land

A massive international land grab is now underway as investors and national governments buy up millions of acres of farmlands in Africa, Asia and Latin America.  It amounts to an unprecedented and novel set of enclosures of worldwide land, much of it customary land that rural communities use and manage collectively.  Hundreds of millions of rural poor people rely upon the land for their families' food, water and material -- but they don't have formal property rights in the land.  Those rights typically belong to the government, which is authorizing the sale of “unowned” lands or "wastelands" to investors, who will then use the land for market-based farming or biofuels production.

The implications for global hunger and poverty are enormous.  Instead of commoners having local authority to grow and harvest their own food, they are being thrown off the land so that large multinational corporations and investors can feed their own countries or make a speculative killing on the world land market.  A commons is converted into a market, with all the attendant pathologies.

The 2008 financial crisis and the recent round of rising food prices on world markets have spurred much of the interest in buying up arable lands in poor countries.  Food-insecure countries figure they should take care of their own future even if it means depriving commoners in poor nations thousands of miles away.  So Saudi Arabia is spending $1 billion for 700,000 hectares of land in Africa for rice cultivation.  South Korea is buying up 700,000 hectares of African land as well.  India is assembling investment pools to buy up farmlands.

While common lands and waters are being stolen by investors and developers the world over, the Supreme Court of India decided it was not going to look the other way.  In a bold, surprising ruling, the Court made a sweeping defense of the commons as commons. 

In the January 28 decision, the Court held that the enclosure of a village pond in Rohar Jagir, Tehsil, in the State of Punjab, by real estate developers was a totally illegal occupation of the commons.  The developers, who were appealing a lower court ruling, had filled in the pond with soil and started building houses on it.  The Court ruled in unmistakable terms that the pond/land must revert to the commoners immediately and the illegal occupiers must be evicted.  Even more remarkable, the Court held that similar enclosures of common lands elsewhere in India must be reversed even if they have been in effect for years.  (Thanks, Trent Schroyer, for alerting me to this case!)

You can read the 12-page decision by Markandey Katju here [pdf file].  Given the ideological capture of American jurisprudence, it is astonishing and inspirational for me to encounter a no-nonsense affirmation of the rights of commoners by the highest court of any nation.

Who Owns the River?

The property rights crowd just can’t seem to comprehend that ownership rights are not absolute. Property doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but in a social, ecological context. The latest installment of this long-running drama is the controversy between private landowners in Gunnison, Colorado, and river-rafting outfitters that take people down the river.

The question at hand: Are the rafters violating the private property rights of landowners when they float down the river?

Historically, under the public trust doctrine of most state’s laws, the water in river and lakes belongs to everyone, and can be accessed through public rights of way. However, as the New York Times reported on April 16, it seems that they are some ambiguities about the scope of private landowner rights in Colorado. The water belongs to the public, but the river and lake beds and banks belong to the people who own the adjacent land.

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