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Exclusion from land is inherently negative. A handful of actors hold all the power to control relations around land use. Dilemmas concerning land transformation are too complex to tackle.

These are some of the common beliefs coauthors of the book Powers of Exclusion: land dilemmas in South East Asia debunked during the digital summit ‘Landscape transformation: what does power have to do with it?,’ hosted by the Global Landscape Forum (GLF) and moderated by Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) scientist Bimbika Sijapati Basnett.

For the panelists and coauthors – political scientist Derek Hall, geographer Philip Hirsch and anthropologist Tania Murray Li – ‘exclusion’ is not the opposite of ‘inclusion’, but of ‘access’.

“Exclusion refers to the ways people are prevented from accessing benefits such as land, but this is not necessarily negative,” said Hall, associate professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University. “Exclusion is not the same as dispossession. In fact, all productive land use requires some type of exclusion.”

In the summit and in the book, the coauthors make the case that the ‘four powers’ of exclusion are what shape land relations in Southeast Asia: regulation, force, markets and legitimation, the latter of which refers to moral grounds for excluding others. Uptake of the framework by those working in other global regions suggests that looking at the interactions between these powers helps to understand power dynamics in land access more generally.

The coauthors highlighted processes that are particularly changing land relations of late, namely the formalization of land access, the cultivation of ‘boom crops’, the conversion of land for non-agricultural uses, and the formation of agrarian classes at the village level. By using the framework to examine these processes, it can then be determined who has access to land, how others become excluded, and how those without access at all are prevented from getting it.


“How might people – including small-scale farmers and indigenous communities – keep out the state, the corporations?” posed Hall. “How do they prevent other people from doing things they do not want them to do on their lands? What kind of power may they have?”

In other words, when it comes to understanding social and political conflicts spurred by landscape transformation, exclusion at large is not the key issue. Instead, what matters is who is excluded, how the justifications for exclusion differ and change across contexts and over time, and with what consequences. 

Illustrating the framework’s interplay of power dynamics, Li, professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto, drew on her field experience in Southeast Asia.

A certain corporation, she said, may offer bribes to land officials to bend regulations in its favor; use guards and fences to protect its plantations (force); and argue it has been invited by the government to create jobs (legitimation).

Yet, a small-scale farmer with conflicting interests is not powerless. “For a start, there’s the fact that she is there, because companies cannot evict everyone,” said Li. “She might also be able to liaise with neighbors and NGOs who can support her.”

“We need to look at the nature of power and the fact that it comes from various sources,” highlighted Hirsch, emeritus professor of human geography at the University of Sydney. “The danger is looking at regulations or at market forces in a segmented way. It is the way these things work together that offers the best way of understanding how exclusion operates.”


After landscape transformation is analyzed, then comes the issue of finding solutions to land use disputes – which are not always straightforward.

By nature, exclusions have a double edge, said Hall, because committing to a certain land use means giving up benefits that might have been derived from another. For example, setting areas aside for conservation might imply forfeiting certain livelihood opportunities.

Hence, more often than not, landscape transformation comes with dilemmas. “Our book shows that groups are often in conflict with themselves as they try to navigate the edges of exclusion,” said Hall.

“Many land governance approaches seem to suggest that if we get all stakeholders sitting around the table we can come up with a win-win situation in which everyone will be happy,” said Li. But this isn’t always the case.

For example, thousands of city dwellers might be against a farmer holding onto five hectares of land, if the land is at the city’s edge and could be used for low-cost housing. “What would be the win-win in that case? It is going to be a dilemma.”

From her point of view, these situations cannot be wished away. They must be confronted and “negotiated with full awareness of the very different interests that may be involved.”

“What we tried to provide is a framework for thinking through complex problems and for unpacking all those dilemmas,” she said. After all, “it is about how we can make sense of the landscape change scenario, rather than just being overwhelmed by the chaos.”

This digital summit was supported by funding from the CGIAR research program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, the CGIAR research program on Policies, Institutions and Markets, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

For more information on this topic, please contact Bimbika Sijapati Basnett at
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