Theses Doctoral

The Merchant, the Prince, and the Law of the Land: Reframing Brazil's Transnational Land Deals

Debucquois, Claire

Traditionally, transnational land deals have been described in terms of the purportedly level playing field of the competitive market. The law is seen as a neutral device, merely increasing efficiency in the management of surplus and shortage; scarcity is viewed as a natural constraint; power is considered irrelevant. However, an analysis of the historical structures of agricultural land ownership and contemporary land transactions in Brazil uncovers the systematic monopolization of land resources that was set in place during colonization and has persisted across a variety of political regimes, sustained by hierarchical legal institutions.

In sharp contrast to the narrative of impersonal axes of supply and demand, this dissertation develops a theoretical framework suggesting that i) the capitalist market tends towards highly concentrated economic structures, or monopoly; ii) at the core of this propensity to high concentration is Braudel’s “alliance between the merchant and the prince”: the mutual dependence between the biggest players in the market on a quest for monopolies and the holders of the political power of the state; and iii) this alliance shapes the law and is, in turn, influenced and constrained by law, where law is a cornerstone of market construction situated at the intersection of the political and economic spheres.

This framework recognizes that law supports the capitalist market by writing an idea of the future into the present and favoring certain expectations, interests, and values over others. Law structures time by determining precedence, subordination, and consequence; law also delineates, distributes, and organizes space. In particular, property rights are the heart of the alliance between merchant and prince, giving the former the power to define the legal structures of the market through their negotiations with the latter. The rise of cross-border land transactions is the latest iteration of these age-old dynamics, unfolding against the backdrop of concentrated land ownership and exacerbating its growth. The transformation of land into a financial asset obscures ownership, hampers regulation, and facilitates concentration; it is the core mechanism for globalized land ownership.

The framework proposed in this dissertation sheds light on the hierarchies impressed onto Brazil’s land map and enshrined in its codes. These unequal power relationships and the legal entitlements that allow land monopolists to intentionally heighten resource scarcity have long been obfuscated by the competitive market model. The three-part framework (monopoly, the alliance, and the law) offers a more accurate account of transnational land deals, and of avenues of access to and control of land in Brazil and beyond. In the current context of escalating climate crisis, as land is increasingly regarded as a vital resource and traded both within and across borders, this reframing contributes to an urgent conversation.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Pistor, Katharina
J.S.D., Columbia University
Published Here
November 11, 2019