land

This essay was published in Patterns of Commoning, which is now online for free at www.Patternsofcommoning.org.

By Véronique Rioufol and Sjoerd Wartena

A feeling of joy and achievement runs through the group of ten people gathered in Robert’s kitchen. After three years of planning, they have come to celebrate: Ingrid and Fabien will soon be able to settle down and develop their farming business. The farm is theirs!

In this small, pastoral village of the French Pre-Alps, establishing young farmers is an act of will. Everywhere, small mountain farms are closing down; work is hard and the business not deemed profitable enough. When aging farmers retire, they do not find a successor. The best land is sometimes sold off to one of the few more or less industrialized farms that remain. Overall, villages are progressively abandoned or become havens of secondary residences.

In Saint Dizier, a small village of thirty-five inhabitants, local people have decided differently. Municipality members, local residents and farmers have decided to preserve agriculture as a component of local economic activity and lifestyle. They also view farmers as young, permanent residents for the village. So they keep an eye on land put for sale, and have contacted farmers and landowners to learn their plans for the future. The municipal council has sought public subsidies to acquire farmland and rent it to young farmers, but with no success.

In 2006, villagers started to work with Terre de Liens, a recently established civil society organization focused on securing land access for agroecological farmers. Everywhere in France, high land prices and intense competition for farmland and buildings have become a major obstacle for young farmers. Obstacles are even higher for those doing organic agriculture, direct sales or other “alternative” forms of agriculture, which usually are not deemed profitable enough by banks or worthy of public policy support.

It was 82 years ago last week that 400 men of the British Workers Sports Federation marched up to Kinder Scout, a bleak moorland plateau in Peak District of England. The march was an act of civil disobedience to protest the lack of legal access to “ramble” on open lands. As the trespassers scrambled up toward the Kinder plateau, they encountered the Duke of Devonshire’s gamekeepers.  What happened next is the stuff of grand lore in British rambling: 

In the ensuing scuffle, one keeper was slightly hurt, and the ramblers pressed on to the plateau. Here they were greeted by a group of Sheffield-based trespassers who had set off that morning crossing Kinder from Edale. After exchanging congratulations, the two groups joyously retraced their steps, the Sheffield trespassers back to Edale and the Manchester contingent to Hayfield.

As they returned to the village, five ramblers were arrested by police accompanied by keepers, and taken to the Hayfield Lock-up. The day after the trespass, Rothman and four other ramblers were charged at New Mills Police Court with unlawful assembly and breach of the peace [and]….were found guilty and were jailed for between two and six months.

The arrest and subsequent imprisonment of the trespassers unleashed a huge wave of public sympathy, and ironically united the ramblers cause.   A few weeks later in 1932 10,000 ramblers – the largest number in history – assembled for an access rally in the Winnats Pass, near Castleton, and the pressure for greater access continued to grow.

On the 75th anniversary of this act of civil disobedience, in 2007, Lord Roy Hattersley described the “Kinder Trespass” as “the most successful direct action in British history" (unless you want to count Gandhi's quite larger direct actions as part of British history!).  (Here is The Guardian’s account of the Trespass in 1932.) 

Why did this event have such an impact on British consciousness that it is still celebrated – and remains controversial in some quarters? 

Because it was about the legitimate scope of private property rights. The Kinder Trespass was intended to point out how unfair and anti-social private land ownership laws were, and how they constrained the public's “right to ramble."

Why Not Tax Monopoly Rents?

Some interesting material coming out of Prosper Australia is a Melbourne-based organization and its partners, Earthsharing Australia and the Land Values Research Group.  A new report entitled “Total Resource Rents:  Harnessing the Power of Monopoly” (pdf file) finds that nearly one-quarter of Australia’s GDP comes from unearned income, not the 2% that neoclassical economists claim. 

This means that ten times greater revenue could be raised through taxing unearned income from monopolies than previously thought.  It also means that nearly half of Australia’s government revenues could be raised through channeling revenues from the real estate boom to more productive purposes.  In the process, income, company and sales taxes – along with 122 other current taxes – could be eliminated.

Report author Karl Fitzgerald, “the Renegade Economist,” describes the implications of the findings of the report:

“Unearned incomes equate to 23.6% of GDP and could be taxed without pushing up pricing structures. Most economists dismiss economic rents at just 2% of GDP. This report finds the free lunch driving the wealth gap is ten times greater than mainstream economists acknowledge. 

“Prices could fall by some 20% by reducing the number of taxes from 126 to 24” stated Fitzgerald. “The compliance and deadweight losses are a huge cost that fall disproportionately on small business.”  This reform offers a more efficient and equitable economic system, valuing productive over speculative activities.

Australia taxes productive work while averting its eyes from the incredible windfall gains handed to those who own monopoly rights. Victorian abalone licenses were sold outright for just $6 in the late 1960′s. Each license can now be leased out yearly for a reported $100,000. This unearned income can be taxed without affecting productive outcomes.

On the eve of Thanksgiving here in the US, Andro Linklater, the author of a new book, Owning the Earth:  The Transforming History of Land Ownership (Bloomsbury), describes how the Pilgrims imposed their notions of private property on the land commons in the New World.  The consequences – while perhaps inevitable, whether from them or other settlers – were nonetheless pivotal in the future development of America.  Lanklater published an excerpt of his book recently on the Bloomberg News website. (Tragically, Linklater died a week before his book’s publication on November 12.)

In 1623, William Bradford, the future governor of the colony, declared that land would be privately owned and managed, with each family assigned a parcel of land “according to the proportion of their number.”  This decision had profound effects on how individual Pilgrims managed their land and related to each other.  

As Bradford wrote:  ‘‘And no man now thought he could live except he had catle and a great deale of ground to keep them all, all striving to increase their stocks. By which means they were scattered all over the bay quickly and the towne in which they lived compactly till now was left very thinne.’’ You might say that private property rights in land were the beginning of suburban sprawl. 

Linklater points out that the native people, the Wampanaog, had allowed individual parcels of land to be used and occupied by individual families, but no one could have exclusive, permanent ownership of the land.  As the Wampanaog leader Massasoit explained:  ‘‘The land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish, and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?’’

What would the world look like if we began to re-conceptualize food as a commons?  Jose Luis Vivero Pol of the Centre for Philosophy of Law at Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium has done just that in a recent essay, “Food as a Commons:  Reframing the Narrative of the Food System.”  

The piece is impressive for daring to imagine how the world’s estimated 668 million hungry people might eat, and how all of us would become healthier, if we treated more elements of the food production and distribution system as commons.  Instead of managing food as a private good that can only be produced and allocated through markets, re-conceptualizing food as a commons helps us imagine “a more sustainable, fairer and farmer-centered food system,” writes Vivero Pol. 

One reason that the commons reframing is so useful is that it helps us see the ubiquity of enclosures in the food system.  We can begin to see the galloping privatization of farmland, water, energy and seeds.  We can see the concentration of various food sectors and the higher prices and loss of consumer sovereignty that comes from oligopoly control. 

Enclosure is snatching shared resources from us and preventing us from managing them to maximize access and good nutrition.  This is often known these days as “resource grabbing,” as companies and national governments race to seize as many abundant, cheap natural resources as they can on an international scale.  This is one reason for the many pernicious enclosures of land commons in Africa and Latin America in recent years. There is a huge exodus from traditional and indigenous lands as China, Saudi Arabia, Korea, hedge funds and others buy up natural resources.  These enclosures are moving us “from diversity to uniformity, from complexity to homoegeneity, and from richness to impoverishment,” writes Vivero Pol.  

Dougald Hine on Commoning in the City

The Summer issue of STIR is rich with thoughtful, provocative articles on the commons:  pieces on urban aquaponics and student housing coops, a how-to guide for saving the seeds from your tomatoes, instructions for sharing sourdough starter for bread-making, and more.

Two of the more arresting pieces in the issue are an insightful essay by Dougald Hine on “Commoning in the City,” and an interview with the British environmental activist George Monbiot on the concentration of land in England. 

Hine is a British writer and thinker who has started the School of Everything and the Dark Mountain Project.  Hine clearly appreciates that the commons disrupts the familiar thought-frames of conventional politics.  He writes:

“Of everything I hear during these two days [at a Stockholm conference on “Commoning in the City”], the answer that most impresses me comes from Stavros Stavrides: ‘commons’ has become useful, he argues, because of a change in attitude to the state, a disillusionment with the ‘public’ and a need for another term to takes its place. The public sphere, public values, the public sector: all of these things might once have promised some counterweight to the destructive force of the market, but this no longer seems to be the case.

Open Up the Coast to Everyone

At one time in American life, a day at the beach was open to anyone.  Over the past fifty years, however, that expectation has been slowly eroded and parceled into expensive, privately owned beachfront lots.  As Marquette professor Andrew W. Kahrl writes in The New York Times  “…up and down the Eastern Seaboard, beachfront property owners, wealthy municipalities and private homeowners’ associations threw up a variety of physical and legal barriers designed to ensure the exclusivity — and marketability — of the beach. These measures were not only antisocial but also environmentally destructive.”

The historic bulwark against the enclosure of coastal lands has been the public trust doctrine, a legal principle with deep roots in Roman law that was eventually incorporated into British and then American law.  However, U.S. state courts have generally given the public trust doctrine very different interpretations, and state legislatures have enacted different standards of public access to and ecological protection of coastal lands. 

As a result, states like California and Texas have remarkably open access to all beaches while eastern seaboard states like Connecticut and New Jersey have fairly restrictive rules.  Such states apply the public trust doctrine only to fishing and navigation, for example.  It is not widely appreciated that this is not just unfair to people who can't afford to buy or rent their own beach house, it’s an environmental danger.

In the latest issue of Stir to Action, John Gurney, an historian of the Diggers of the 17th century, has some fascinating perspectives on the Runnymede Eco-Village, a squatters encampment that began in June near the site where the Magna Carta was signed by King John.  In his essay, “The Diggers, the Land and Direct Activism,” Gurney reflects on the parallels between today’s encampment and a similar one that occurred in April 1649:

"It was in April 1649 that the Diggers, inspired by the writings of Gerrard Winstanley, occupied waste land on St George’s Hill in Surrey, and sowed the ground with parsnips, carrots and beans. For Winstanley, the earth had been corrupted by covetousness and the rise of privatge property, and the time was ripe for it tobecome once more a ‘common treasury for all’. Change was to be brought about by the poor working the land in common and refusing to work for hire. The common people had ‘by their labours … lifted up their landlords and others to rule in tyranny and oppression over them’, and, Winstanley insisted, ‘so long as such are rulers as calls the land theirs … the common people shall never have their liberty; nor the land ever freed from troubles, oppressions and complainings’. The earth was made ‘to preserve all her children’, and not to ‘preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the earth from others, that they might beg or starve in a fruitful land’ – everyone should be able to ‘live upon the increase of the earth comfortably’. Soon all people – rich as well as poor – would, Winstanley hoped, be persuaded to throw in their lot with the Diggers and work to create a new, and better society. To Winstanley, agency was key, for ‘action is the life of all and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing’.

….Digging lasted for just over a year from April 1649. The Surrey Diggers abandoned their St George’s Hill colony in the summer of 1649, after having succumbed to frequent assaults and legal actions, and by late August they had relocated to the neighbouring parish of Cobham. Here they remained until 19 April 1650, when local landowners brought hired men to destroy their houses and burn the contents and building materials. New Digger colonies had, however, sprung up elsewhere, inspired by the Surrey Diggers’ example and by Winstanley’s extraordinarily rich body of writings.

If only the rest of the world could emulate the Government of Rajasthan in India in adopting public policies to promote the commons! As the Times of India reportsRajasthan has become the first state in the country to have drafted a policy underlining the importance and the need to preserve and secure common land (commons) in rural areas.”  There may be other such government policies around the world, but they are few and far between.  The Rajasthan policies are a real breakthrough.

The Rajasthan government is in the process of identifying which grazing lands, common ponds and their catchment areas, playgrounds and other resources shall be treated as commons. Its new policies aim to decentralize governance, encourage conservation and proper ecological stewardship, assure fair access to and use of the lands, and facilitate public participation in all aspects of managing commons. 

If you want to learn more about the alarming enclosure of land commons in Africa – its history, current developments and the future – you can do no better than Liz Alden Wily's just-released series of briefing papers, “Reviewing the Fate of Customary Tenure in Africa.”   The series of reports are published by the Rights and Resources Initiative, which describes itself as “ a global coalition of organizations working to encourage forest land tenure and policy reforms and the transformation of the forest economy so that business reflects local development agendas and supports local livelihoods.”

The five-part, 80-page document is a brisk, clear introdution to the history of land commons in Afrtica.  Alden Wily, who studies land tenure practices from Nairobi, Kenya, explains the role of law, money and force in dispossessing native Africans of their customary lands. The basic story is that community-governed commons are being converted into private property traded in the market, resulting in all the familiar pathologies:  People's sense of identity and connection to others wanes; they lose access and use of resources critical to their survival; ecosystems are damaged by market-driven enterprises and investors; and the displaced commoners, unable to support themselves, migrate to cities and become wage slaves, or fall to the margins of the new market culture by becoming beggars, pirates or hapless improvisers in the “informal economy."

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