Land reclamation and expanded commodity production in the longue durée

By Marion Dixon
Submitted to Session P4979 (Peasants, Land, and Politics, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
In Braudel’s (1972) terms, land reclamation is what made civilization possible on the plains of the Mediterranean – transforming marshy, malaria infested places to places of settlement (for agriculture, towns, etc.). Developments to make land cultivatable and/or suitable for settlement have long been central to state and empire building, and in the early modern to modern era land reclamation increasingly took the form of place-making for expanded commodity production. And expanded commodity production increasingly moved to non-irrigated semi-arid and arid regions: take the western US, northeast Brazil, the secano (or interior) of Spain. In this paper I address this “desert frontier” by detailing the role of land reclamation in semi-arid regions in Egypt during the two periods of the country’s heightened integration into the world economy – in the long 19th century and in the neoliberal period. In both periods the state was a central actor in claiming the land by force or cooptation from those who had been using the land. The state made the land cultivatable through, for example, extensive water works, land leveling, electricity grids, and transportation routes. In contrast to Moore’s (2015) commodity frontiers in historical capitalism, which were developed with little capital, the desert frontier has required considerable capitalization and has been dominated by large-scale investors. In this world-ecological analysis, the levels of capitalization needed to turn these places into specialized zones of production express the contradictions of bringing unpaid/work energy (of the silted soil, aquifers, ancestral lands, and on and on) into the circuits of capital. Further, this particular form of expanded commodity production in Egypt – land reclamation – reflects the logics at work vis-à-vis the country’s uneven integration into the world economy. This paper is based on research from my book manuscript "The Making of a Corporate Agri-food System in Egypt," which draws on mixed methods doctoral research conducted in Egypt between 2008 and 2012.

Braudel, F. 1972. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, vol 1. New York: Harper & Row.

Moore, J.W. 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. New York: Verso.