Foreignization, Farmland, and Food: Estrangement and Belonging in Global Agriculture

Serena Stein, Princeton University
Andrew Ofstehage, UNC-Chapel Hill

Keywords: agribusiness, food commodities, land grabs, migrant labor, belonging


This panel questions the meanings of estrangement in agribusiness, with respect to i) foreign investments and ‘land grabs’, ii) migrant labor and xenophobia, as well as iii) ecological alienation.

We bring together papers, with preference for those drawing on empirical research in the Global South, that consider how flows of people, capital, and crops generate anxieties, assemblages, and intimacies. We especially welcome papers that address how these flows create new local vernaculars of alterity of relatedness.

The farm, as a multispecies relational space, traverses boundaries of received categories such as culture, nation, race and kinship. Contemporary agribusiness relies on mobile participants in the global political economy who symbolize the cosmopolitan strivings of modern nations (Ong 1999). The plantation-ization of the farm assembles disparate plants, people, technologies, and animals to take advantage of climatic, financial, genetic, and cultural differences. Farms are locations for the production of alternative forms of belonging and fixity, in which intimate relations based on care and shared interests are in formation, as well as superseding the more problematic issues of belonging proffered by state ideologies. Thus, in the Plantationocene (Haraway 2015) processes of estrangement and familiarization work alongside each other to sever social and material relations and realities while generating novel ones.

The past decade has seen a growing interest and concern for global farmland investments in the Global South. National governments in Africa and South America have sought to curb these so-called land grabs by framing land deals with foreigners as dangers to national sovereignty (Fairbairn 2015). Several governments have passed laws to limit foreign acquisitions of farm land, capping foreign ownership and mandating majority-ownership by nationals. Brazilian critics of large land acquisitions frame land grabs as estrangerização, or ‘foreignization’ to differentiate it from the home-grown variety of land grabbing, known as grilagem.

However, this perspective also overlooks complexity in types of actors drawn to Brazilian land and flows of capital (Sauer and Leite 2012). The most recent wave of land grabs shows that the ‘foreign threat’ received disproportionate international media coverage to actual land investments. For example, Chinese government-backed farmland investments in Brazil, Mozambique and elsewhere were met with opposition from national legislatures and social movements, though they never materialized in real land use change. Furthermore, of the large-scale acquisitions that did take place, most of the leading actors are not easily identified by any single national origin. Further, in China and Brazil land use change is driven as much by Brazilian migrants from southern Brazil as foreign buyers, blurring the significance of foreign capital and actors (Borras et al. 2018). ‘Foreignness’ is a deeply inadequate basis upon which to conceptualize land deals, as land comes under the control of capital whose national affiliation is either unstable, multiple, non-transparent or simply designed to ensure preferential tax treatment. This also introduces important contrasts between ostensible and occult ownership (Oliveira 2018).

We look for papers that contradict portrayals of a generic ‘farm’ and highlight particular connections that exists in the midst of other tensions. We welcome papers that challenge existing frames of ‘foreignization,” not limited to the following themes:

  • Racial and ethnic formations of foreignization of farming
  • Generativity of plantation-style farms and foreign-owned farms
  • Personhood in transnational agriculture
  • Financialization and capitalization of agriculture
  • Migration and mobility of farm workers and farm owners
  • Transnational land deals
  • Internationalization of farming, farmers, and farm work
  • Global lives of plants, seeds, labor, and animals

Please send abstracts (250 words max) with paper title and presenter information to Serena Stein ( and Andrew Ofstehage ( by Friday, April 6. We will notify selected participants by Monday, April 9. Session participants must be registered AAA members and registered for the meeting by April 16.


 Borras Jr., Saturnino M., Juan Liu, Zhen Hu, et al.  2018. Land Control and Crop Booms inside China: Implications for How We Think about the Global Land Rush. Globalizations 15(1): 134–151.

Fairbairn, Madeleine 2014 “Like Gold with Yield”: Evolving Intersections between Farmland and Finance. Journal of Peasant Studies 41(5): 777–795.

Haraway, Donna. 2015. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.” Environmental Humanities 6 (1): 159–65.

Oliveira, Gustavo. 2018 Chinese Land Grabs in Brazil: Sinophobia and Foreign Investments in Brazilian Soybean Agribusiness. Globalizations 15(1): 114-133.

Ong, Aiwa. 1999 Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality. Durham: Duke University Press.

Sauer, Sérgio, and Sergio Pereira Leite. 2012 Agrarian Structure, Foreign Investment in Land, and Land Prices in Brazil. Journal of Peasant Studies 39(3-4): 873–898.