Sharing Land, Restoring the Commons
I am among the privileged of the world because I own not only the home I live in (debt-free to boot) but enough land to be able produce the food needed to support a family, situated in a beautiful place with fertile soil, lots of trees, and abundant wildlife and water (most years). I am also surrounded by a wonderful community that includes professional organic growers and meat producers who make it unnecessary for me to do it all myself.
Even before the current intersecting crises of climate, pandemic, and inequity came to disrupt our “normal” lives there was a significant uptick in activity around various land sharing projects, particularly among people of color and indigenous communities. Opportunities to hear from leaders in these efforts have been piling up in my webinar collection, all of which offer inspiration and hope at this critical moment.
My own aspirations towards land-sharing have a long history, which I have mused about being a kind of family legacy bequeathed by my parents. Perhaps even a longing inherited from earlier generations of eastern European Jewish forebears who were frustrated in not being allowed to own land and secure their family and village food supply. The Zionist movement of the 19th and 20th centuries, flawed as it was, at least generated the access to communally farmed land of the kibbutz movement.
This example later served as a model for the initiation of the land trust movement in the sixties, when Bob Swann, co-founder of the Schumacher Center for New Economics, accompanied Shirley and Charles Sherrod on a tour of Israeli kibbutz and moshav settlements. The first community land trust (CLT) in the US, founded by the Sherrods and others as New Communities, Inc. was the result. The New Comunities story centers on its role in the Southern civil rights movement, in which access to land to feed the community was of the utmost importance.
Often called the “first CLT,” New Communities Inc. (NCI) was an outgrowth of the Southern Civil Rights Movement, as it unfolded in Albany, Georgia during the 1960s. The leaders of New Communities had also been leaders of the Albany Movement and the local field office for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Their hope in establishing this new form of tenure was to secure greater economic and political independence for African American farmers and their families who were being forced off the land by the mechanization of agriculture and in retaliation for registering to vote.
Since that time the concept of land trusts has evolved in various forms, with contributions from aspects of the cooperative movement. Most land trusts in rural areas are oriented towards preserving farmland and ecologically sensitive areas through conservation easements, particularly in regions where development pressures make the cost of land prohibitive. In such cases the cost of acquiring farmland is reduced by the purchase of development rights by the land trust, which restricts subdividing or building dwellings on the prime farmable acreage “in perpetuity.” Ownership of the land still passes to the farmer(s) or their business entity. In urban areas, community land trusts have become a common form of acquiring or building housing that is made available to qualified low income buyers or renters. Variations such as co-housing communities, land co-ops, farming collectives, and similar arrangements have more recently arrived on the scene.
Private land ownership as a problem
The idea of individual land ownership is fundamentally at odds with the cause of equity and access to the necessities of life for all. Yet this is a fundamental tenet on which the US was founded, baked into the original restriction of voting rights to land-owning (white) men. Along with chattel slavery, private land ownership has been foundational to our current system of industrial capitalism. Protection of private property rights--including until too recently ownership of other human beings—is deemed sacrosanct in our legal system.
The “new world” was, in fact, largely colonized by populations dispossessed from their European homelands by the enclosure movement and the Clearances, as well as by multiple wars and famines. The Irish potato famine is the most well known example of mass migration triggered by an artificial famine. In this case the British colonizer landlords received grain crops in payment of levees, but the food on which the Irish peasants depended for subsistence—i.e. potatoes—died due to the lack of genetic diversity in the single variety of potatoes that was propagated from Latin America. Similar scenarios have played out in more recent high profile famine events in Asia and Africa as well as the Americas.
Indigenous peoples have historically had little concept of the idea of private land ownership, viewing the land as inherently the birthright of the whole community, deserving of respect and care, even reverence. The Native American tribes that greeted the first European colonists were likely shocked to learn that their early contracts exchanging trade goods for access to their territorial lands meant that they would ultimately be evicted from their ancestral homelands. When it wasn’t simply a matter of outright theft and genocide.
Land ownership has also been the most important path to freedom and security for formerly enslaved peoples, immigrants, and refugees. But even when the formerly enslaved were able to scrape together the resources to acquire land and even prosper, the forces of white supremacy baked into our system conspired to rob most of them of their hard won safety – whether through discriminatory credit policies or through fraud and violence. This recent article in the New York Times provides some helpful information about Black land loss in the United States.
The new landscape of land sharing and reparations
The recent explosion of interest and work on creating alternative structures for shared or collective land ownership, especially for the purpose of providing access to marginalized and “under-resourced” populations, continues unabated as new groups and initiatives arise on a daily basis. The following are a few of those I’ve learned about in the last couple of years. Please tell me what others you know about, and I’ll endeavor to update a running list on the Organic Revolutionary website.
My vision for my own community
It has been a struggle for me to find a way to both live my own vision and help make it possible for others to do so. Attempts at cooperative land ownership, including a couple of years spent working on developing a farm based co-housing community in a neighboring town, have failed to materialize. Today my thoughts turn to working with a few neighbors who are also aging land owners to stitch together a land trust that will allow us to invite new farmers or homesteaders to make their homes here, but also enable us to live out our lives in our own homes and pass them along to our descendants. I would love to see my land worked and stewarded to support the families who live here as well as continuing to build the health of the soil and the whole ecosystem that depends on it. The details and possibilities will require rigorous research, but the inspiration and examples offered by the new farmers and indigenous leaders give me hope for a resilient, joyful post-carbon, post-pandemic future.
Post Script: 2021 New Year’s Revelation
After putting the finishing touches on this commentary I was sipping my morning coffee and browsing a hard copy of the latest FEDCO Seeds Catalog – a literary treat as well as a prompt for dreaming of garden season and seeding inspiration. There on page 50, under Parsnips, was a modest section highlighting a cooperative organization allied with FEDCO’s mission and values called Land in Common Land Trust. Quickly turning to the group’s web site and eagerly reading their booklet entitled “Land in Common: An Introduction and an Invitation,” my eyes started tearing up. This is exactly the sort of organization I had just imagined in my closing paragraph! As I prepare to send these thoughts out to the world, deliberating on what’s next in my journey on this plane of life, I give thanks to the collective wisdom that connects us all. May the spark of inspiration light the way to home and safety for everyone who may need it.