Recent changes in the agrarian studies and geography literatures present differing views on the pace and trajectory of change in rural developing areas. In this special section of Human Geography, we contrast the theoretical and practice implications of these differing approaches, namely depeasantization, accumulation by dispossession and deproletarianization. Depeasantization refers to change in livelihood activities out of agriculture, long theorized as necessary for an area’s transition into capitalism. Accumulation by dispossession is a process of on-going capital accumulation where a give resource is privatized, seized, or in some other manner alienated from common ownership in order to provide a basis for continued capital accumulation. Deproletarianization occurs when workers are no longer able to freely commodify and recommodify their only commodity, their own labour. In this section, we explore these three theses with case studies that draw upon empirical data. The papers in this collection all speak to one aspect or another of these debates. We do not intend to try to determine a “best approach”, rather we explore strengths and weaknesses of each argument. The production of nature, change in the mode of production and the political economy of nature are discussed in the first article by Brent McCusker. Phil O’Keefe and Geoff O’Brien examine the evolution of worked landscape under pre-capitalist modes of production in riverine ecologies. Through further case studies, Paul O’Keefe explores links between livelihoods and climate change in Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, while Franklin Graham explores the persistence of pastoralism in the Sahel. Finally, Naomi Shanguhyia and Brent McCusker examine the process of governance in dry land Kenya through the study of chronic food shortages.