Theses Doctoral

When Theft Becomes Grievance: Dispossessions as a Cause of Redistributive Land Claims in 20th Century Latin America

Saffon Sanin, Maria Paula

Under what conditions is redistribution demanded from below? It is not always the case that, in the face of inequality, the poor have the motivation or the collective capacity to bring redistributive claims to the political arena. This dissertation argues that claims for land redistribution are more likely to emerge in places where prior dispossessions (or land theft) occurred, and where those dispossessions targeted lands to which prior legal rights existed. Although dispossessions increase land inequality, it is not inequality alone, but rather the process by which it was created, which generates a perception of illegitimacy of the distribution of property rights. An attack against prior legal rights to land generates the justification and the capacity to mobilize against dispossessions. These, in turn, enable the translation of grievances into political claims for land redistribution.
The type of legal rights attacked by dispossessions defines the trajectories of rural conflict and agrarian reform in different countries. The stronger and more certain the legal rights to the land are, the higher the mobilization for land reform and the more radical its outcomes are likely to be. When dispossessions ignore or deny property or ownership rights, rural mobilization will be high and will generate radical land reform outcomes. In turn, the infringement of legal possession rights is likely to generate medium levels of rural mobilization and moderate land reform policies. Finally, when dispossessions target lands that are occupied de facto, rural mobilization will be low and it will not promote land reform policies.
The dissertation proposes a methodological strategy to apply the theory, which consists in the study of the impact of dispossessions that occur during critical eras for the political economy of land. Such eras are initiated by exogenous shocks that generate an increase in the value of land, and hence produce incentives for land appropriation, and for its dispossession when the lands are occupied. The theoretical and methodological strategy are applied to Latin America through the analysis of the impact of one such critical era—the region’s first export boom (1870-1920s)—on rural political contestation in the mid-20th century (1910s-60s).
The dissertation offers an in-depth study of the Mexican and Colombian cases. It shows that each of these cases followed different trajectories of rural conflict and land reform during the periods under analysis because dispossessions varied in scope and targeted different types of legal land rights during the export boom. In Mexico, dispossessions were massive and mainly attacked ownership rights of indigenous/peasant groups, while in Colombia they were less massive but still significant, and they mainly attacked legal possession rights of settlers of the agrarian frontier. The two main cases are compared with each other, as well as with the case of Argentina, which is argued to illustrate the third path of rural contestation in the region—characterized by fewer dispossessions that mainly attacked indigenous groups who de facto occupied the lands.
The study of the two main cases combines qualitative analysis based on historical and secondary literature with GIS geo-referencing and basic quantitative analyses of unexplored archival data. The study of the third case is based on secondary literature. The data on which the dissertation is grounded was obtained through intense archival work in Mexico City, Bogotá and Buenos Aires during an 18 month-long period. For each of the main case studies, I constructed a dataset that contains all petitions of protection against land conflicts made before administrative authorities during the export boom, as well as all agrarian reform land allocation decisions made in the subsequent period. The datasets also include indicators of population, distance to post-colonial institutions, land fertility and suitability, and other historical and geographical controls.
The theory and methodological strategy are formulated in a general way, which may be used to explain other contexts and time periods. The findings of the dissertation expect to produce positive and normative theoretical implications on different strands of the political science literature, including the politics of redistribution and land reform, contentious politics and social movements, historical institutionalism, the impact of colonialism, the theory of property rights, ethnic and identity politics, and theories of justice.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Murillo, Maria Victoria
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 12, 2015