Enclosure of the Commons in a Global Economy: British Enclosure and African Land Grabbing

This paper explores the enclosure of common land in predominantly agrarian economies where poor rural inhabitants are disproportionally affected.
by Suzanne Song
Updated Apr 23, 2018 (1 Older Version)chevron-down
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Enclosure of the Commons in a Global Economy: British Enclosure and African Land Grabbing


“...Urbanism is the mode of appropriation of the natural and human environment by capitalism...”
- Guy Debord1

This paper explores the enclosure of common land in predominantly agrar- ian economies where poor rural inhabitants are disproportionally affected. The relentless, capitalist drive to privatize land through what Harvey terms ‘accumulation by dispossession’ is compared and contrasted through two examples; historical British Enclosure and contemporary African Land Grab- bing.

The analysis aims to indicate a possible strategic approach integrating the balanced dimensions of sustainable planning in Ethiopia where land, owned by the federal state, as a productive input to the developing economy and a source of livelihood to poor farmers is critical. The dialectic framework addresses the interdependence of complex drivers and impacts of devel- opment and suggests a practical planning model based on combining co- operatives and common pool resources (CPRs) that would directly engage rural communities, secure land tenure, mobilize collective action to foster socioeconomic and political development, and aid in resisting environmental resource overuse and degradation. Deterring land grabbing by foreign capital and its domestic facilitation would need to be addressed in conjunction with sustained multi-scalar support of international coalitions.

The well-known historical example of British enclosure occurred during the vast demographic change from the 17th to early 19th centuries when popu- lation doubled from 1750- 1850 from 11 million to 21 million people (Voth, 2003, p.224; Redford, 1964, p.14) and GDP in the UK rose from £72.6 mil- lion to £323.18 million2 Government supported enclosure policy enabled the shift from a rural agricultural to urban industrial economy that facilitated landowner profits from globalized trade and simultaneously contributed to the rise of poverty, ‘paupers and vagrants’ and exacerbated rural-urban mi- gration. At that time,3 arguments that claimed enclosure would benefit na- tional economic development by increased food production and agricultural efficiency were used to implement governmental policy through the Parlia- mentary Inclosure Acts, peaking from 1750-1820 when over 3,800 acts en- closed about 7 million acres (2.83 million hectares) of common open field arable, pasture and waste land or approximately 20% of the surface area of the country and transferred use rights solely to private owners (Turner, 1980, p.324; Makki & Geisler, 2011, p.4). In 1500 45% of the land was enclosed, in 1700 61%, by 1914 it was 95% enclosed (Allen, 1994, p.98).

Today, in the case of Sub-Saharan Africa and Ethiopia, drought and crop failure contribute to susceptibility to poverty and famine, predominantly af-

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fecting the rural poor. Ethiopia’s population more than doubled from 1975 to 2011 from 33 million to 84.7 million people.5 From 1994 to 2007 the national population growth rate averaged 2.6% though was slightly lower for the urban population of 12 million than the rural population of 62 million.6 Per capita GDP in 1974 is estimated at $110,7 it rose from $636 in 2005 to $979 in 2011 while annual per capita GDP growth fell from 9.2% to 5% in the same period. Government supported policies target economic develop- ment through strategic neo-liberal directives that seek private capital invest- ment to transform a smallholder agricultural to an industrialized agricultural economy. The argument of developing the agro-industry by attracting foreign investment capital spurs policy facilitating the transfer of large-scale tracts of agricultural land to foreigners but precludes meeting such domestic de- velopment goals. The impacts of land grabbing that disproportionately dis- possess poor farmers of common resources exacerbate decreased domestic productive land supply and water resources that impact domestic food secu- rity, rural-urban migration, and threats to the environment.

Similar conditions of demographic growth, the targeted shift from an agri- cultural to an industrial economy, and policies supporting capitalist accumu- lation by dispossession can be traced in both the historical case of Britain and contemporary Ethiopia. Similar effects of globalization that exacerbate poverty, food insecurity, rural-urban migration, and marginalization also characterize both cases. But in the case of England, capitalist accumulation by dispossession was driven by profit-seeking in the emerging industrialized market of globally traded goods and reinforced by governmental policy that privileged domestic land owners returns. It materialized as internal struggles in class politics between landowners, merchants, landless commoners and laborers. While in the case of Ethiopia, capitalist accumulation by disposses- sion is embedded in neo-liberal global politics that privileges foreign capital seeking new resources and returns (Harvey, 2004, 2006). Any shifts in do- mestic internal class politics are stymied by lack of simultaneous social and economic development, lack of a peasant material base of land and capital, lack of alternatives for livelihood in industrialized sectors and the fragile ecological conditions of environmental degradation impacting food security in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Enclosure in Britain

Loss Of Common Land and Poverty

The loss of common land in the manorial open field system during the time of British enclosure meant the loss of sources of food, fuel and income lead- ing many to poverty. Neeson (1993) described how milk from a single cow turned out onto common pasture or waste totaled about half of a laborer’s yearly wages. Income from a calf sold at market would substantially cover rent and land tax for the year (Neeson, p.311). Corn from four acres of arable land would feed a family for an entire year.8 Governing of the commons tied

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the amount of arable land rented to the number of animals allowable to pas- ture. Sheep, cheaper to buy and maintain than cows, additionally provided wool, milk and lambs. Supplemental food and surplus income were lost from game hunting, fishing, berry and nut picking on common woodlands, fallow, marsh and waste. Common land use provided subsistence and livelihood in an economy where the overwhelming expense was food (Neeson, p.313). Sources of fuel, fodder and household materials were lost- dry fallen wood, dead leaves, furze, peat, reeds, rushes, and gleanings were no longer avail- able. Comparatively, the loss of fuel sources became more valuable as coal became an available substitute that was unaffordable for most commoners.

Food Shortages

Food shortages were common during the period of accelerated enclosures after 1750 from rising market prices, especially from blocked trade during the American War of Independence from 1775-1783 and Napoleonic Wars from 1803-1814 (Allen, 1994, p.97; Allen 1999, p. 217).

After 1800, trade fed the expanding British population with rising consump- tion and demand for cheaper imported goods. But the rising domestic mo- nopoly grain prices that protected British landowners and merchants from foreign competition through the Corn Laws of 1815-1846 and the financial Panic of 1837 led to grievous depression in ‘the hungry forties’.

Suzanne Song



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