Land Grabbing in Bangladesh: In-Situ Displacement of Peasant Holdings

by Shelley Feldman and Charles Geisler

Land grabbing accounts are now abundant, prompting scholars to seek patterns and regularities in the phenomenon across dissimilar geographies and histories. This paper examines the irregularities and pattern-defying expressions of land grabbing in Bangladesh and views such seizures through the lens of displacement. Within this land- scarce nation the variations of land grabbing are many and only rarely mirror the threats to sovereignty animated by the rush of overseas foreign investment in farmland. Their historical forms invite our attention and provide the context to examine three sui generis Bangladeshi land grab experiences. The first occurs in char areas, newly formed islands similar to polders in the Netherlands that are created from riverine and coastal sediment accumulation. These chars are in a constant state of formation and erosion which make them contested sites that are ripe for power plays that directly affect small producers who settle on or adjacent to them to cultivate their rich alluvial soils. Frequently peasant producers are forcibly removed (ex situ displacement) or intensely regulated in struggles for this limited resource (in situ displacement). In a second salient case, land grabbing results from government confiscation where its justification is cloaked in imaginaries of national security and nation-formation that is experienced as ex situ displacement. The Vested Property Act (and several antecedent laws) were the draconian means by which the East Pakistan and subsequently the Bangladesh state seized property from “enemies of the state,” primarily Hindu farmers. Though very recently withdrawn, the legislation established precedents for new relations of enclosure. Efforts at redress by original owners, including only some in the expatriate community, unsettle the national-foreigner distinction common to much land grabbing analysis. [Evidence of in-situ here as well?] In a third instance, land grabs or land capture by Bangladeshi elites is mediated through privileged access to government through bribery and the coercion of land officials to transfer title to themselves and deploy gangs to harass resident owners, primarily peasant proprietors, to relinquish their holdings. In contrast to land grabbing in other world regions that enjoy legal veneers including government approval, investor rights, willing-seller compliance, and codes of conduct, this back-door land grabbing strategy violates property rights through corruption and coercion that yields in situ and later ex situ displacement of owners and tenants.

File: Shelley Feldman and Charles Geisler.pdf