On whose land is the city to be built? Farmers, donors and the urban land question in Beira city, Mozambique

Blog post by Murtah Shannon, Kei Otsuki, Annelies Zoomers and Mayke Kaag

31 Jul 2020, 4:03 p.m.
Murtah Shannon, Kei Otsuki, Annelies Zoomers and Mayke Kaag



I first came to Beira in 2015 after the Netherlands had initiated a development partnership with the city’s  municipality, promising to turn the city into a modernist utopia under the banner of a new masterplan. The partnership explicitly sought to promote Dutch business interests in the process, giving preferential access to Dutch firms in the implementation of various infrastructure and planning projects, thus reflecting the Netherlands ‘win-win’ paradigm of development cooperation. As a Dutch citizen I was interested to understand how this controversial development paradigm and the seemingly farfetched masterplan would translate to the heterogenous context of Beira.

Land politics served as the main analytical focus of the research. My department at Utrecht University had been extensively involved in debates surrounding the ‘global land rush’, which had been largely centred on issues  of  displacement and commodification of land in the rural realm. More recently these debates had been expanding to include urban land politics, in light of the growing interest in (African) urban development among international donors and investors. However, due to the embryonic nature of these debates my co-authors and I turned to the burgeoning scholarship on urban theory —and African urbanism in particular — to make sense of the developments in Beira.

We found in Beira many of the signifiers which have come to typify African urbanism, such informality, precarity and state hostility towards denizens. The modernist and market-oriented masterplan also bore many traits of the new generation of masterplans which have appeared throughout the African continent in recent years. As with many of these widely  critiqued plans, the Beira masterplan served primarily as a claims-making tool which was implicitly premised on the displacement of informal denizens.

But the displacement in question was not that of slum clearances, which have been the focal point of much passionate resistance from urban scholars and activists. In contrast, the Beira masterplan was premised on the systematic erasure of urban farming, which is practiced widely throughout the city by the urban poor  — woman in particular. However, my co-authors and I  struggled to find much mention of urban farming in the literature on African urbanism, particularly in relation to the substantive issue of land rights. Exceptions aside, urban agriculture has only been a concern for developmentalist debates  on urban food security in Africa. This stands in stark contrast to the global North, where urban farming has routinely been framed as an expression of the right to the city.

This article draws on interviews, observations and surveys conducted over a period of three years in Mozambique and the Netherlands, with the aim of making urban farming visible within the context of substantive debates on land rights in Africa. By placing urban agriculture in a historical perspective we demonstrate how it has been intertwined with Beira’s urban trajectory since the city’s establishment, evolving amidst the various contradictory state regimes which followed. We place particular emphasis on unpacking Beira’s current donor-municipality regime and its associated efforts to erase urban agricultural from the city. We argue that this regime is very much a product of the current ‘urban turn’ in international development policy, which points to a new politics of urban development that will likely emerge elsewhere in other donor-dependent regions in the global South.

Fundamentally this article questions whether land rights should to be framed within the rubrics urbanism or ruralism, as has often been the case. Both categories refer to bodies of knowledge that have selectively championed specific socio-spatial practices, such as slum urbanism and subsistence farming, while unintentionally obscuring the dynamic and hybrid reality which exists in-between — such as urban farming. For this reason we argue that there is a need to transcend these prescriptive categories and focus instead on the universal land question, which is fundamentally about the ability of denizens to establish claims to land in a changing world, irrespective of where they find themselves.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.



You need to be logged in to make a comment. Please Login or Register

There are no comments on this resource.

Return to Category