pastoralist demands for collective
access to land for use as pasture, hunting and gathering, leading to heavy violence
(Temper 2012,2016). In 2012, violence, likely exacerbated by the land conﬂict, ﬂared
up again between the Pokomo and Orma, with ethnic clashes leaving over 50 people
and hundreds of cattle dead (GRAIN et al. 2014).
Currently, investment plans in the Delta have ground to a halt. The well-concerted cam-
paigns, as well as the insecurity and local violence, have all contributed to investors pulling
out of numerous projects (Bedford Biofuels, G4), while others have been canceled by the
state. These high-proﬁle cases have led to a de facto moratorium on large-scale agricultural
projects in the region and have also led to a successful campaign for the recognition of Tana
Delta as Kenya’s newest Ramsar site in October 2012, and the agreement of the Ofﬁce of
the Prime Minister to oversee the formulation of a land-use master plan in which local com-
munities’rights to their ancestral land and biodiversity are recognized.
The Mabira case (Table 1, case 8), stemming originally from 2007 but revived several
times since, is another example of how identity and class politics can intersect and be used
as a mobilizing tool, albeit with disturbing undercurrents of racial violence and
22 Leah Temper
discrimination. The decision of the Ugandan government to degazette and clear 7100 hec-
tares, one quarter of the Mabira Forest –the largest nature reserve in Central Uganda –and
give the land to the Ugandan Indian-led Sugar Corporation of Uganda Ltd (SCOUL), led to
an unprecedented mobilization uniting a broad coalition of actors. Behind what has been
called ‘one of Africa’sﬁrst grassroots modern ecological protest campaigns’(Child
2009), the agitation was partly fueled by opposition to what was viewed as increasing dom-
ination of the country’s economic assets by Indian-controlled companies (Hönig 2014). A
demonstration against the project in Kampala of some 1000 people turned violent when
police ﬁred into the crowd, and a Ugandan Indian was beaten to the death by a frenzied
crowd and two more people died. Museveni was forced to cancel the project (Child
2009; Hönig 2014).
8. Discussion and conclusion
This paper has employed a series of metaphors of projectile and explosive devices to illus-
trate dynamics under which activism is successful at impacting the behavior of target actors.
This contribution has called attention to the interplay between framing, norm-setting and
calls for human rights from above and mobilizations from below in deﬁning the outcomes
of land struggles. The case studies demonstrate how change comes from both above and
below, with dynamic and contested interactions between actors within and between
scales. It also points to the more transitory nature of stopping projects that do not have
strong place-based support and where mobilization is framed in terms that do not resonate
with local populations. The paper aims to contribute to ongoing discussions and consider-
ation about what form of transnational mobilization is most effective, and where those
aiming to make an impact (at different scales) should direct their energies.
8.1 Voluntary cushions or trampolines?
It has been pointed out that policy initiatives on land tenure have until the present focused
mostly on global governance, and there is a need to examine how this is then transferred to
the governance of land investment and agri-food markets at the level of states, regions or
localities (Clapp, Isakson, and Visser 2016). Some argue that ofﬁcial and international pro-
cesses such as the CFS may serve to foreclose more radical voices that insist on the
(im)possibility of responsible land grabbing; and both activists and scholars have pointed
to the need for recognition of the burden of increased participation on the limited capacities
and resources of social movement organizations, and appraisal of the time, money and
effort expended by CSOs, activists and local communities on formal processes. Returning
to the discussion in section 3, one object of further critical enquiry is how mechanisms
forged at the international level, such as the Voluntary Guidelines, either attenuate or
reinforce bottom-up processes of resistance –and whether, in practice, normative instru-
ments such as the VGGTs are acting as ‘trampolines’on which to amplify campaigns
and demand rights that can be turned into real re-distributions (Franco, Monsalve, and
Borras 2015), or whether they may instead represent ‘cushions’
or buffers that can
have potential disempowering effects on activists and local populations.
Interview with Henk Hobbelink of GRAIN.
Voices critical of governance and rights-based approaches to contesting land grabbing claim to base
their arguments on a strategic assessment. Their fear is that the acknowledged limits of voluntarism in
The Journal of Peasant Studies 23
such mechanisms can work both ways, and coalitions of activists and scholars have com-
mitted considerable work to ensuring the revolutionary reformist potential of the CFS is rea-
lized by tracking that the necessary translation processes are occurring, and through
ongoing assessment to help ensure that the guidelines do truly serve as trampolines for sup-
porting the resistances and for amplifying the voices of local communities, and not as cush-
ions wielded by states and companies to avoid taking action.
This contribution has analyzed the dialectic relationships between micro-processes of
resistance and processes at larger scales. While it is often assumed that power is exerted
from above, this paper, in line with society-centered explanations of social change, empha-
sizes the role and impact of on-the-ground mobilizations and how they exert power upward.
By bringing attention to the impact of local mobilizations, the paper aims to demonstrate the
need for both multi-scalar and multi-pronged approaches for those engaged in struggles for
food, land and water sovereignty.
The immediate response to governing the land grab has been focused on ‘responsible
investment’. Important gains have been made at the transnational level in terms of
opening up the debate on land grabbing, and later challenging the regulatory structures
through alternative arenas such as the CFS, yet the impact of these advances remains difﬁ-
cult to gauge at present. Complementary to this, activists have engaged in more contentious
and disruptive behavior, targeting ﬁnancial actors and companies. For example, pension
funds have been a key target pointing to the systemic risk of social conﬂict and what
this should mean for ‘investment risk’calculus. Activism against companies has shown
to be most successful when it impacts upon proﬁt or previsions of future proﬁt (often
related to reputation with speciﬁc audiences), scaring investment and increasing risk for
Local movements against land grabbing appear to have achieved the most success when
they have been able to unite broad coalitions of groups with complex and multidimensional
agendas, combining issues around development, social and agrarian justice, indigenous
rights, livelihood and environmental protection, depending on their perceived interests.
Where identity politics (such as claims to indigeneity) and environmental justice intersect
with nature conservation, perhaps the strongest resistance has been mounted; however, such
strategies have also fueled ethnic conﬂict and violence at the local level.
To make sense of new ways that transnational and domestic contentious politics inter-
act, I introduced the mineﬁeld and catapult models of transnational mobilizations, where I
aimed to show not only how actors inscribe demands and claims in transnational coalitions
but also how the inverse happens, how transnational actors inscribe their own mission
within local struggles, and how the local impacts at higher scales. These models serve to
restore agency and protagonism to those mobilizing at micro and meso scales, and highlight
the need for campaigns to adopt a more nuanced understanding of how local politics affect
the implementation of projects. They caution transnational and extra-local actors from
obscuring the complicated dynamics on the ground, whether this includes messy identity
politics, or imposing other master narratives on local actors to communicate messages to
other audiences, without being attendant to how this will feed into and modulate local
practice serve to transfer state prerogatives and duties to companies and private investors. Others
argue that treaties/instruments are sometimes used to take international pressure off the signing
countries, without actually implementing the agreement. Further, they argue that they can be used
by companies and investors engaged in land grabbing who claim to be implementing good practices
within their own corporate social responsibility strategies against campaigns and local defenders.
24 Leah Temper
responses. Finally, I argued that without being anchored locally, advocacy successes under
the boomerang model tend to be transitory, with other investors stepping into the void.
Additional research on TANs operating across a range of contexts and targets is needed
to assess the generalizability of the models. Future research in this line will further
develop these models across other forms of contentious transnational mobilizations includ-
ing movements resisting mining, infrastructure, oil and gas extraction, etc., drawing on the
more than 2000 cases documented in the Global Atlas of Environmental Justice (www.
ejatlas.org) as of September 2017.
These models aim to bring attention to how governance and discourses at this macro
level are informed by the dynamics of micro-conﬂicts, and how local resistances can
feed into global narratives and act as tactical victories to transform such stories into
global symbols for their claims. These stories have a key role in spotlighting the nature
of these high-risk business models and presenting ‘the land grab’as a ﬁnancial failure.
Increased documentation and exposure of the high failure rates of projects (in the face of
local difﬁculties, violent repression of activists, excessive transaction costs and community
opposition) will contribute to further delegitimizing the drive for land grabbing and other
As predicted by Keck and Sikkink, the paternalistic advocacy model they outlined has
now given way to a more hybrid structure where those on the periphery, once considered
passive, not only are becoming active themselves (Keck and Sikkink 1999; Reitan 2012)
but are increasingly wielding power from the bottom up that radiates outward. The diversity
and complexity of relationships between center and peripheral activists we have examined
here corroborate this shifting terrain, and call for further empirical and theoretical work to
understand the modalities of coordinated networked action of actors across multiple scales.
The manuscript was greatly improved based on comments and discussions with Jun Borras, Thomas
Sikor, Jutta Kill, Henk Hobbelink, Joan Martinez-Alier, Nicolas Kosoy and Jennifer Clapp, as well as
three anonymous reviewers from the Journal of Peasant Studies and feedback from colleagues in the
EJOLT project. All errors are my own.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the author.
This research was partially supported by grants from the FP7 European Commission Project EJOLT
(Environmental Justice Organisations, Liabilities and Trade, grant number 266642, 2011–2015) and
the ACKnowl-EJ project under the Transformations to Sustainability Programme (Grant Number
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28 Leah Temper
Leah Temper (PhD environmental sciences 2015, Masters economic history 2008, BA communi-
cations and journalism, 2005) is a trans-disciplinary scholar-activist specialized in ecological econ-
omics and political ecology based at the Institute for Environmental Sciences and Technology
(ICTA) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. She is a founder and co-director of the Global
Atlas of Environmental Justice (www.ejatlas.org) and the PI of ACKnowl-EJ (Activist-academic
Co-production of Knowledge for Environmental Justice). Previously she was scientiﬁc coordinator
of the EJOLT Project (www.ejolt.org) and Director of USC Canada’s Seeds of Survival Program
International, which supports farmer-led research in plant genetic resources, agro-biodiversity and
agro-ecology in 10 countries. Email: email@example.com
The Journal of Peasant Studies 29