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Narratives of scarcity: Framing the global land rush

by Ian Scoones, Rebecca Smalley, Ruth Hall, Dzodzi Tsikata in 2018

Global resource scarcity has become a central policy concern, with predictions of rising populations, natural resource depletion and hunger. The narratives of scarcity that arise as a result justify actions to harness resources considered ‘underutilised’, leading to contestations over rights and entitlements and producing new scarcities. Yet scarcity is contingent, contextual, relational and above all political. We present an analysis of three framings – absolute, relative and political scarcity – associated with the intellectual traditions of Malthus, Ricardo and Marx, respectively. A review of 134 global and Africa-specific policy and related sources demonstrates how diverse framings of scarcity – what it is, its causes and what is to be done – are evident in competing narratives that animate debates about the future of food and farming in Africa and globally. We argue that current mainstream narratives emphasise absolute and relative scarcity, while ignoring political scarcity. Opening up this debate, with a more explicit focus on political scarcities is, we argue, important; emphasising how resources are distributed between different needs and uses, and so different people and social classes. For African settings, seen as both a source of abundant resources and a site where global scarcities may be resolved, as well as where local scarcities are being experienced most acutely, a political scarcity framing on the global land rush, and resource questions more broadly, is, we suggest, essential. 

Keywords: scarcity, resources, land rush, narratives, politics