Research School for Socio-Economic and
Natural Sciences of the Environment
Research School for Socio-Economic and
Natural Sciences of the Environment

Niels Debonne

Date: 05 February 2021
Location: Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam

Dissertation title: 

New actors and scales of agriculture: a land system science perspective

Group: Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Environmental Geography
Promotors: Prof. Dr. Ir. Peter Verburg
Co-promotors: Prof. Dr. Jasper van Vliet

Extra information:


Agriculture has profoundly changed in the 21st century and continues to do so. The smallholder family farm is increasingly being replaced by new actors, working at scales orders of magnitude larger than before. Large-scale land acquisitions, pejoratively labelled as land grabs, have been the most striking process, shifting the control over land resources, mostly in the Global South, to an international investor class aiming to install plantations for export agriculture or to use the land as an asset in an investment portfolio. However, more subtle dynamics are also at work to redistribute control over land and agency over land management to new actors. In Sub-Saharan Africa, census data conveys signs of a relatively rapid farm scale shift from small-scale (typically less than 5 hectares) to medium-scale (tens of hectares) farms. Meanwhile, value chain actors up- and downstream of the farm unit are increasingly exerting influence over the land management of farmers, often using contract farming arrangements. In this thesis, I frame these dynamics as land system changes. They change land use and land cover, but also land management and the societal relationship to land. The empower new land institutions and replace old ones. From a land system science perspective, I question what the land system characteristics of new agricultural actors are (systems knowledge), how their objectives align or misalign with environmental and rural development objectives (target knowledge), and if and how they can provide opportunities for environmental management and rural development (transformation knowledge). Methodologically, I innovate land system change models to include new actors, thus allowing for a tangible, spatially-explicit envisioning of the implications of various policy scenarios related to new actors.