What Is Land? A Conversation with Tania Murray Li, Rafael Marquese, and Monica White

This is the tenth piece in a series on the Plantationocene—an alternate name for the epoch often called the Anthropocene. The Plantationocene Series aims to create a conversation about multiple forms of plantations, both past and present, as well as the ways that plantation logics organize modern economies, environments, and social relations.

We cannot understand the politics of land without understanding labor, property regimes, and ecologies. Land was the theme of the fourth roundtable of the Plantationocene series, held September 12, 2019. Joining me for a discussion of something often taken for granted were anthropologist Tania Murray Li, historian Rafael Marquese, and sociologist Monica White. The panelists brought diverse perspectives and wide-ranging geographies to the question of land, approaching it through their respective research on the politics of development and oil palm plantations in Indonesia, the Atlantic slave trade and Caribbean coffee plantations, and histories of Black agricultural social movements in the United States.

Land must be considered with an awareness of histories of dispossession—including the land beneath us as we spoke on the campus of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, a place known as Teejop to Ho-Chunk residents past and present. In addition to Ho-Chunk peoples, the Madison area was also the ancestral lands of the Peoria, Miami, Meskwaki, and Sauk peoples, who have persisted despite being forcibly displaced from their home areas through acts of violence and dispossession. Land is, as White said, “a scene of a crime”—and also a living being inextricably bound to social life.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights and a full transcript, edited for clarity, follow.

Interview highlights:

These interview highlights have been edited for length and clarity. Find the transcript of their full conversation available as a PDF here.

Elizabeth Hennessy: I want to begin with a question that might seem straightforward. It’s a question that Tania posed in a recent essay, and that is: what is land? I think it’s important to clarify, because most of us are accustomed to thinking of land as a self-evident thing that can be divided into parcels, owned as property, used as a resource. But as Tania has written, land is a strange object. Each of you, in your work, pushes us to think beyond this conventional way of thinking about land, and instead to think of its social and material relationships. Could you each tell us about what land is, and how you approach land in your studies?

Monica White: I meditated on the question, what is land? From African Indigenous cultures, land is a living being. To me, I also see it as sort of a scene of a crime, right? It’s a scene of a crime and a strategy of freedom and liberation. So, we recognize land, this land particularly, as stolen land, using stolen labor. Our interactions and relationship with land has been one of extraction and not regeneration.

Land is a site and source of oppression and liberation.

The current political moment, the current environmental moment, economic moment, every indication of our society, is fractured. I would argue that some of that is because we do not see ourselves as part of an ecosystem, we see ourselves as in control.

The people that I work with, the organizations that I work with, are trying to encourage us to pursue a more holistic, healthy relationship to land. And one that, as with the Indigenous idea of seven generations, the implication of anything we do is making sure that we pass on the land better than it was when we found it. So, land is sort of everything, as young people say. It’s everything, and how we treat the land, I think, also has indications for how we treat each other.

A cluster of wooden houses with a dirt road and palm trees

A plantation worker housing block in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia. Photo by Tania Murray Li, 2009.

Tania Murray Li: I first started thinking about this question (what is land?) again from an Indigenous or fieldwork perspective. In the highlands of Sulawesi where I was working, there is no word for land. There’s a word for soil, a sort of a material thing, and then the classification has to do always with people’s relationship to forests. There’s primary forest, which means no labor has been invested there. There’s secondary forest, which means someone once did the work of clearing the huge trees in order to plant a garden. There’s the current garden, and there’s the just left behind garden. But there is no abstract category, “land.”

I was working in this area during a period when that category emerged. The idea of land as an abstract object which can have a value, which can be bought and sold, which can be treated in some respects like other forms of property, was something I saw emerge, and that made me reflect on it.

But then I thought, well, actually, there’s always work involved in producing this category land. I also looked at the work done by the World Bank and others in the context of the land grab. Where, suddenly—well, not suddenly, it’s not new— up popped this category of “underutilized land.” And apparently, according to them, half the world’s potentially arable land is not used at all, and most of the rest is “underutilized.”

What kind of object is it in which one scale of value means proper utility, versus under? Under for whom, in what ways, according to what metric? That really alerted me to all the work it takes to produce land as an abstract object, or (as I wrote about in that paper) to render it investible, the kind of thing you can speculate on in the stock market. That’s not just there, given. That’s the outcome of a process, and that was the sort of thing I was trying to track.

The cover of the Plantationocene Land booklet

Find a transcript of their full conversation here. Layout by Nicole Bennett, 2019.

Rafael Marquese: I have no better answer for this question than Karl Polanyi’s words, which actually is what Monica was just talking about, land as a living being. Basically, for Polanyi, land is nature turned into commodity. I think this is a very simple, elegant way to put what we are discussing. We are discussing nature, but nature that was turned into something else due to economic, social, political relations, which we can call capitalism or the market economy, according to Polanyi.

I’d like to discuss Polanyi’s terms, especially his kind of European “diffusionism.” When he was trying to describe how land is turned into a commodity, he was basically talking about the English countryside . His argument is really good if we are able to reconceptualize what he was talking about originally—about Europe—and put his argument in a broader frame, to think about the colonies. So, I think we can think about land being commodified in the first place, in the colonial world —not only in the metropol, not only in Europe, but in the world economy.

For sure, we can find throughout history, different land markets. Every time that you are selling and buying land some place, you have a market on land. But it doesn’t mean that land was commodified through this market. So I’d also like to put that point in our discussion. I think we should pay attention to a fundamental critique of Polanyi, in the sense that you can see land markets throughout history, but without being capitalist land markets. So, there’s a difference between a market economy and capitalism. Thinking about the Plantationocene, and this specific topic, land, it’s a good way to think about these questions.

Four people seated in chairs, a photograph of the Plantationocene Land roundtable at University of Wisconsin-Madison

From left: Elizabeth Hennessy, Monica White, Tania Murray Li, Rafael Marquese. Photo by Rachel Boothby, 2019.

MW: In thinking about land, I thought immediately about the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery. So, if we see land as living, but also in terms of the receptacle of blood, sweat, and tears of those who labor,  the words on the memorial’s website illustrate some of what I’m talking about: “The legacy of enslaved Black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.” If you’re unfamiliar with this memorial, they captured the land, the soil, from various points of lynching, and honor the legacies of those who were lynched as important. As painful as this part of it is— and that’s why I talk about the scene of a crime— land is both a site and source of oppression and liberation.  In talking and thinking about how movements are using land today, it’s important to hold space for both of those.

Want more of their conversation? Edge Effects is excited to provide a transcript of Elizabeth Hennessy’s full interview with Tania Murray Li, Rafael Marquese, and Monica White, in an accompanying booklet designed by Nicole Bennett with Addie Hopes, Carly Griffith, and Laura Perry. Click here to read—and we hope you’ll share it, too.

Featured image: A satellite image from the Copernicus Sentinel-2 mission shows the spread of palm oil plantations in East Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of the island Borneo. Photo by European Space Agency, 2019.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Tania Murray Li is Professor of Anthropology and Canada Research Chair at the University of Toronto. She has done research in Indonesia since the 1990s on the politics of development programs that sought to improve local environmental management, Indigeneity and the constitution of capitalist relations, and land grabs and labor regimes associated with plantation production. She is the author or editor of five books and is currently working on her sixth, a collaborative ethnography of oil palm plantations in Indonesia. Website. Contact.

Rafael Marquese is Livre-Docente Professor of History at the Universidade do São Paulo where he co-directs the Lab-Mundi—the Laboratory of Studies on Brazil in the World System. He works on histories of slavery in the Atlantic world, particularly focusing on the transnational economies of coffee plantations. He recently published the co-authored book Slavery and Politics: Brazil and Cuba, 1790-1850 and is currently working on a comparative history of environment and slavery in Suriname and Saint Domingue in the 18th century. Website. Contact.

Monica White is Associate Professor of Environmental Justice in the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at University of Wisconsin–Madison as well as the Director of the Nelson Institute’s Office for Environmental Justice and Engagement. Her research investigates Black, Latinx, and Indigenous grassroots organizations who are engaged in the development of sustainable, community food systems as a strategy to respond to issues of hunger and food inaccessibility. Her book Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement was published in January 2019 by the University of North Carolina Press. Edge Effects featured a conversation with her about Freedom Farmers inFood Is Just the Beginning” (July 2019). Website. Twitter. Contact.

Elizabeth Hennessy is Assistant Professor of Global Environmental History in the History Department, History of Science, Medicine, and Technology, and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is part of the Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE) and was formerly faculty advisor for Edge Effects. Trained as a geographer, she works at the intersection of political ecology, science and technology studies, animal studies, and environmental history. Her first book, On the Backs of Tortoises: Darwin, the Galapagos, and the Fate of an Evolutionary Eden, was recently published with Yale University Press and nominated for a PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. Hennessy’s other contributions to Edge Effects include an interview with Gregory Cushman, “The Fragile Society We’ve Built from Rocks” (October 2017). Website. Twitter. Contact.