Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Earth & Environmental Sciences


Ruth Wilson Gilmore

Committee Members

Cindi Katz

Don Robotham

Subject Categories

Human Geography


Squatting, Dispossession, Social Reproduction, Postcolonial State, Neoliberalism, Land Policy


Capture and Abandon: Social Reproduction and Informal Land Tenure in Jamaica examines how ongoing policy development to curtail squatting is shifting state capacity away from a project of land reform and towards one of land management. Scholarship about informal settlements elsewhere tends to understand dispossession as a project of the neoliberal state. I argue that it is strategically necessary to elucidate the ways in which the production of durable but insecure access to land is not novel, but is imbricated in the historical production of a Black labor force that is self-sufficient and yet ready at hand, reproducing themselves through what I—following Sylvia Wynter—call “working a plot.”

This investigation puts into relation Cindi Katz’s concept of topography—an ethnography of a process—with Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s examination of key surpluses and their reconfiguration in moments of capitalist crisis. Through ethnographic research regarding emerging state practices as experienced by residents, I examine how surpluses of land, labor, and state capacity are made idle and are only partially repurposed. In taking up the concept of surplus state capacity as method, I explain how transformations of the state are the “restless outcome” of contradictory traditions—of Black rebellion, and on the other hand, of making a future adequate to capitalist development.

This dissertation is based on seven months of fieldwork including interviews with state agents and 3-1/2 months of ethnographic research at a location where residents had been served with eviction notices. As with other recent sites of eviction in Jamaica, the settlement was seen as being in conflict with a new tourist resort. A former sugar estate, this site is now at the interface between land made surplus by agricultural disinvestment and a boom in tourism development. As a result, daily life of informal residents traverses uneven development: inadequate roads, water supply, storm drainage, electricity, and sewage infrastructures. This “organized abandonment” lies in full view of new investments in highway, water mains, sewage treatment facilities, resorts, and tourist activity centers. This renders less efficient residents’ work to reproduce themselves, deepening the subsidy to capital. Yet despite evictions and the uneven development of infrastructure, there are remains within the state that resist the delegitimizing of residents’ claims to land in informal settlements. As such, the site presented an opportunity to investigate contradictions within the postcolonial state, contradictions that shape which residents are understood to be in legitimate possession of the land.

Though offered a pathway to regularization, residents were unable to fulfill its legal requirements. Portrayed by regulators as their “failure,” this characterization renders invisible the historical and ongoing processes through which they and so many others come to be in durable possession, but not owners, of land. This research also reveals the futurity of capture: beyond merely possessing a square of land, or meeting one’s basic needs, capture is about inserting oneself adjacent to Jamaica’s emerging landscapes of development; the very instability of capturing land reveals a deeper opposition to the concept of property-in-land than is immediately apparent. The contradiction evident in policy formation regarding squatting—producing uneven dispossession—has something to do with the recuperation of a sanitized version of the Black small farmer as an agriculturalist. Judged against this respectable figure, the “illegal squatter” is not recognized as a descendant of Black refusal.