charles geisler on terra nullius and africa’s empty lands today


Charles Geisler, ‘New Terra Nullius Narratives and the Gentrification of Africa’s “Empty Lands”‘, Journal of World-Systems Research 18, 1 (2012).

Extraterritorial ownership and control of sub-Saharan African land have a long and troubled history. This research investigates a much-studied practice—the recent enclosure of African land and resources—but asks a little-studied question: how are non-Africans reasserting terra nullius narratives of the past to justify the present transformation of African landscapes?  The answer  suggested here lies in a bulwark of de facto terra nullius claims couched in security needs of the global North and referenced to the low density of Africa’s rural population, its land and labor under-utilization, the ambiguity of its land tenure and related low yields, and its “arrested” civilization.  De facto terra nullius is neither narrow in scope nor static in application.  It is stirring again as a potent justificatory logic for north-south land relations. 

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