“Under capitalism, all land is seen as a warehouse of potential commodities to be sold to the highest bidder.” Robin Wall Kimmerer
Can a person own a piece of their mother? No? Then, how can we claim to own land? Land is Earth, the giver of all life. We didn’t create it; it created us.
Dictionary.com defines ownership as “The total body of rights to use and enjoy a property, to pass it on to someone else as an inheritance, or to convey it by sale.” They could have added the right to deny other people its use. How does anyone earn the right to exploit their creator and exclude others, no matter who the process harms?
Owners no doubt spent money for those rights, but whom did they pay? How did the seller gain ownership? They bought it from somebody else, who had bought it from somebody else, until you get back to the original owner, a conqueror or King who stole it from the Indians.
Land ownership is possession of stolen goods. When a landowner claims a right to log a forest, mine coal under the ground, or build a chemical plant, because they bought the land, they are confessing to a crime and planning new crimes.
Private property has its valuable sides. People who live on land they own may take better care of it than renters or visitors. But many absentee owners, especially corporate owners, take all they can from land and leave it suffering. When money becomes more valuable than land, we get the environmental destruction and injustice we see today, with many people having no place to live at all.
We need a new definition of ownership and a new relationship to land. Indigenous people didn’t own land; they revered it. Many countries have other ways of managing land. We’re not stuck with letting rich property owners destroy our world.
Rights vs. obligations
In America, we spend a lot of time talking about our rights. People talk about their right to carry weapons, to drive cars, to drill for oil on land they have bought, or to pave it over.
Native Americans are far more likely to talk about their obligations. Nuxalk hereditary chief Edward Moody said, “We must protect the forests for our children, grandchildren and children yet to be born. We must protect the forests for those who can’t speak for themselves: the birds, animals, fish and trees.”
If modern land owners, especially corporations, focused on obligations instead of rights, the Amazon jungle would not be burning. The forests of Indonesia would not be turned into coconut plantations. People living near chemical plants would not be dying of cancer.
How did private ownership of property arise?
How did the concept of ownership get applied to land? It started about 10,000 years ago, when small tribes were growing into kingdoms. The first people to say ‘This land belongs to me’ were kings. Ownership gradually trickled down to the nobility and in the last 400 years to the capitalist class and then to the middle class in rich countries.
Ownership of land and the right to pass it on to one’s descendants are pillars of patriarchy and class domination. In nearly all times and places, men have owned land and given it to their sons. Land inheritance gives recipients a huge advantage over landless people and women.
I’m not saying private possession of land is always bad. Farmers working their own land tend to work much harder and better than those who are working for the government. The Soviet Union and China both experienced famines when they collectivized privately-owned or community-owned land and turned the farmers into workers.
This upside of ownership, however, only applies when the owners live on the land and love it. When owned by corporations or profit-seeking individuals, land becomes a rape scene, with most of its native life driven out and its fertility worn away by industrial farming, development, or lumbering. This is why we need a new relationship to land. Instead of seeing it as a bunch of resources to exploit, we need to care for it.
How should land be managed?
Since large-scale collective ownership and unlimited private ownership have both caused catastrophe, how should we manage land? Indigenous people and many other countries have programs that work, but so far the power of money has blocked them here.
Writing on Aeon.com, researcher Antonia Malchik gives several examples. In China, all urban land and wilderness land is owned by the state, and all other rural land is owned by village peoples’ collectives and allocated for specific uses, according to Xinhua.net. Urban land is allocated by the state for specific purposes or sold by granting leases to individuals or private bodies.
In Nigeria, people can’t own land. Instead they apply for a lease to use the land and get a certificate of occupancy, which may be for a few years or much longer. If people break the regulations set out in the lease, it can be revoked and the land re-appropriated by the state.
Scotland allows people to own their homes and farms, but not to exclude other people from them. You can still hike on their land and forage for food in the woods. The USA used to have such laws. Hunting on another’s unenclosed land was perfectly legal.
Russian peasants had the mir or ‘joint responsibility’ system, which ensured that everyone in a rural community had land and resources enough — including tools — to support themselves and their families. “Strips of land were broken up and redistributed every so often to reflect changing family needs,” Malchik writes. “Land belonged to the mir as a whole. It couldn’t be taken away or sold.”
One of Malchik’s Australian readers commented, “Here, my privately-owned five acres is heavily restricted. I can plant as many trees as I like, but I cannot cut down a tree without local government permission.”
A New and Ancient Attitude Toward Land
The economy of the USA is built on private ownership of homes. According to the Census Bureau, 65% of Americans own their homes. Taking home ownership away would devastate millions.
But as in the countries described above, redefining ownership as a very long-term lease with clear and restrictive terms would help everyone. You’ve got it as long as you take good care of it and don’t hurt anybody else. These systems work better when they are local, when people know each other and the land.
Leased land and homes would not revert to banks in a financial crisis. Government at some level would take them over, because companies would only be entitled to property if they lived on it or were working to make it better. Use it or lose it. Under these rules, government could keep economically distressed people in their homes and bring homeless people to vacant homes.
Bottom line is we need to follow indigenous attitudes to land. Lakota leader Mary Brave Bird said, “The land is sacred. The land is our mother, the rivers our blood.” We have to revere land; it gives us life. It’s not ours to own, buy or sell, but it is our responsibility to care for it.
Watch this video for more on indigenous approaches to land..
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