Shifting rights, property and authority in the forest frontier: 'stakes' for local land users and citizens

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Customary land and forests are more embedded in the global economy than ever. With globally significant supplies of land and raw materials and favorable terms for foreign investors, developing countries - particularly in Africa - have become increasingly attractive trade partners and destinations for investors. Increasing competition over land is placing new pressures on vast tracts of forest and woodland, areas often considered ‘under-utilized' by national governments despite their critical role in supporting local livelihoods. While increased demand for primary agricultural, forest and mining commodities in the context of forest tenure reforms and decentralized decision-making could create unprecedented economic opportunities for forest-dependent communities, increased ‘stakes' over forest resources and land will undoubtedly heighten governance challenges. This is in no small part due to the political dynamics of property, and to the role of the ‘recursive constitution of property rights and authority' in the evolution of the modern nation-state. By identifying the social ‘stakes' associated with different pathways through which sectoral and extra-sectoral commodities shape forests, this paper provides a conceptual framework for analyzing how shifting contours of rights, property and authority in the context of forest-related trade and investment shape human well-being for affected communities and the wider citizenry of host countries. It then illustrates the use of the framework through its application to two brief case studies from southern Africa: tobacco production in Malawi and copper mining in Zambia. It is hoped that this framework will provide a meaningful contribution to growing scholarship on the political dynamics of property, and implications for rights-based approaches to agricultural investment and large-scale land acquisitions.

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