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Twenty years of BRICS, political and economic transformations

BRICS, UN General Assembly, Russia, Goldman Sachs, European, New Development Bank, Asia, Africa, Brazil, South Africa, Silk Road Economic Belt, Special Economic Zones


Twenty years of BRICS, political and economic transformations

It is these underlying economic aspirations that have served to reinvigorate the flow of capital within and across BRICS countries amidst a financing vacuum within a post-financial crisis world. In 2017, nearly a decade after the 2008 financial crisis, the BRICS accounted for 19% of global investment inflows. Much of these financial flows have been channeled into capital-intensive land-hungry infrastructure projects. By Mihika Chatterjee & Ikuno Naka

November 2021 marked the 20th anniversary of the conception of BRICS. Two decades have passed since the acronym BRIC – Brazil, Russia, India, China – was brought into our popular vernacular by Jim O’Neill, an economist at Goldman Sachs. His influential paper, entitled ‘Building Better Global Economic BRICs’, analyzed the spectacular economic growth this group of countries were set to experience, and the implications of these future trends for international political economy. For enthusiastic consumers of the report and detractors alike, the term BRICs (where the ‘s’ at the end denotes plural) and its embedding within unambiguously optimistic economic predictions by a leading investment bank, was a clear indication of how these countries were being constructed as profitable investment destinations to which global financial flows could be directed. The external acronym, in fact, served as an impetus for the leaders of the four nations to act on the economic optimism surrounding them, when they first met in 2006 alongside the UN General Assembly. Delegates from the four countries met more formally in Yektarinburg, Russia in 2009 to give an institutional form to ‘BRICs.’ In the initial period that followed, the BRICs became an aspirational bloc with its own internal dynamics: they held yearly summits, had diplomatic ambitions, made commitments to large-scale infrastructure projects within their national boundaries as well as transnational ones in their regions. They flexed their economic muscle by establishing a new lending institution – the New Development Bank – and challenging the hegemony of European and North American countries in international finance.

In 2011, South Africa joined this country grouping as an economic outperformer in the Global South – an emerging economy and a young democracy – taking the BRICs to BRICS, where the ‘S’ now stood for its newest member. With this addition, the BRICS countries accounted for 26% of the global landmass and 20% of the total global GDP. While sceptics and cautious enthusiasts variously described the BRICS as a kind of ‘loose association,’ a ‘Potemkin village’, or a ‘club of coincidence’, this grouping undoubtedly comprised of countries with common economic aspirations and similar ideas on the type of multilateralism and shifts in global political economy that would be required to achieve them. It is these underlying economic aspirations that have served to reinvigorate the flow of capital within and across BRICS countries amidst a financing vacuum within a post-financial crisis world. In 2017, nearly a decade after the 2008 financial crisis, the BRICS accounted for 19% of global investment inflows. Much of these financial flows have been channeled into capital-intensive land-hungry infrastructure projects.

In this Introduction, we reflect on the BRICS countries, exploring the politics that underlie these nations’ dynamic economic and political transformations over the past 20 years. We do so, more specifically, through the lens of land where these larger transformations have come to be expressed. In the last two decades, the BRICS countries have undergone dramatic land-use transformations or initiated large-scale infrastructure projects within the regions of which they are a part, for example: China’s attempts at re-establishing the Silk Road Economic Belt across Europe, Asia and Africa; in India, the Modi Administration’s plan to develop 100 smart cities connected by bullet trains; Moscow’s aspiration to build the Russian Far East into a ‘new economic bridge’ between Europe and Asia through the development of Advanced Special Economic Zones; and, the expansion of industrial large-scale farming in Brazil and South Africa, are all manifestations of the BRICS visions for ‘sustainable’ and ‘smart’ development.’ These land-use transformations are results of shifting economic interests and priorities, as well as imaginations about their past and future. Since “the state, market and politics are deeply intertwined within the lives of land’, processes and practices through which land is developed and transformed reveal the workings of economic and social power. Land then serves as a compelling medium through which one can pin down the combination of political and social institutions and economic interests that ground spectacular amounts of capital as ‘investment’ in BRICS countries.


This Special Section and our reflections here in this Introduction emerged from an interdisciplinary conference held at the University of Oxford’s Department of International Development in 2019 and the discussions that have ensued since. At the time, our intention was to reflect on the large-scale land transformations taking place in the BRICS bloc organized across three broad spatial themes: 1) Belts, Corridors, Zones; 2) Trading Floor, Real Estate, the City; and, 3) Farms, Forests, Commons. We identified these spaces as important for critical reflection on the BRICS countries because they represent spaces of contestation: between the planned and unplanned, formal and informal, the rural and urban, of shifting economic interests and priorities. The negotiations within these contested spaces, thus, merit our attention.

The set of papers published in this special section of the ODS represents a slice of these initial inquiries. They are diverse in terms of frameworks and methodologies – papers by Tim Zajontz (China in Zambia), and Asmita Kabra and Buddhatiya Das (conservation in India) use the concepts of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ and ‘regime of dispossession’ respectively to shed light on the logics of capital accumulation at the transnational and national level. Papers by Daniela Barbosa, Edmundo Oderich, and Angela Carmana (soy production in Brazil) and Yimin Zhao (urbanization in China) provide ethnographically informed analyses and deploy the concepts of ‘cosmopolitics’ from political ecology and ‘performativity’ and ‘multidimensionality’ respectively to complicate politics over land at the subnational level. Through the lens of ‘land,’ however, these papers capture how local politics combine with larger structural economic forces in BRICS to actualize financial flows in BRICS. In doing so, they also provide an account of the changing nature of the state and its institutions in BRICS nations.


Specifically, in highlighting the ways in which formal rules of land governance are bent, modified, revised, and abandoned to accommodate the newer demands of capital as well as visions of sustainable development (smart ‘urbanization’ in the case of China, and ‘conservation’ in the case of India), the state can no longer be neatly categorized as a ‘developmental,’ ‘predatory,’ or ‘Party-state.’ The state’s control of land through legal and bureaucratic maneuverings in India, and deployment of local party officials and discourses in China reveal how the state remains formidable yet flexible to incorporate 21st century visions of ‘development.’

Academic scholarship on the implications of BRICS as an entity – the power of its pooling together of economic resources, or its political valence as a discursive formation – is relatively underdeveloped. Exceptions exist, such as the interconnected changes in industrial policy in the BRICS, and the reproduction of imperialist logics in amassing natural resources and labor cheaply, emanating from its location as a ‘Southern’ bloc in the era of globalization. The BRICS grouping has served as an empirical context for comparative analysis for a number of topics and issues, such as urban housing, but also cumulative learning by analyzing lessons from each of the composite units on water conservation and wastewater management.


As with a well-established strand of literature, discussed in the next section, we focus on individual countries. The brief but contested potential of BRICS as a cohesive bloc has been in decline in recent years. In fact, Mawdsley (2019) argues that the initial cohesion is increasingly impossible to sustain amid differing and at times even conflicting political interests amongst the BRICS nations. Heightened India–China hostility in recent years and the muted economic performance of Brazil and South Africa have undermined the BRICS’ potential for coordinated geopolitical influence and economic policies, respectively. Yet, the BRICS meet annually, with the latest round being held in September 2021 under the chairmanship of India. Additionally, the New Development Bank remains active, even if its initial glimmer has dimmed. The Bank, in fact, has gone on to admit Bangladesh, UAE, Uruguay, and most recently Egypt as members eligible for borrowing for infrastructure development within its borders and in other emerging economies. Even if the BRICS coalition exists in its reduced-form, interrogating questions of political economy – economic interests, power, and governance – in the constituent countries is a vital and reasonable choice because Brazil, India, China and South Africa continue to be economic hegemons in their respective regions, and remain important as drivers of ‘Southern-led’ investment in the Global South more generally.

Our endeavor to reflect on land transformations in BRICS countries has been only partially realized in this Special Section; a glaring shortcoming in putting together this collection through the pressures of the pandemic is that we were not able to canvass and retain articles that focused on these themes in Russia and South Africa. This disadvantage, we believe, is partially mitigated by our efforts in drawing on the illuminating keynote address delivered by Ruth Hall, bringing in insights from the existing scholarship on the two countries, and in offering tentative ideas on the broader implications of land-driven development projects on the future of BRICS.


BRICS: its rise through changing economic geographies

The BRICS countries experienced solid economic growth in the first decade following their flagging as dynamic investment destinations in the 2001 report. These countries, however, had been undergoing dramatic transformation in their political-economic structure since the 1990s. A common denominator across the heterogeneous economic development experiences of these countries to their position as high-performers has been how the state has actively made policy interventions for resource mobilization, trade policies, public procurement, the fostering of public demand and the provision of financial support.

The developmental role of the state has taken different forms in the BRICS countries. For instance, the interventionist form of the Party-state in China, the set of ISI policies, and investment in technological capabilities resulted in its status as an ‘independent’ late-industrial powerhouse. India’s ‘embedded particularism’ privileged certain industries and investment in heavy manufacturing as well as centres of higher learning in IT (Herring, 1999). The state in Brazil, especially in the post-war period, demonstrated incredible generative capacity in aiding the development of sectors such electricity, the auto industry, airlines, and petrochemicals, through state ownership and being a ‘custodial’ to certain private players.


Liberalization of the economy, as is well established, has not implied a retreat of the state in most parts of the Global South. Remaining aggressively market-seeking, these countries shifted away from the more neoliberal market-driven economic model of the Washington Consensus, to instead assert a variety of political-economic approaches in the 1990s. Industrialization and capitalist development in the primary sector have been driven through comparatively high state-ownership, especially in Brazil, Russia, and South Africa; protectionism has allowed for monopoly positions across sectors in China and Russia; an active state has served as a ‘benefactor’ in promoting technological capabilities, as in the case of China, and a ‘broker’ of cheap land in each of these countries.

Between 2000 and 2011, the BRICS countries’ share in global output increased from 8% to 19%. The 2008 financial crisis affected the BRICS countries unevenly. As Figure 1 shows, Russia was worst affected in terms of domestic output growth right after the crisis, though it recovered partially by 2010. Brazil’s and China’s upward growth trajectories were similarly shaken, though China’s pre-crisis growth rates were significantly higher than Brazil’s to begin with. India stood out as an anomaly in terms of its resilience to the crisis, its economy recovering rapidly to even surpass its pre-crisis rate by 2010. Overall, however, the BRICS faired better than the industrialized Western economies, especially those that had long dominated the international financial lending landscape.


As the traditional industrial powers of the West recovered from the aftermath of the global financial crisis, the period saw a significant weakening of the World Trade Organization and the emergence of new bi- and multilateral trading arrangements. The optimism offered by this set of countries through this phase bolstered their economic and geopolitical potential in global trade and global governance circles. While the BRICS nations were firmly following their own economic agenda of investing in long-term infrastructure projects, disbursing loans, and forging trade agreements across the Global South, the shifts in global economic governance arrangements provided further impetus to the grouping.

The growing legitimacy of BRICS as an ‘aspiration bloc’ and ‘alternative’ to Western lending in the post-2008 crisis world manifested in the inauguration of the New Development Bank in 2014 (hereafter referred to as NDB), a multilateral development bank with a capitalization of USD 100 billion – around half that of the World Bank. The granting of structural power – understood here in terms of more institutional representation and bargaining power within global governance – was the intended hope behind the NDB’s formation. The founding nations’ claim was that this new institution would give developing countries greater representation, and one that would focus on infrastructure development while leaving geopolitics out of lending and financing. The NDB institutionalized a stream of intra-BRICS financial flows but, it also projected the BRICS countries as important and viable destinations of investments globally.


Much was discussed at the time about the implications of this new institutional player within the landscape of international lending and development. Was a kind of paradigm shift in international financing and development cooperation underway? A change in the old guard? Questions were raised as to whether this represented some turning point, an assertion of a kind of alternative to the long-held US-dominated Bretton Woods institutions, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Some argued the move represented an attempt on the part of these emerging economic powerhouses to increase presence in global governance and in so doing to promote non-western values/norms towards the desired end of creating a multipolar structure to global politics. While some celebrated this move as being a diversification in the very structures of financing, including actively challenging the dominant principles of the ‘Washington Consensus’, sceptics raised concerns as to whether this would erode international governance over lending standards and the social and environmental safeguard.


Changing economic geographies

The dramatic economic rise of the BRICS nations since the early 1990s described above has become the focus of a growing body of scholarship that has sought to explore the implications of their rapid economic development on the global political economy. Much of this literature has explored how the political and economic emergence of the BRICS countries has given rise to new geographies of commodity production, value chains, investment, distribution, circulation and consumption. These new emerging production and consumption relations, they argue, have incrementally shifted what has thus far been a predominantly EuroAmerican dominated global economy to one more.

The agro-food economy in particular has been a significant focal point of much of this academic discussion within the fields of agrarian political economy and development studies. Most notably the BRICS Initiative in Critical Agrarian Studies (BICAS)2 – a network of academics and researchers either based in or associated with the BRICS countries – have explored how the BRICS have been transforming the flow and concentration of capital and labor in agro-commodities production. Much of this scholarship has been somewhat Africa-centric, exploring the BRICS’ agribusiness expansionism into African countries and the subsequent land rush that has resulted from.


The agro-food economy is but one of many sectors being transformed by the dramatic economic rise of the BRICS nations. The kind of structural transformations one observes within the agro-food economy can be seen in other economic sectors of the BRICS. The technology and innovation sector, for example, has received much attention, particularly from scholars and researchers in the disciplines of economics and international political economy. Massive research and development (R&D) investments on the part of China, for example – now second only to the United States in terms of investment volume – have rapidly enhanced the country’s innovation capabilities, diversified its technology knowledge base and in so doing allowed China to enter dynamic frontier-pushing areas of technological development. The expanding share of high-tech and knowledge-intensive patent applications being made by China is an important instance of this trend. Lee argues that this in itself represents a significant structural change within technology global value chains – rupturing the hitherto dependency-relationships with foreign actors and external knowledge transfer.

The transformation in the technological capabilities of China and Russia, agro-commodities in Brazil, minerals in South Africa, and IT-enabled services in India has significantly altered global economic geographies of production, consumption, and exchange. As capital flows get redirected in search for greater profits, cheaper raw materials and labor, relaxed regulations and reduced taxes across the South, less-viable and less-profitable areas in the North are economically enfeebled. The decline of the American Industrial Belts like the so-called Rust Belt of the Northeast and Midwest captures this story. These landscapes of deindustrialization and increasing abandonment that have been marked by unemployment, endemic poverty, an absence of economic opportunities and rising crime have taken a stark form as the new South–South alliances have spun unequal pockets of prosperity and poverty. Accompanying these economic transformations, then, are changing politics in these new economic geographies of the North. The rising nationalist conservatism and far-right populism have become increasingly emboldened, and are emblematic of the kinds of politics that have capitalized on the increasing marginalization and powerlessness being felt in these deindustrializing landscapes. Such economic marginalization has been in turn politically weaponized in the form of xenophobia and racism.


More remarkably, and of relevance here, is the mirroring of the authoritarian-populist turn in politics across the BRICS nations – a surge in populist politics in Brazil and India, in addition to authoritarianism in China and Russia, are not mere coincidence but endogamous to the particularities of the economic change that these countries have experienced in the last two decades and one that is dubbed as their ‘rise.’ The increasing commodification of raw resources and labor; the opportunities for rents for private capital through lax regulations and taxation are economic drivers for such transformations. There exists space for more research to examine how the changing complex in the spatial refiguration through flows of capital are having far-reaching implications within the more local social and political dynamics as scholars of the BICAS group have pointed out.

The larger macro-level structural changes in the economic geographies manifest more concretely in the transformations of land. The articles in this section, based on long-term fieldwork, ethnographic methods, interviews with key stakeholders, allow us to explore, at a more granular level, the dynamics that have been driving these changes in land and the key actor, the state.


Examining BRICS through the lens of land

The larger macro-level structural changes in the economic geographies manifest more concretely in the transformations of land. As both drivers and destinations of economic growth in the post-financial crisis world, BRICS reinvigorated the flow of finances: FDI inflows have consistently increased across all five countries between 1990 and 2020. Furthermore, ‘South-South cooperation’ has South-washed loans, channeling capital towards land-hungry projects. The intensification of financial flows into large capital-intensive and infrastructure projects have had significant implications for pressures on land within these countries as well as in those regions where the BRICS countries have been active as investors.

‘Land is multidimensional,’ as Nikita Sud writes. By this, she calls to attention how land is ‘imbued with diverse meanings, relations and materialities’. The question then is to explore the ways by which this multidimensionality of land becomes ‘fixed’ as commodity capital. It is here in the processes and politics of ‘fixing’ land – that is in the ways by which land is transformed and developed for certain ends and objectives – wherein the nature of the state and its workings and logics, as well as the motivation and interests of various local actors come to be revealed. Land, therefore, is a conduit through which one can understand how actors, interests and ideas help materialise these large financial flows on the ground. It helps examine the character of the state, across and within these BRICS nations, that are driving these changes in much larger economic geographies. For this reason, the land transformations over the past two decades within the BRICS nations become particularly pertinent and interesting to explore.


National interests and local meanings of land

We argue closer attention must be paid to how local dynamics – national and local economic interests, national discourses, local politics and contestations – enable and actualize investments in large infrastructure. We highlight three points in relation to the local dynamics in BRICS nations.

First, beyond macro-structural motivations of ‘seeking markets’ and ‘over-accumulated capital,’ denser and local networks of rents, patronage, and power sustain investments in land. The state certainly has taken the lead, ahead of private sectors, in building on existing strengths of the economies.


Until recently, this has meant orienting investment decisions in ‘seeking markets’ for manufacturing goods and raw commodities that the countries had been specializing in since the early 2000s. In the case of China, the state’s strategies have been in large parts oriented towards finding markets for their cheap intermediate value-added products meant for integration into global value chains. For Brazil, on the other hand, minerals continued to occupy the primary export. This trend has meant ‘lower integration’ amongst BRICS, as understood through flows of FDI within BRICs nations, and close and clear ties with other countries more. In analyzing the investments, thus, BRICS’s activities regionally – Brazil in Latin America; South Africa in Africa; China’s investments in Malaysia and Vietnam – is as important as intra-BRICS interactions, as the BICAS group, cited above, have argued. However, the politics between national elites of transacting countries, and those between national and local elites illuminates how transitional aspirations are grounded. Two papers here illustrate this well.

Tim Zajontz’s article on China’s financing of infrastructure in Zambia shows the dialogic relation between macro-economic compulsions and local interests. Indeed, it is the case that the drive to seek markets to ameliorate overcapacity in well-developed sectors within BRICS countries motivates and structures new investment decisions abroad, as pointed out by existing literature. This becomes clear in observing political–economic patterns of the ‘China-in-Africa’ financing in general. As Zajonz shows here, China’s solution to dwindling domestic demand and overcapacity in construction and infrastructure sectors has been to finance Africa’s ‘infrastructure investment gap’:


To boost demand for Chinese firms abroad, the government has drawn on a host of financial instruments, such as the extensive disbursement of loans and export credits from SOBs, sovereign guarantees and insurance schemes as well as the promotion of mergers and acquisitions and equity investment in infrastructure projects … New multilateral financial institutions, such as the Silk Road Fund, the BRICS New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, were established to raise further liquidity for infrastructure projects across the world …

In addition, however, attention should be paid not just to the state as ‘investor’ but also to the state as recipient of loans and the practices that govern the investor–debtor relations. Zajontz’s paper additionally helps in that regard. As Zajontz argues, this Chinese infrastructural fix unfolds through neopatrimonial patterns of governance. On the one hand, these neopatrimonial patterns are reflected in the larger state-steered regimes of China’s new forms of capital accumulation. More interesting, however, are the ways by which this neopatrimonial logic ‘trickles down’ along more local clientelistic networks as a ‘comprador class of politically well-connected business people’ in Zambia seek to ensure their stake in the Chinese investment. In so doing, Zajnotz manages to unearth a much thicker substratum of rent-seeking networks at the local levels, capturing the complex and multi-scalar political economy surrounding this ‘Chinese infrastructural fix.’


In radically different ways, Edmundo Oderich, Danielle Barbosa, and Angela Camana’s paper complicates not just the determinate characterization of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ or ‘new imperialism’ in understanding the expansion of agro-food value chains in Brazil, but also the extent to which material interests of production and profit alone motivate individuals working on land to be sucked into global forces of capitalist development. With soybean constituting nearly 25% of the country’s primary exports in Brazil, land conversion for soybean monocropping has been dramatic in the last two decades. Interrogating large-scale land conversion for soy plantations in the Rio Grande de Sol in Southern Brazil, the paper explores the complex nature of capitalist expansion in agriculture amongst the region’s Kaingang indigenous community and white ‘family farmers’ (of European descent). Moving away from a dichotomised understanding of power between the state and farmers/indigenous people, it directs our attention to contradictory practices of these different social groups in relation to land. These contradictory practices are a result of, not simply of economic interests of production and accumulation, but the different meanings the groups attach to land mediated today by soy. Analysing the multitude of responses received by Kaingang people about their ongoing demand for land as well as the integration of some into soy production, the authors tell us:

These answers show that soy production on Kaingang lands is also of mediation with non-indigenous society that surrounds them, and can be understood as cancelling a radical otherness – the land as mother instead of factory of production – which is not taken seriously in the worlds informed by modern ontologies. Therefore, soy among the Kaingangs is a matter of partial connections, of devices that allow them to exist side by side with non-indigenous peoples …


These varied and conflicting ways of valuing land, the authors show, exist not simply amongst indigenous groups, as is sometimes romanticized in the land literature, but also amongst capitalist small-scale farmers. These diverse and divergent meanings of land result in conflict over land manifesting in long judicial battles with the state, violence, and death amongst the different social groups; they also enable unexpected and contingent alliances between indigenous groups and family farmers expanding soy monocropping in the region and making what the authors call ‘partial connections’ between the local and global.

The pluralization of meanings and interests around land and its role beyond production in the current context of neoliberal economic growth has been observed in South Africa as well. There are ‘things’ people do with rural land outside of agriculture; when poor people rely on land for livelihood, it is ‘via processes not of production, but of distribution’. In South Africa’s post-apartheid economy defined by ‘jobless de-agrarianisation,’ land, therefore, takes on an urgent meaning in enabling landless black people to plug themselves into a larger social and political order of claims. For example, land tethers kinship networks and kinship-based claims on social grants. Recent literature, such as that quoted here, as well as most recently by Sud on India, centres the multiple ‘social’ meanings of land in analyzing land politics, where such politics include resistance against dispossession and demands for land redistribution, but also everyday frictions and skirmishes. Joining this growing strand, our argument is that local dynamics based on plural meanings and diverse compulsions, as observed in these papers, enable global land investments in BRICS without stiff contestation and conflict.


State and land

The variety of actors that go into the making of land investments are multiplying, as all papers in this section show. However, none remain as central to land transformations as the state. In supplying land in BRICS nations, state institutions are adopting new ideological frames and practices and deploying several state actors at different scales, in order to forge ‘compliance’ (Levien, 2018). Two of the papers in the section show how the state sustains transformations to land, including dispossession and deforestation, over time in India and China, respectively, highlighting how local state officials, interfacing with land-owning people, legitimate ambitious national and transnational projects.

A series of recent studies on India and China have studied land. In the case of India, a number of studies have shown that large-scale land dispossession does not necessarily meet with opposition and resistance. The paper by Das and Kabra, in this section, contributes to this literature, asking the still relevant question: how has the Indian state managed to forge ‘consent’ to enclose forests for conservation over time? They focus on India’s Tiger Reserves, which have expanded in terms of forests and commons they occupy to protect the charismatic tigers of India. The authors historicise the specificities of the conservation apparatus, including the authority of the forest bureaucracy, which has uniquely combined coercion and patronage towards Adivasis, and show how the institution entwines with newer legal formulations and elite discourses around the urgency of conservation but also ‘consent’ of Adivasis. Building on Levien’s concept, the authors identify a set of ‘ideology, institutions, and actors’ that form a distinct ‘regime of dispossession for conservation’ (DfC). The result of DfC has been paradoxical – it has generated limited resistance from Adivasis around Tiger Reserves while also curtailing their access to commons and forests legally guaranteed within a larger panoply of 21st century ‘rights-based’ movements:


… how the DfC regime played on elite anxieties about tiger extinction to legitimise inviolate TRs and hold up implementation of the FRA [Forest Rights Act]. It destabilised a hard-won consensus against forced displacement among mainstream conservation actors by framing voluntary relocation as a win-win solution for conservation and communities in TRs [Tiger Reserves]. Assembling volition in this manner has obviated the requirement of safeguarding the rights of individual forest dwelling citizens.

In his paper, Yimin Zhao explores new patterns of speculative rentiership that have emerged in Dahongmen, the urban peripheries of Beijing. In examining the regime of benefit-sharing among the state, capital and villagers. The paper captures how the very process of this reconfiguration of land (what Sud refers to as the ‘fixing’ of land) is situated in evolving political economic dynamics through which the state too seeks to refashion itself. He reveals how the governing techniques in dealing with land transformation in Beijing’s urban peripheries become in many ways a performative moment for the central state government; that is to say, it becomes a conduit through which the state can embrace a kind of ‘market society’ drawn by the promise of economic growth via the commodification of land, while renewing its ethos and commitment as a Party-State. As such, what emerges in the process of these land assembling initiatives in Dahongmen is the refashioning of a new and ad hoc governing regime of a ‘socialist market economy.’


Both papers demonstrate how land or, more specifically, the reconfiguration of land becomes a means through which the state seeks to rearticulate itself and to reassert its ‘legitimacy’ (borrowing from Das and Kabra). For Das and Kabra, the ‘legitimacy’ of these new forms of accumulation emerges in the form of environmental and wildlife protectionism of an increasingly ‘conservationist state.’ In the case of Zhao’s paper, we see how the state’s power of eminent domain are legitimised via narratives of ‘speeding up economic growth.’ In so doing, the Party-State continues to renew its own identity and authority while embracing a market ethos.

Conclusion: land in BRICS through the populist turn

The discussion here has focused on the structural changes in global production, consumption, and circulation relations and the location of BRICS in it in relation to land. We have examined more specifically how these transformations in economic geographies have precipitated out of the rise of an increasingly empowered ‘market-seeking’ state within these BRICS nations whose actions are changing the structures of the global economy.


The state has been voraciously consuming land and directing capital in pursuit of channels of accumulation. The specific practices, policies, ideas and discourses of the state through the neoliberal era require persistent attention as they not only determine the shape of the economic geography of profit and debt, jobs and joblessness, aspirations and disenfranchisement, they also shape politics. Both aspirations and subversion of local communities as a result of rent generation and brokerage, spectacular but short-lived pathways of profits, dispossession, displacement, job loses and precarious livelihoods, and intense competition in making claims to livelihoods and safety nets, have enabled populist politics. It marks the current era of ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’; financialization ‘as the main driver of economic and social restructuring both nationally and globally’ has created a tendency of ‘short-termism,’ reshaping the geography of poverty, prosperity and inequality. The turn to authoritarian politics in BRICS nations, as suggested by several scholars, therefore, need to be evaluated keeping in mind the economic transformations of the last two decades.

What then of the BRICS? The heterogeneous economic performance of various BRICS nations, some believe, will be a significant challenge to the coherence of economic and strategic interests of the bloc. In particular, China’s superior industrial performance, income growth, technological advancement, and its ability to meet financial commitments to the coffers of the NDB. In the pages of this journal in 2019, Emma Mawdsley presciently identified the inevitability of more ‘muscular’ policies in the South–South Cooperation mode of geopolitical operations. Given the authoritarian populist politics that has underscored large land transformations within Brazil, India, Russia and China, the ideational base for BRICS is transforming to a more interventionist stance. Furthermore, we suspect that the alignment over nationalist-populist politics will keep alive the ‘non-West’ posturing as both investors of and destinations for grand infrastructure projects, allowing for continuity in this alliance in the near future.


While the increasingly authoritarian turn in these states have given rise to new forms of legalized violence and regimes of exclusion, there have been moments and instances of, what scholars like James Holston have referred to as, the ‘realizations of citizenships’: grassroots mobilizations and ‘insurgent citizenships’ that have accompanied on the ground provide hope. Captured most strongly within their explorations of the Kaingangs, vis-à-vis the much larger transformations of agro-commodity farming rapidly underway in Rio Grande de Sol, there is a hopefulness that the authors bring to this Special Section. The hope is to be found in the ‘cosmopolitical’ perspective in understanding conflict over land. As they write, ‘it is about helping to compose possibilities of co-elaborated formulations – possibilities that do not demean the immeasurable, allowing political projects with space for different worlds.’

Mihika Chatterjee is a Departmental Lecturer at ODID, University of Oxford. Her research interests include the politics of land and rural change, labour relations, and rural inequalities.

Ikuno Naka – Oxford Department of International Development, University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

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