Land and ocean grabs and the relative surplus population in Ghana

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Jasper Abembia Ayelazuno Associate Professor, University for Development Studies (UDS), Ghana jayelazuno@uds.edu.gh

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Abstract

Situated in the context of the land and ocean grabs in Ghana post-2007–2008 global economic crises, this article argues that the country is experiencing “primitive accumulation” without capitalist industrialization. I draw on the insights of agrarian political economy to argue that this has created cheap laborers without industrial capital to exploit. The corollary of this is the creation of additional “relative surplus population”, worsening the country's (un)employment crisis. However, this “relative surplus population” is not marginal to global capitalist accumulation and exploitation; on the contrary, it is important to them. The article draws on ethnographic fieldwork in Ghanaian communities to document the voices of the dispossessed and semi-proletarianized about their experiences with the crisis of (re)production inflicted on them by global capitalism.

In the twenty-first century, one of the drivers of the creation and growth of Karl Marx's “relative surplus population” in Africa is the rush to invest and valorize value in the continent's land and ocean. This article is based on fieldwork on these investment rushes in Ghana, specifically, investments in commercial farming, large-scale mining, and offshore petroleum production. I argue that these investments have contributed immensely to increasing Ghana's “relative surplus population” by dispossessing prior users of land and ocean—peasants and fisherfolk and other cognate rural social groups—without creating enough wage employment for them. The situation illustrates the current dynamics and pattern of integration of rural parts of Africa (and elsewhere) into the capitalist global economy. As observed presciently by Tania Murray Li, the investment rushes in Ghana illustrate a potentially lethal dynamic of the capitalist global economy “in which places (or their resources) are useful, but the people are not, so that dispossession is detached from any prospect of labour absorption” (Li 2010: 69).

In agrarian political-economic terms, these investments are creating agrarian change in the rural parts of Ghana in terms of labor processes and conditions, specifically, the proletarianizing of peasants and fisherfolk, at least, partially. Yet there are not enough jobs created by capitalist farms, mines, and crude petroleum and manufacturing industries to employ this army of workers. Consequently, we have a labor condition in Ghana and other African countries in which, to borrow again from Li, the dispossessed have no “proletarian future” (Li 2011: 296). Therefore, the focus of research into and analysis of these investment rushes to Africa, Li enjoins us, should be on the “truncated trajectory of agrarian transition in much of the global South, one in which there is no pathway from country to city, agriculture to industry, or even a clear pathway into stable plantation work that pays a living wage” (ibid.). This observation is equally valid for dispossessions engendered by investments in mining and petroleum industries; there is no pathway from the mining of dirty gold to beneficiation factories, nor is there any from the production of crude petroleum oil to oil refinery factories. Essentially, there are no strong and broad linkages between these investments and industrialization in Ghana to create jobs for those dispossessed.

Without manufacturing industries to sell their labor power, we have in Ghana, not scarcity of labor, but instead surplus labor, mostly youthful. These unfavorable labor conditions in Ghana are reminiscent of the employment crises, especially youth employment, that most African countries are inflicted in the era of neoliberal globalization (Ackah-Baidoo 2016; Ayelazuno 2016; Baah-Boateng 2016). As will be discussed in this article, scholars of agrarian political economy argue that wage labor in manufacturing industries provides a means of livelihood for people who have been dispossessed of the natural resources upon which the organization of their (re)production depends. But this has not happened in most African countries in which the subaltern classes were dispossessed, by say, global energy capital. Because one of the internal contradictions of the neoliberal development paradigm is “jobless growth” (Li 2013), as the free-market policies implemented in most African countries have engendered economic growth without economic transformation to industrialization. Thus, the structural stagnation of economies of African countries has engendered a “missing jobs crisis” because they are unable to create “formal, non-agricultural jobs, of the kind that are most likely to be considered ‘good’ jobs” (Sumberg et al. 2021: 631).

Ghana's economy typifies this development. Since implementing neoliberal policies in the early 1980s, the economy has witnessed significant and relatively steady growth over the last four decades, but this is not accompanied by the creation of significant well-paying jobs (Aryeetey et al. 2021: 1; Coulibaly and Page 2021: 3). As documented by the sources just cited, the average national unemployment rate of Ghana is about six percent, but youth unemployment is estimated to be 12.1 percent, and the average employment elasticity is 0.5 over the last two decades. Although the official unemployment rates of Ghana between 1992 and 2017 illustrate rising unemployment, they have not gone beyond six percent (Aryeetey et al. 2021: 11). Yet these statistics are just the tip of the iceberg because, in most of sub-Saharan Africa, “70–90 percent of the labor force is engaged in nonwage employment” (African Development Bank 2019: 5) or in informal employment such as working on family farms and in household businesses (Sumberg et al. 2021: 631). In this sense, the definition of employment in Ghana includes all the Ghanaians, especially, the youth living precariously by engaging in all forms of menial jobs without secure wages. They are hawking on the major streets and roads of Ghanaian cities and towns, by selling knickknacks like dog chains, handkerchiefs, bottled and sachet water, bread, chewing gum, and so on. Some of these items are goods churned out from manufacturing industries outside Ghana and imported from countries such as China.

Neoliberal globalization in Africa has, in the last four decades, been creating “relative surplus population”; thus, this phenomenon predates the post-2007–2008 land and ocean grabs by a long period of time. It is more accurate, therefore, to say that these grabs have contributed to increasing the existing “relative surplus population” in Ghana and other African countries, rather than creating it all together. Yet it is a mistake to extrapolate from the creation and existence of a “relative surplus population” to conclude that the unemployed (semi-)proletariats are marginal to global capitalist exploitation and accumulation. On the contrary, they are still exploitable by capital and contribute to its accumulation. As previously touched upon, the repertoire of alternative methods they deploy to produce and reproduce themselves—for example, migrating to a different village to find land to farm or hawking on the streets of Accra and Kumasi—are within the circuit of capitalist accumulation, not outside it. There is a sense in which the “relative surplus population” of Ghana and their alternative mode of reproduction (after dispossession) are a signal case of, to borrow from David Harvey (2003: 137), “accumulation by dispossession” by capital, the value of which is valorized by low cost of labor and profits from the availability of market for and consumption of goods produced by it.

In the rest of the article, I flesh out my argument in the following order: in the next section, I briefly describe developments in the capitalist global economy that gave rise to the previously mentioned investment rushes in Africa and the concepts drawn from agrarian political economy to make sense of the dispossession they engendered in recipient countries. In the third and fourth sections, I draw on the insights of agrarian political economy to elaborate on the creation of “relative surplus population” by these investment rushes in land and ocean in Africa. In the penultimate section, I present and discuss the empirical material on land and ocean grabs in Ghana, at pains to underline their connections with the creation of additional relative surplus population in the country, as well as the pauperization and crisis of reproduction of this population. The article concludes with some thoughts on the broader implication of “relative surplus population” for the integration of economies of African countries in the capitalist global economy, through the process of global primitive accumulation.

The centrality of Africa in the accumulation imperatives and dynamics of global capital

Since its origin in England, primitive accumulation and capitalist accumulation in general, have been global in scope. Far from lying outside or being peripheral to the processes of capitalist accumulation, the resources of Ghana (and Africa in general) have been under the vortex of capitalist accumulation for centuries. From the era of mercantilist capitalism around the fifteenth century, through to the capture of slaves during the obnoxious slave trade around the sixteenth, the brutal exploitation of labor and natural resources during informal colonialism in the eighteenth and formal colonialism in the nineteenth century, to the recent land and ocean grabs after the 2007–2008 multiple crises, African natural resources have been critical to capitalist accumulation (Ayelazuno 2019a; Jones 2003).

Aside of the direct exploitation of natural resources, the products of the labor of the rural populace of Africa—such as the cocoa that is produced by Ghanaian farmers—contributes mightily to the accumulation of global capital. It is not only the labor of the classical working class that capital exploits but also the labor of peasants and other cognate rural social groups in Africa; and as will be demonstrated in this article, the “relative surplus population” in this continent is also exploited. Yet it is not only in normal times and circles of capitalist accumulation that Africa plays a central role in capitalism. In its efforts to fix its cyclical crises, capital requires, and often acquires, African resources to do so. In the rest of the section, I illustrate briefly how capital did this in its recent crises.

The capitalist global economy was hit by multiple and related food, finance, energy, and climate crises in 2007–2008. This set off various fractions of global capital—food, energy, and “green” capitals—rushing to Africa and elsewhere to invest in large-scale land acquisitions (Borras et al. 2011; McMichael 2012, 2014). These acquisitions were not only for farming food crops, but also biofuel crops like jatropha, as well as for conservation and ecotourism. Large-scale mining and petroleum production, both onshore and offshore—major elements of global capital seeking avenues for accumulation in Africa—involve the control and use of huge spaces of both parts of the terraqueous earth: land and ocean. Together, these rushes to invest in natural resources in Africa may be considered, in Harvey's terms, as global capital's strategies of “spatio-temporal fix” of the forementioned crises (Harvey 2003).

This way of valorizing nature's resources for profits is often inextricably linked to the alienation of prior users from these resources. For example, the access or use-rights of peasants, fisherfolk and indigenous people are often extinguished by these acquisitions. Hence, critical scholars have deployed concepts such as “grabbing” and “new enclosures” to illuminate the dispossession of prior users of land such as peasants. Even though land grabs have received disproportionate attention in the literature, the ocean (the other component of the terraqueous) was not immune to the scramble for natural resources by global capital as part of the spatio-temporal fixes of these crises of capitalism (Ayelazuno and Ovadia 2022; Barbesgaard 2018; Bennett et al. 2015; Franco et al. 2014; Zalik 2015, 2018).

The modalities of alienating prior users may not be by crude force but may be disguised by subtle processes which respect the laws of the country (Magdoff 2013). This is unsurprising because land governance regimes are not apolitical. Land governance laws and institutions, as well as implementations and reforms, are often influenced powerfully by the interests of the elite classes and are relatively less concerned about protecting the commons (Ayelazuno 2019b). A case in point is Ghana's land governance regime: the supreme law of Ghana, the 1992 Constitutions, seeks to protect customary and pro-commons landholding. Thus, it “vests all customary or stool lands . . . in the appropriate stool on behalf of and in trust for their people, and confirms that such lands be managed according to the fiduciary duty of the traditional authorities towards their people” (Ubink 2008: 21). Yet the land grabs documented in Ghana after the 2007–2008 global economic crises are not because of the disregard for or non-compliance with this law. Rather the contrary. As illustrated in the Integrated Water Management and Agricultural Development Ghana Limited (IWAD) case of land grabbing in northern Ghana, to mention only one example, the company did due diligence, undertook wide consultation with relevant stakeholders—including the peasants to be dispossessed—and respected the customary tenets of landholding and distribution in the Mamprugu traditional area. Yet the acquisition of land in this case was not any less dispossessory than land grabs elsewhere (Ayelazuno 2019a).

Global capitalist accumulation in Africa has always dealt the continent a bad hand. The post-2007–2008 investment rushes are no different; because large-scale land acquisitions are inherently in conflict with “the ability of forest dwellers, smallholders, and fisherfolk to sustain their material conditions as land and natural resources are commandeered for well-being in the global marketplace” (McMichael 2014: 37). The concepts of “grabbing” and “new enclosures” capture the deleterious effects of these “legal” or “responsible” land acquisitions on the means by which prior users reproduce themselves within the limits of their cultural ecology. As correctly observed by the United Nations Human Rights Rapporteur, Olivier De Schutter, responsible investments in “land acquisition” is a way of “responsibly destroying the world's peasantry” (cited in McMichael 2014: 35). Closely connected to the concepts of “grabbing” and “new enclosures” are the concepts of “primitive accumulation” and “accumulation by dispossession” (Ayelazuno 2019a; Hall 2013; Ince 2014; Magdoff 2013; Moyo et al. 2012).

The classic agrarian question of capital and labor

One of the structural barriers to the development of capitalism and the unleashing of capitalist accumulation is that social property or production relations and class differentiation are not driven mainly by the logic of the market. They are rather “submerged in non-economic—kinship, communal, religious, and political—relationships” (Wood 2002: 21). This is a typical agrarian question of capital that was resolved, for example, in England, through enclosures and other violence of primitive accumulation, leading to the transition from feudalist social property relations to capitalist ones. This transition redefined property rights as “enclosure meant not simply a physical fencing of land but the extinction of commons and customary use rights on which many people depended for their livelihood” (Wood 2002: 109).

Thus, dispossession of peasants of their land, part of the process of primitive accumulation, transformed the non-capitalist feudal social property relations and its class differentiation to capitalist ones in England; that is, the resolution of the agrarian question of capital. Specifically, it is the establishment of capitalist social property relations and class differentiation and relations that generate the “capitalist ‘laws of motion’: the imperatives of competition and profit-maximization, a compulsion to reinvest surpluses, and a systematic and relentless need to improve labour-productivity and develop the forces of production” (Wood 2002: 36–37; see also Bernstein 2010: 28).

Intrinsic to the resolution of the agrarian question of capital is also the resolution of the classic agrarian question of labor. Labor power is a critical component of the capitalist circuit of production, being a major part of the means of production of the capitalist class. Without wage workers under the “dull compulsion of economic relations” to sell their labor power to the capitalist class (Marx 1976: 899), the capitalist circuit of production will be truncated. The reason is, not only are workers needed to work on the factory floor, but they should be cheap in the labor market for the capitalist class to produce surplus value or make profits—the motor driving the capitalist mode of production.

The resolution of the classic agrarian question engendered a laboring class who worked on capitalist farms for a living, signaling the dawn of the transition from the pre-capitalist social relations of production to the capitalist ones. In this sense, the classic agrarian question is not just a question of capital but also a question of labor (Bernstein 2002). The process of primitive accumulation—the proletarianization of peasants and commodification of their life under emergent capitalism—satisfied the labor needs of capitalism (Bernstein 2010: 33–34). As noted by Ellen Wood, surplus accumulation or profits under conditions of dependence on market forces is “achieved through the medium of commodity exchange as propertyless workers, responding to purely ‘economic’ coercions, sell their labour power for a wage in order to gain access to the means of production” (Wood 2002: 56).

Post-2007–2008 land and ocean grabs and relative surplus population

Contemporary land and ocean grabs have engendered a process that has contributed to creating additional relative surplus population in countries affected by these grabs. Contrary to the forecasts of job creation by advocates of large-scale land acquisitions, they failed to create enough off-farm wage employment for the peasants they dispossessed. Mainstream observers had often maintained that proletarianized peasants will transition to workers in industries. For example, one of the assumptions on the development potential of agriculture in the World Bank's Development Report for 2008, is as follows:

The nations of the global South will, sooner or later, experience an agrarian transition similar to the one that occurred in Europe in earlier centuries, characterized by the shift from farm to factory, country to town, and for those who stay in the countryside, a transition from subsistence production to high value commodity production or wage work on large farms. (World Bank, cited in Li 2011: 293)

Thus, the authors of the World Bank report on large-scale land acquisitions, Rising Global Interest in Farmland, were sanguine about the potential of capitalist investment in farming to reduce poverty by creating jobs for peasants ejected from their farms. Those who are dispossessed, the report reasoned, will exit from tilling the land for survival to make a living through off-farm wage employment provided by capitalist farms (Li 2011).

However, this optimism did not materialize because its basis was deeply flawed from inception. There are many factors responsible for this. For example, capitalist farming is capital- intensive and industrial by nature, involving the use of labor-saving technologies such as mechanized farming with low labor inputs (Nolte and Ostermeier 2017: 435).

As observed correctly by Ben White and his colleagues (White et al. 2012: 633), “most of the emerging plantation enclaves are large-scale, industrial monocrop ventures that are generally labour-expelling/labour-saving, in contrast to earlier episodes of plantation agriculture which depended on the availability of large quantities of cheap manual labour.” Some of the investments in large-scale land acquisition are, by their nature, reminiscent of the neoliberal economy of jobless growth (Li 2011). For example, land acquired for ecotourism, environmental conservation, and land-based speculation are ventures that do not need a whole lot of labor to thrive (Li 2010. Furthermore, the few jobs they might create require high educational qualifications and skill sets, which the majority of the dispossessed do not possess.

Little wonder, therefore, that empirical research on contemporary land grabs has revealed a dismal record of job creation in various developing countries. For example, Li research in various Asian countries demonstrates that fewer jobs were created by land acquisitions, leaving most of the dispossessed unemployed (Li 2010 2011). Disaggregating the impact of large-scale land acquisition on employment by various variables, Kerstin Nolte and Martin Ostermeier's (2017: 438) analysis of employment creation by these acquisitions in various countries found out that across all countries studied, “a strong negative net employment effect if a large-scale farm is established on land formerly used for smallholder agriculture, which is due to high crowding out. The effect ranges between −22 percent (Tanzania) and −74 percent (Kenya).” It is not just that few jobs are created but also that some of them are casual, low wages, and indecent jobs with poor health and safety standards (Gyapong 2020).

Even though the job-creation potential of investments in large-scale land acquisitions vary by many factors, overall, the record is abysmal, and they have worsened the existing (un)employment crisis in the countries receiving these investments. In agrarian political-economic terms, one of the signal agrarian changes created by capitalist accumulation in the rural communities of these countries is the (semi)-proletarianization of peasants and fisherfolk. Land and ocean grabs have created, from the rural parts of developing countries as those in Africa, “camps of surplus labour in urban locations” and “a potential reserve army of migratory labour” (Araghi 2009).

However, the purposes for which land and ocean were grabbed from prior users—for example, capitalist farming and crude petroleum production—did not create off-farm jobs or refinery factories respectfully to exploit the labor power of the army of workers they have created. The effect of this situation is the creation of additional unemployed people to the existing ones. The population the post-2007–2008 land grabs dispossessed (but unemployed) fits well with Marx's conceptualization of the relative surplus population discussed earlier.

Land and ocean grabs and surplus population in Ghana

Table 1.

Land and ocean grabs research sites in Ghana.

Table based on fieldwork. Source: Author

Table 1.

Table based on fieldwork. Source: Author.

At the height of the land grabs post-2007–2008 global economic crises, Ghana was one of the key targeted African countries for land grabs (Cotula et al. 2014). Following the finding of oil in 2007 in the Atlantic Ocean, specifically, the Gulf of Guinea, Ghana's coastal communities also experienced “ocean grabbing” (Ayelazuno and Ovadia 2022; Bennett et al. 2015; Franco et al. 2014; Zalik 2015, 2018). Mining-driven land grabs in Ghana preceded the post-2007–2008 land grabs by more than a decade. It dates to the 1980s when there was stupendous flow of foreign direct investment into mining, predominantly, surface mining, following the neoliberal economic reforms; changes that opened the mining sector to foreign mining companies (Ayelazuno 2011; Hilson and Potter 2005).

This article is based on ethnographic research done between September 2015 and August 2018, in various communities, both peasant and fisherfolk, affected by the post-2007–2008 land and ocean grabs in Ghana. Assisted by three research assistants, a plurality of qualitative methods encompassing focus group discussions (FGDs), key informant interviews (KIIs), in-depth personal interviews (IDIs), and non-participant observation were deployed to collect data in various purposefully selected sites of land and ocean grabs for capitalist farming and offshore petroleum production in various parts of Ghana (see Table 1).

Dispossession of peasants and fisherfolk

The process of grabbing—whether through crude ejection or subtle methods of alienation—leads to the dispossession of prior users of these resources. Their access to land and ocean, the means by which they reproduce themselves, are extinguished. The story that was told in all the interviews that we conducted with our interlocutors across all the research sites listed in Table 1 can be summed in four words: we have been dispossessed.

The fisherfolk in the coastal communities close to Ghana's offshore petroleum industry narrated stories about how, despite its location deep in the ocean, the industry has deprived them of their means to livelihood. Referring to the security measures the Ghanaian state put in place to enforce the “no-fishing zone”, the ban on fishing within a five-hundred-meter radius of the oil rig—a clear case of “enclosure”—a fisherman said the following:

We are very disadvantaged; our boats and nets are lying here idle because when we go [to the sea to fish], we don't get anything to catch. The oil they extract is not even brought here [onshore]. It is sent abroad, and we can't even get petrol for our fishing boats. Even if you manage to get some petrol and go fishing, the navy are also there to arrest you. We are really suffering here, we just waist the petrol that we buy for over eight hundred Ghana cedis because the navy always sacks us. Sometimes we don't even go near the rig, but they will sack us. This is our only source of livelihood, so they should stop worrying us. We all cannot be doctors, lawyers, or teachers. We are fishermen, so they should leave us to also do our work. (Fisherman, at Axim, December 4, 2015)

Similar stories of dispossession are told by peasants in the FGDs we held in the communities affected by land grabs. For example, describing the hardships inflicted on him and his family, a peasant said the following:

So they took the lands from us and they started growing some kind of flowers [jatropha] on them. They have taken the land from us about four or five years ago, and we are not able to get any good land to farm on again. This is causing us some problems. For example, one of my children has completed senior high school and wants to go and study nursing, but I don't have money to support him to further his education. Before my land was taken from me. . . I used to farm about 10 acres, and I used to get money. But now I don't get money again. I have sent my child to work with a water purification factory to get money to further his education. Since they took the lands from us, it has brought us a lot of problems as farmers. (Peasant, at Yeji, March 10, 2016)

As previously mentioned, these stories are a constant refrain from peasants and fisherfolk across the more than twenty communities (see Table 1) where we did our ethnographic fieldwork.

Joblessness, low wages, casualization, harsh working conditions, and pauperization

During fieldwork in the forementioned communities, the research team observed that the disruption and dislocation that these dispossessions caused to the organization of the reproduction of the peasants and fisherfolk have not been mitigated by wage employment. The capitalist farming, mining, and petroleum production have not generated jobs for the dispossessed peasants and fisherfolk, lending credence to the argument of Li's assertion that land grabs for capitalist farming have not had the industrialization spillover effect that the resolution of the classic agrarian question had in some of the advanced industrial countries. As she asserts it, “there is no pathway from country to city, agriculture to industry, or even a clear pathway into stable plantation work that pays a living wage” (Li 2011: 296). A common sight in these communities during our fieldwork was the unemployed youth sitting or roaming idle.

There were tell-tale stories about joblessness across the FGDs we held in these communities. The capitalist farms employed a few people, but they complained about poor wages, casualization, and poor and harsh working conditions. This is how a woman-peasant described these conditions:

We the women are not happy about their [Smart Oil] activities because we are suffering a lot. We don't do any hard work on our husband's farms, but working with the company, we would have to weed and do all kinds of hard labor, and we don't even have time to support our husbands anymore. During the dry season, there is no work to do on your husband's farm; that is the exact time the company will lay you off. This is not fair to us at all, as we. . . stay home hungry, and our children don't even get food to eat. If we the women are given a better job to do at the company, it will help this community. (Peasant, at Kadue, March 11, 2016)

The labor conditions described by this respondent are on a capitalist jatropha farm in the Ahafo region (see Table 1), that is land grabbed for farming a biofuel crop.

The labor conditions on capitalist food crops farms are not particularly different. A case in point is IWAD at Yagba, in the northeast region. Among the major complaints of the participants of the FGDs we held with women and the youth in the “catchment area” was the loss of farmlands to IWAD without getting jobs with the project. The few people who were employed complained of extremely low wages and harsh working conditions. When we asked the women in a FGD if they have been employed, all 10 said no. In the words of one woman, “we were there [the site of the project] several days looking for employment but we were not employed” (Peasant, at Yagba, October 31, 2015). When we told them we saw workers at the project site, they responded that most of them were foreigners, not from their community. One young man employed with the project said, “I have been employed by the project, but what I get cannot even feed my family” (Youth, at Yagba, October 31, 2015).

Our interviews with workers (both men and women) on the farm of IWAD revealed grave discontent with their working conditions. For example, the daily wages were extremely low: fifteen Ghana cedis (Ghs15.00) a day, equivalent to less than four US dollars, an amount the workers said was woefully insufficient for their reproduction. And their claim is true because the Ghana Living Standards Survey 7 (GLSS7) pegged the upper poverty line at 1,760.8 Ghana cedis per adult per year and extreme poverty line at 982.2 Ghana cedis per adult, for the period between 2016 and 2017 (Ghana Statistical Service 2018).1 Based on the daily wage, a farm worker will earn a total of 5,400 Ghana cedis per year. With the extended family system of Ghana, each of them may have about three adult dependents (a conservative estimation) in addition to their children. This means each adult lives on 1,350 Ghana cedis, which puts them below the upper poverty line and slightly above the extreme poverty line—ignoring their children for a moment. These farm workers are not only super-exploited by agricultural capital, but their life chances (and members of their households) are precarious.

Poor and hazardous working conditions was another issue our interlocutors complained about. For example, the only farm worker who told us he was “happy” to be employed because “he gets something small”, was quick to add that “our work is [worth] more than what we get” (IWAD employee, October 31, 2015). Complaining about the poor working conditions, one of the workers said: “even if you lose a relative, they will not give you a break, and if you fall sick here, they will not mind you” (IWAD employee, October 31, 2015).

As with the abysmal job-creation record of agricultural capitalist accumulation on land, the record of energy-based capitalist accumulation on the ocean—offshore petroleum production—is not different. The valorization of Ghana's marine resources—first, by capitalist industrial fishing, and second, the extraction of hydrocarbons post-2007–2008—has not created jobs for the masses in Ghana, especially the inhabitants of the coastal communities. The offshore petroleum industry is technology-intensive, requiring not only fewer workers but also workers with high educational and technical skills, such as petroleum engineers and geophysicists (Panford 2014). Ghanaians in general, and the dispossessed fisherfolk in particular, do not have the requisite skill sets and educational qualification to be employed by the offshore petroleum industry. The offshore petroleum industry in Ghana is an “enclave” industry, without the requisite linkages which will engender industrialization and create jobs onshore (Ablo and Overå 2015; Acheampong et al. 2016; Amoako-Tuffour et al. 2015; Panford 2017).2

It was not surprising that, similar to the peasant communities mentioned earlier, we observed during our fieldwork in the coastal communities many young men and women sitting and roaming idle because they had no jobs. This serious problem of joblessness was one of the most dominant problems that the fisherfolk complained about in our FGDs. In one of the coastal communities, Esiamah, a chief fisherman said:

Before these [oil] companies started operations, they promised to give jobs to the local people here. But they have been operating for five years now, and yet not a single person from the community has been employed by them. There are a lot of young men roaming about with no work to do. If they had kept their promise of employment opportunities, life would not have been currently unbearable as we see it now. (Chief fisherman, Esiamah, December 1, 2015)

In a different community, Axim, the female segment of these fisherfolk communities, fishmongers, narrated a strikingly similar story as the chief fisherman in Esiamah;

They [oil companies] came to inform us that the oil that was going to be extracted from the sea will create jobs. They promised to build a fishing harbor for us so that those who do not have any work can also find something to do. But after we allowed them to extract the oil, they never gave us the support they promised. The boys in this town are jobless and roaming in town. (Fishmonger, Axim, December 4, 2015)

As with the land grabs for capitalist farming, ocean grabs for capitalist accumulation have not engendered any significant degree of structural transformation in the Ghanaian economy as a pathway, as Li asserted about agriculture, from the production of crude petroleum oil to refinery and other petroleum factories. Yet these are the economic conditions required to create jobs for the dispossessed fisherfolk of the coastal communities and Ghanaians in general (Ayelazuno and Ovadia 2022).

Thus, consistent with the general dismal job-creation record of the capitalist accumulation driving land and ocean grabs in Africa and elsewhere, these grabs in Ghana have created extremely few decent and well-paying jobs. They are extremely few to the extent that the dispossessed peasants and fisherfolk, cut adrift from their means of livelihood by these grabs, have added to the existing mass of unemployed Ghanaians.

The dispossessed in the farming, mining, and fishing communities in Ghana are (semi)proletarianized, but they cannot reproduce themselves through wage labor. We have in Ghana, as Bernstein argues, “structural fragmentation of labour in contemporary capitalism with its vast reserve army denied stable conditions of reproduction through wage employment and/or petty commodity production, hence straddling (and inventing) a range of marginalized activities” (Bernstein 2002: 454).

In all the communities where we did our field work (see Table 1), the jobless (semi-)proletarians complain about severe economic hardships and extreme difficulties of reproducing themselves. Colin Leys once argued that “in sub-Saharan Africa most people are facing a future in which not even bare survival is assured” and that the population of Africa is being made into André Gorz's “‘supernumeraries’ of the human race” (Leys 1994: 34). The precarious living conditions in which these (semi-)proletarianized workers lived draw them closer to supernumeraries of the human race.

Some of the dispossessed, as participants of some of our FGDs told us, have tried to find alternatives means of livelihoods by migrating to mining communities to engage in illegal small-scale mining (popularly known in Ghana as “galamsey”). Others have also migrated to the cities to engage in various forms of demeaning and insecure means of survival in the informal economy. For example, it was mentioned in our FGDs in Yagba, in the northeast region, that some of the young women and girls in the community have migrated to cities such as Accra and Kumasi to work as head porters (popularly known in Ghana as kayayei). However, kayayei are a segment of the bigger migrant population from the northern part of Ghana who moved to the southern parts to engage in all forms of menial jobs in the informal sector for a living.

What is significant about these alternative means of livelihood, galamsey and kayayei, is that they are some of the riskiest, demeaning, menial, and energy-sapping jobs that one can do for survival in Ghana. By its nature, galamsey mining is not only full of toil, but worse so, it is life-threatening. Mine accidents are often calamitous, with one authoritative source reporting that 36 accidents that were studied resulted in 622 fatalities (Stemn et al. 2021: 4; see also Ayelazuno 2018: 9–12). Similarly, the conditions in which kayayei women work are extremely hazardous, characterized by atrocious homeless living conditions and various abuses: sexual, physical, and verbal (Agyei et al. 2016: 294).

Yet powerfully evocative of Marx's thesis that the relative surplus population is exploitable by capital, the work of galamsey miners and kayayei women contributes to the accumulation of capital without a direct exploitative relationship, as in the relationship between the capitalist and the working classes. For example, gold mined through galamsey contributes about 30 percent of the total annual gold production of Ghana. Yet a small amount of Ghana's gold remains in the country. The rest of it is bound for export, mainly, in its raw form to countries such as Switzerland, India, United Arab Emirates, and South Africa. This means that gold mined by galamsey miners usually enter into the circuit of value valorization by global jewelry and other cognate capitals in the gold business. This is a typical case of the role of the relative surplus population as “disposable human material” in the process of capitalist accumulation. In this case, galamsey miners—being part of Ghana's relative surplus population—are exploited by global capital without any costs such as paying wages to workers.

Concluding remarks

Situated in the post-2007–2008 land and ocean grabs in Ghana, this article has argued that these grabs have created additional relative surplus population in Ghana. The foothold of this argument is the dispossession of peasants and fisherfolk of the natural resources upon which the organization of their reproduction revolves; namely, both parts of the terraqueous earth: land and ocean. Yet the capitalist accumulation driving this dispossession—plantation farms, large-scale mining, and offshore petroleum pro- duction—have created few jobs for the dispossessed and (semi-) proletarianized peasants and fisherfolk, a situation that conflicts with the proposition of the classic agrarian question of labor. Because the jobless (semi-)proletarianized peasants and fisherfolk, the article concludes, rather constitutes an additional relative surplus population, as there are no corresponding jobs created by industrialization in Ghana. This is a labor condition that preceded the post-2007–2008 land and ocean grabs by several decades, dating back to the 1980s when Ghana implemented neoliberal economic reforms, creating a typical economy of “jobless growth” (Li 2013), a general characteristic of most economies under neoliberal globalization.

The related labor processes and conditions of relative surplus population illuminate a broader and intractable problem of global capitalist exploitation of Africa through the process of global primitive accumulation. As the foregoing discussion on the resolution of the classic agrarian question of capital and labor illustrates, classical primitive accumulation was the painful process through which capitalism and its mutually reinforcing dynamics of industrialization were born in Western and non-Western industrialized countries. Even though this trajectory of development is not automatic and varies by many factors, the distinct dynamics and process of global primitive accumulation in Africa, both classical and contemporary, illustrate imperialist exploitation without the possibility of industrialization. “Relative surplus population” is, thus, part of the morbid symptoms of primitive accumulation without industrialization in Africa.

Yet it would be a mistake to think that surplus population is not important to capitalist accumulation. As mentioned earlier, Ghana's semi-proletarianized peasants and fisherfolk are not surplus to the requirements of capitalist accumulation. On the contrary, they contribute directly and indirectly to capitalist accumulation in diverse ways, for example, by subsidizing the cost of labor and as market for and consumers of goods produced by the capitalist system.

Acknowledgment

The funding of this research was provided by the Volkswagen Foundation, Grant/Award Number: 89 879, under the postdoctoral fellowship in the social sciences in sub-Saharan and North Africa, and is hereby acknowledged. I am also grateful to Dr. Jesse S. Ovadia of the University of Windsor, Canada, for the collaboration in the fieldwork in the “oil” communities in Ghana.

Notes

1

The time this research was done falls within this period.

2

Linkages that will create onshore jobs for Ghanaians in general and the coastal communities in particular include fiscal, production (backward and forward linkages), side-stream (infrastructure, agriculture, technology and knowledge linkages), horizontal, and consumption linkages.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • Ghana Statistical Service. 2018. Ghana living standards survey round 7 (GLSS 7): Poverty trends in Ghana, 2005–2017. Report to the Ghana Statistical Service, Accra.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hall, Derek. 2013. “Primitive accumulation, accumulation by dispossession and the global land grab.Third World Quarterly 34 (9): 15821604.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Harvey, David. 2003. The new imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Hilson, Gavin, and Clive Potter. 2005. “Structural adjustment and subsistence industry: Artisanal gold mining in Ghana.Development and change 36 (1): 103131.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ince, Onur Ulas. 2014. “Primitive accumulation, new enclosures, and global land grabs: A theoretical intervention.Rural Sociology 79 (1): 104131.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jones, Branwen Gruffydd. 2003. “The civilised horrors of over-work: Marxism, imperialism and development of Africa.Review of African Political Economy, 30 (95): 3344.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Leys, Colins. 1994. “Confronting the African tragedy.New Left Review 1 (204): 3347.

  • Li, Tania Murray. 2010. “To make live or let die? Rural dispossession and the protection of surplus populations.Antipode 41 (S1): 6693.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Li, Tania Murray. 2011. “Centering labor in the land grab debate.The Journal of Peasant Studies 38 (2): 281298.

  • Li, Tania Murray. 2013. “Jobless growth and relative surplus populations.Anthropology Today 29 (3): 12.

  • Magdoff, Fred. 2013. “Twenty-first-century land grabs: Accumulation by agricultural dispossession.Monthly Review 65 (6): 118.

  • Marx, Karl. 1976. Capital: A critique of political economy, vol. one. New York: Penguin Books.

  • McMichael, Philip. 2012. “The land grab and corporate food regime restructuring.The Journal of Peasant Studies 39 (3–4): 681701.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • McMichael, Philip. 2014. “Rethinking land grab ontology.Rural Sociology 79 (1): 3455.

  • Moyo, Sam, Paris Yeros, and Praveen Jha. 2012. “Imperialism and primitive accumulation: Notes on the new scramble for Africa.Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy 1 (2): 181203.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nolte, Kerstin, and Martin Ostermeier. 2017. “Labour market effects of large-scale agricultural investment: Conceptual considerations and estimated employment effects.World Development 98: 430446.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Panford, Kwamina. 2014. “An exploratory survey of petroleum skills and training in Ghana.Africa Today 60 (3): 5780.

  • Panford, Kwamina. 2017. Africa's natural resources and underdevelopment: How Ghana's petroleum can create sustainable economic prosperity. New York: Palgrave

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Stemn, Eric, Prince Oppong Amoh, and Theophilus Joe-Asare. 2021. “Analysis of artisanal and small-scale gold mining accidents and fatalities in Ghana.Resources Policy 74: 111.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sumberg, James, Louise Fox, Justin Flynn, Philip Mader, and Marjoke Oosterom. 2021. “Africa's ‘youth employment’ crisis is actually a ‘missing jobs’ crisis.” Development Policy Review 39 (4): 621643.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ubink, Janine. 2008. “In the land of the chiefs: Customary law, land conflicts, and the role of the State in peri-urban Ghana.” PhD diss. Leiden, the Netherlands, University of Leiden.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • White, Ben, Saturnino M. Borras Jr, Ruth Hall, Ian Scoones, and Wendy Wolford. 2012. “The new enclosures: critical perspectives on corporate land deals.The Journal of Peasant Studies 39 (3–4): 619647.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wood, Ellen Meiksins. 2002. The origin of capitalism: A longer view. London: Verso.

  • Zalik, Anna. 2015. “Trading on the offshore: Territorialization and the ocean grab in the international seabed.Beyond free trade: Alternative approaches to trade, politics and power, ed. Kate Ervine and Gavin Fridell, 173190, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Zalik, Anna. 2018. “Mining the seabed, enclosing the area: Ocean grabbing, proprietary knowledge and the geopolitics of the extractive frontier beyond national jurisdiction.International Social Science Journal 68 (229–230): 343359.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

Contributor Notes

Dr Jasper Abembia Ayelazuno is Associate Professor of political science at the Faculty of Communication and Media Studies, University for Development Studies (UDS), Ghana. His research interests are interdisciplinary, encompassing land governance, capitalist farming, agrarian change, extractive industries, democracy, social justice, truth commissions, political agency, civic activism, and resistance. He is the author of the book, Neoliberal globalization and resistance from below: Why the subalterns resist in Bolivia and not in Ghana, Routledge, 2019. He is also the co-editor of the anthology Truth commissions and state building, McGill-Queen University Press (in press). E-mail: jayelazuno@uds.edu.gh. ORCID: 0000-0003-3119-7136

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Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology

  • Ablo, Austin Dziwornu, and Ragnhild Overå. 2015. “Networks, trust and capital mobilisation: challenges of embedded local entrepreneurial strategies in Ghana's oil and gas industry.The Journal of Modern African Studies 53 (3): 391413.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Acheampong, Theophilus, Marcia Ashong, and Victoria Crystal Svanikier. 2016. “An assessment of local-content policies in oil and gas producing countries.The Journal of World Energy Law & Business 9 (4): 282302.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ackah-Baidoo, Patricia. 2016. “Youth unemployment in resource-rich Sub-Saharan Africa: A critical review.The Extractive Industries and Society 3 (1): 249261.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • African Development Bank. 2019. Creating decent jobs: Strategies, policies, and instruments—Policy Research Document 2. Report to the African Development Bank Group, Abidjan.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Agyei, Yaa Ankomaa, Emmanuel Kumi, and Thomas Yeboah. 2016. “Is better to be a kayayei than to be unemployed: Reflecting on the role of head portering in Ghana's informal economy.GeoJournal 81: 293318.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Amoako-Tuffour, Joe, Tony Aubynn, and Alhassan Atta-Quayson. 2015. Local content and value addition in Ghana's mineral, oil, and gas sectors: Is Ghana getting it right. Report to the African Center for Economic Transformation, Accra.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Araghi, Farshad. 2009. “The invisible hand and the visible foot: Peasants, dispossession and globalization.In Peasants and globalization: Political economy, rural transformation, and the agrarian question, ed. Haroon Akram-Lodhi and Cristóbal Kay, 111147. London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Aryeetey, Ernest, Priscilla Twumasi Baffour, and Festus Ebo Turkson. 2021. Employment creation potential, labor skills requirements, and skill gaps for young people: Ghana case study. Report to The Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ayelazuno, Jasper. 2011. “Continuous primitive accumulation in Ghana: The real-life stories of dispossessed peasants in three mining communities.Review of African Political Economy 38 (130): 537550.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ayelazuno, Jasper Abembia. 2016. “African youth and global resistance to neoliberalism: Exploring the dialectics between cosmopolitan and identity politics.In African youth cultures in a globalized world: Challenges, agency and resistance, ed. Paul Ugor and Lord Mawuko-Yevugah, 2143. London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ayelazuno, Jasper Abembia. 2018. Position paper on ASM gold sector in Ghana. Report to the Third World Africa Network (TWN), Accra.

  • Ayelazuno, Jasper Abembia. 2019a. “Water and land investment in the ‘overseas’ of Northern Ghana: The land question, agrarian change, and development implications.” Land Use Policy 81: 915928.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ayelazuno, Jasper Abembia. 2019b. “Land governance for extractivism and capitalist farming in Africa: An overview.” Land Use Policy 81: 843851.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ayelazuno, Jasper Abembia, and Jesse Salah Ovadia. 2022. “Ocean and land grabbing in Ghana's offshore petroleum industry: From the agrarian question to the question of industrialization.Journal of Agrarian Change 22 (4): 673702.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Baah-Boateng, William. 2016. “The youth unemployment challenge in Africa: What are the drivers?The Economic and Labour Relations Review 27 (4): 413431.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Barbesgaard, Mads. 2018. “Blue growth: Savior or ocean grabbing?The Journal of Peasant Studies 45 (1): 130149.

  • Bennett, Nathan James, Hugh Govan, and Terre Satterfield. 2015. “Ocean grabbing.Marine Policy 57: 6168.

  • Bernstein, Henry. 2002. “Land reform: Taking a long (er) view.Journal of Agrarian Change 2 (4): 433463.

  • Bernstein, Henry. 2010. Class dynamics of agrarian change. London: Kumarian Press.

  • Borras Jr, Saturnino M., Ruth Hall, Ian Scoones, Ben White, and Wendy Wolford. 2011. “Towards a better understanding of global land grabbing: An editorial introduction.The Journal of Peasant Studies 38 (2): 209216.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cotula, Lorenzo, Carlos Oya with Emmanuel A. Codjoe, Abdurehman Eid, Mark Kakraba-Ampeh, James Keeley, Admasu Lokaley Kidewa, Melissa Makwarimba, Wondwosen Michago Seide, William Ole Nasha, Richard Owusu Asare, and Matteo Rizzo 2014. “Testing claims about large land deals in Africa: Findings from a multi-country study.Journal of Development Studies 50 (7): 903925.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Coulibaly, Brahima S., and John Page. 2021. Addressing Africa youth unemployment through industries without smokestacks. Report to The Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Franco, Jennifer, Nick Buxton, Pietje Vervest, Timothé Feodoroff, Carsten Pedersen, Ricarda Reuter, and Mads Christian Barbesgaard. 2014. The global ocean grab: A primer. Report to The Transnational Institute, Amsterdam.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ghana Statistical Service. 2018. Ghana living standards survey round 7 (GLSS 7): Poverty trends in Ghana, 2005–2017. Report to the Ghana Statistical Service, Accra.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gyapong, Adwoa Yeboah. 2020. “How and why large-scale agricultural land investments do not create long-term employment benefits: A critique of the ‘state’ of labour regulations in Ghana.Land Use Policy 95: 104651.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hall, Derek. 2013. “Primitive accumulation, accumulation by dispossession and the global land grab.Third World Quarterly 34 (9): 15821604.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Harvey, David. 2003. The new imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Hilson, Gavin, and Clive Potter. 2005. “Structural adjustment and subsistence industry: Artisanal gold mining in Ghana.Development and change 36 (1): 103131.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ince, Onur Ulas. 2014. “Primitive accumulation, new enclosures, and global land grabs: A theoretical intervention.Rural Sociology 79 (1): 104131.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jones, Branwen Gruffydd. 2003. “The civilised horrors of over-work: Marxism, imperialism and development of Africa.Review of African Political Economy, 30 (95): 3344.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Leys, Colins. 1994. “Confronting the African tragedy.New Left Review 1 (204): 3347.

  • Li, Tania Murray. 2010. “To make live or let die? Rural dispossession and the protection of surplus populations.Antipode 41 (S1): 6693.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Li, Tania Murray. 2011. “Centering labor in the land grab debate.The Journal of Peasant Studies 38 (2): 281298.

  • Li, Tania Murray. 2013. “Jobless growth and relative surplus populations.Anthropology Today 29 (3): 12.

  • Magdoff, Fred. 2013. “Twenty-first-century land grabs: Accumulation by agricultural dispossession.Monthly Review 65 (6): 118.

  • Marx, Karl. 1976. Capital: A critique of political economy, vol. one. New York: Penguin Books.

  • McMichael, Philip. 2012. “The land grab and corporate food regime restructuring.The Journal of Peasant Studies 39 (3–4): 681701.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • McMichael, Philip. 2014. “Rethinking land grab ontology.Rural Sociology 79 (1): 3455.

  • Moyo, Sam, Paris Yeros, and Praveen Jha. 2012. “Imperialism and primitive accumulation: Notes on the new scramble for Africa.Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy 1 (2): 181203.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nolte, Kerstin, and Martin Ostermeier. 2017. “Labour market effects of large-scale agricultural investment: Conceptual considerations and estimated employment effects.World Development 98: 430446.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Panford, Kwamina. 2014. “An exploratory survey of petroleum skills and training in Ghana.Africa Today 60 (3): 5780.

  • Panford, Kwamina. 2017. Africa's natural resources and underdevelopment: How Ghana's petroleum can create sustainable economic prosperity. New York: Palgrave

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Stemn, Eric, Prince Oppong Amoh, and Theophilus Joe-Asare. 2021. “Analysis of artisanal and small-scale gold mining accidents and fatalities in Ghana.Resources Policy 74: 111.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sumberg, James, Louise Fox, Justin Flynn, Philip Mader, and Marjoke Oosterom. 2021. “Africa's ‘youth employment’ crisis is actually a ‘missing jobs’ crisis.” Development Policy Review 39 (4): 621643.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ubink, Janine. 2008. “In the land of the chiefs: Customary law, land conflicts, and the role of the State in peri-urban Ghana.” PhD diss. Leiden, the Netherlands, University of Leiden.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • White, Ben, Saturnino M. Borras Jr, Ruth Hall, Ian Scoones, and Wendy Wolford. 2012. “The new enclosures: critical perspectives on corporate land deals.The Journal of Peasant Studies 39 (3–4): 619647.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wood, Ellen Meiksins. 2002. The origin of capitalism: A longer view. London: Verso.

  • Zalik, Anna. 2015. “Trading on the offshore: Territorialization and the ocean grab in the international seabed.Beyond free trade: Alternative approaches to trade, politics and power, ed. Kate Ervine and Gavin Fridell, 173190, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Zalik, Anna. 2018. “Mining the seabed, enclosing the area: Ocean grabbing, proprietary knowledge and the geopolitics of the extractive frontier beyond national jurisdiction.International Social Science Journal 68 (229–230): 343359.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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