November 2021 marked the 20th anniversary of the conception of BRICS. Two decades have passed since the acronym BRIC – Brazil, Russia, India, China – was brought into our popular vernacular by Jim O'Neill, an economist at Goldman Sachs.1
His influential paper, entitled 'Building Better Global Economic BRICs' (O' Neill, 2001
), analysed the spectacular economic growth this group of countries were set to experience, and the implications of these future trends for international political economy. For enthusiastic consumers of the report and detractors alike, the term BRICs (where the 's' at the end denotes plural) and its embedding within unambiguously optimistic economic predictions by a leading investment bank, was a clear indication of how these countries were being constructed as profitable investment destinations to which global financial flows could be directed. The external acronym, in fact, served as an impetus for the leaders of the four nations to act on the economic optimism surrounding them, when they first met in 2006 alongside the UN General Assembly. Delegates from the four countries met more formally in Yektarinburg, Russia in 2009 to give an institutional form to 'BRICs.' In the initial period that followed, the BRICs became an aspirational bloc with its own internal dynamics: they held yearly summits, had diplomatic ambitions, made commitments to large-scale infrastructure projects within their national boundaries as well as transnational ones in their regions. They flexed their economic muscle by establishing a new lending institution – the New Development Bank – and challenging the hegemony of European and North American countries in international finance.
In 2011, South Africa joined this country grouping as an economic outperformer in the Global South – an emerging economy and a young democracy – taking the BRICs to BRICS, where the 'S' now stood for its newest member. With this addition, the BRICS countries accounted for 26% of the global landmass and 20% of the total global GDP (Saran, 2015
, p. 626). While sceptics and cautious enthusiasts variously described the BRICS as a kind of 'loose association,' a 'Potemkin village' (Pomeranz, 2013
), or a 'club of coincidence' (Saran, 2015
), this grouping undoubtedly comprised of countries with common economic aspirations and similar ideas on the type of multilateralism and shifts in global political economy that would be required to achieve them. It is these underlying economic aspirations that have served to reinvigorate the flow of capital within and across BRICS countries amidst a financing vacuum within a post-financial crisis world. In 2017, nearly a decade after the 2008 financial crisis, the BRICS accounted for 19% of global investment inflows (Garcia & Bond, 2019
, p. 226). Much of these financial flows have been channelled into capital-intensive land-hungry infrastructure projects.
In this Introduction, we reflect on the BRICS countries, exploring the politics that underlie these nations' dynamic economic and political transformations over the past 20 years. We do so, more specifically, through the lens of land where these larger transformations have come to be expressed. In the last two decades, the BRICS countries have undergone dramatic land-use transformations or initiated large-scale infrastructure projects within the regions of which they are a part, for example: China's attempts at re-establishing the Silk Road Economic Belt across Europe, Asia and Africa; in India, the Modi Administration's plan to develop 100 smart cities connected by bullet trains; Moscow's aspiration to build the Russian Far East into a 'new economic bridge' between Europe and Asia through the development of Advanced Special Economic Zones; and, the expansion of industrial large-scale farming in Brazil and South Africa, are all manifestations of the BRICS visions for 'sustainable' and 'smart' development.' These land-use transformations are results of shifting economic interests and priorities, as well as imaginations about their past and future. Since "the state, market and politics are deeply intertwined within the lives of land' (Sud, 2021
, p. 9), processes and practices through which land is developed and transformed reveal the workings of economic and social power (Hall et al., 2015
). Land then serves as a compelling medium through which one can pin down the combination of political and social institutions and economic interests that ground spectacular amounts of capital as 'investment' in BRICS countries.
This Special Section and our reflections here in this Introduction emerged from an interdisciplinary conference held at the University of Oxford's Department of International Development in 2019 and the discussions that have ensued since. At the time, our intention was to reflect on the large-scale land transformations taking place in the BRICS bloc organised across three broad spatial themes: 1) Belts, Corridors, Zones; 2) Trading Floor, Real Estate, the City; and, 3) Farms, Forests, Commons. We identified these spaces as important for critical reflection on the BRICS countries because they represent spaces of contestation: between the planned and unplanned, formal and informal, the rural and urban, of shifting economic interests and priorities. The negotiations within these contested spaces, thus, merit our attention.
The set of papers published in this special section of the ODS represents a slice of these initial inquiries. They are diverse in terms of frameworks and methodologies – papers by Tim Zajontz (China in Zambia), and Asmita Kabra and Buddhatiya Das (conservation in India) use the concepts of 'accumulation by dispossession' and 'regime of dispossession' respectively to shed light on the logics of capital accumulation at the transnational and national level. Papers by Daniela Barbosa, Edmundo Oderich, and Angela Carmana (soy production in Brazil) and Yimin Zhao (urbanisation in China) provide ethnographically informed analyses and deploy the concepts of 'cosmopolitics' from political ecology and 'performativity' and 'multidimensionality' respectively to complicate politics over land at the subnational level. Through the lens of 'land,' however, these papers capture how local politics combine with larger structural economic forces in BRICS to actualise financial flows in BRICS. In doing so, they also provide an account of the changing nature of the state and its institutions in BRICS nations. Specifically, in highlighting the ways in which formal rules of land governance are bent, modified, revised, and abandoned to accommodate the newer demands of capital as well as visions of sustainable development (smart 'urbanisation' in the case of China, and 'conservation' in the case of India), the state can no longer be neatly categorised as a 'developmental,' 'predatory,' or 'Party-state.' The state's control of land through legal and bureaucratic manoeuvrings in India, and deployment of local party officials and discourses in China reveal how the state remains formidable yet flexible to incorporate 21st century visions of 'development.'
Academic scholarship on the implications of BRICS as an entity – the power of its pooling together of economic resources, or its political valence as a discursive formation – is relatively underdeveloped. Exceptions exist, such as the interconnected changes in industrial policy in the BRICS (Santiago, 2020
), and the reproduction of imperialist logics in amassing natural resources and labour cheaply, emanating from its location as a 'Southern' bloc in the era of globalisation (Garcia & Bond, 2019
). The BRICS grouping has served as an empirical context for comparative analysis for a number of topics and issues, such as urban housing (Tiwari, Rao, & Day, 2016
), but also cumulative learning by analysing lessons from each of the composite units on water conservation and wastewater management (Singh, Milshina, Tian, Gusain, & Bassin, 2020
As with a well-established strand of literature, discussed in the next section, we focus on individual countries. The brief but contested potential of BRICS as a cohesive bloc has been in decline in recent years (Amanor & Chichava, 2016
). In fact, Mawdsley (2019
) argues that the initial cohesion is increasingly impossible to sustain amid differing and at times even conflicting political interests amongst the BRICS nations. Heightened India–China hostility in recent years and the muted economic performance of Brazil and South Africa have undermined the BRICS' potential for co-ordinated geopolitical influence and economic policies, respectively. Yet, the BRICS meet annually, with the latest round being held in September 2021 under the chairmanship of India. Additionally, the New Development Bank remains active, even if its initial glimmer has dimmed. The Bank, in fact, has gone on to admit Bangladesh, UAE, Uruguay, and most recently Egypt as members eligible for borrowing for infrastructure development within its borders and in other emerging economies (NDB, 2021
). Even if the BRICS coalition exists in its reduced-form, interrogating questions of political economy – economic interests, power, and governance – in the constituent countries is a vital and reasonable choice because Brazil, India, China and South Africa continue to be economic hegemons in their respective regions, and remain important as drivers of 'Southern-led' investment in the Global South more generally.
Our endeavour to reflect on land transformations in BRICS countries has been only partially realised in this Special Section; a glaring shortcoming in putting together this collection through the pressures of the pandemic is that we were not able to canvass and retain articles that focused on these themes in Russia and South Africa. This disadvantage, we believe, is partially mitigated by our efforts in drawing on the illuminating keynote address delivered by Ruth Hall, bringing in insights from the existing scholarship on the two countries, and in offering tentative ideas on the broader implications of land-driven development projects on the future of BRICS.