New Internationalist

Simply… Land Need And Greed

November 1987

This feature was published in the November issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

new internationalist
issue 177 - November 1987


The first person to enclose a piece of land and say, 'It's mine', gave birth to the most enduring form of social inequality in the world. NI looks at the central role land has played - and continues to play - in fashioning our history.

1. EARLY DAYS

Illustration: Jim Needle The idea that a person could own land has not always existed. Earlier civilizations - whether hunter-gatherers or pastoralists - held land communally and would have found the concept of private ownership ridiculous if not sacrilegious. The belief that land belongs to no-one is still held by most tribal peoples in the world today - be they in Australasia, Africa, Asia or the Americas. Communal ownership, minus the religious element was also proposed by Plato in his Republic as the only way to achieve peace and unity in society.


2. DARK AGES

Illustration: Jim Needle Feudal lords in medieval Europe had little truck with such ideals all land belonged to the monarch. He or she would distribute it to supporters as 'tenants in fee'. In return these lords and barons would swear loyalty, provide armies and pay taxes. The nobles would themselves distribute land to peasants, exacting labour and taxes in the form of the food they grew. Peasants were obliged to pay taxes to the Church. The lords and clergy had, for their part; a duty to provide for the poor in time of hunger or need and let them graze their animals unhindered on common land - the only means of survival for many.


Illustration: Jim Needle
3. ENCLOSURES

But from the 16th century onwards the landed gentry realized the benefits - to them - of claiming and enclosing common land. A series of Enclosures Acts were passed which effectively forced the rural poor off the land and into towns and cities. Those who remained became landless labourers with little option but to work on the estates of local landowners. Subsequent laws, such as the Act of Settlement, cut deeper into the rights of these rural poor by not allowing them to leave the parish unless they owned land.


Illustration: Jim Needle
4. NEW WORLD

Meanwhile, European explorers had discovered the so-called 'New World'. Puzzled Peruvians and Mexicans heard conquistadores like Pizarro or Cortes claiming every mountain, valley, field, river and forest they clapped eyes on for 'The King of Spain, in the name of God.' These conquistadores had no qualms about massacring indigenous peoples who questioned such divine right. Pioneer settlers of English origin were doing much the same in North America and the West Indies. Later on, in Africa and India too, communal tribal land ownership was to be gradually replaced by the colonial model of individual ownership.


Illustration: Jim Needle
5. SLAVERY

The colonists had all the land they needed - and much more besides. The only problem was that in the New World there were not enough indigenous people left to work the vast plantations. The slave trade was born to meet that demand. Captured Africans were shipped across the Atlantic in such hellish conditions that many never survived the journey. The wealth of a powerful plantation owner in Brazil or Jamaica was now assessed not by the amount of land held but by the number of slaves owned.


Illustration: Jim Needle
6. RADICALISM

Back in Europe radicals and revolutionaries were starting to challenge private land ownership. The Diggers and the Levellers in England ritualistically burned land titles, seized land and set up communes. The movements were short-lived but gave expression to eloquent and compassionate calls for justice. Digger Gerard Winstanley, wrote in 1652 : The poorest man hath as true a title and just a right to land as the richest man... by the Law of Creation it is everyone's and not a single one's'. Kingly government, he added, was that of the highwayman who had stolen the earth from his younger brother. Not to mention his sister.


7. REVOLUTION

Illustration: Jim Needle The French Revolution of 1789 was a dramatic turning point in the history of land tenure. Lands belonging to the exiled aristocracy and the Church were seized and redistributed. The Napoleonic Code which followed, changed the system of land inheritance to make sure that each child got an equal share. The Russian Revolution of 1917 went considerably further by doing away with private ownership altogether. Huge state farms were created The Chinese Revolution of 1949 carried out a similarly radical land reform which helped feed its huge population and vastly improve life expectancy. But the latest drive in both countries is towards more individualistic, family-centred farming with the aim of increasing efficiency.


8. REFORM

Illustration: Jim Needle Land reforms have taken place in many Third World countries in recent years - with varying results. Landlessness is still on the increase and redistribution, if not accompanied by a supportive system of credit; fair prices and technical help, is doomed to failure as impoverished peasants have to sell their land in order to survive a poor harvest. Large amounts of land in the Third World are still owned or otherwise controlled by multinational agribusiness interests and used for growing cash crops for export rather than basic food to meet local needs.

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