What can it look like when groups of people organise themselves on and with the land outside of the lens, language, and relations of enclosure?
By Anoushka Zoob Carter
“The idea of individual, exclusive ownership, not just of what can be… occupied, but of the immovable, near-eternal earth, has proved to be the most destructive and creative cultural force in written history.”Andro Linklater
Whilst exploring the politics of commoning and ecologies, as is the concern of Future Natures, the term ‘enclosure’ comes up a lot.
Enclosure is a process. It doesn’t refer only to the use of physical fences to rupture a commons, but also involves the expropriation and / or ‘primitive accumulation’ that dispossess commoners and often causes displacement. Far from being a one-off event during early capitalism, enclosure remains fundamental to capitalist globalization and growth, and is broadly cemented by a logic of exclusion, domination, and control over places and people.
Across the world, land is a well-weathered bastion of enclosure. The ecologies of these enclosures are riddled with varying kinds of violence, a somewhat inherent feature of converting “a landscape into real estate”. These enclosures often entail the conversion of land that’s been managed cooperatively, collectively, or otherwise in common to becoming the property of individual, or otherwise private, ‘tenure’ and interest.
From the Midlands Revolt in 17th century England, to the Zapatista liberation movement in Mexico, the Mapuche struggle against the United Colours of Benetton in Argentina, and the Adivasi communities in India today, violent acts of ‘commons grabbing’ and land enclosure have often been met with resistance.
In England today, the smallest scraps of legally designated ‘common’ lands are still vulnerable to the whims of the land-wealthy. This was recently illustrated in Dartmoor National Park when a wealthy landowner took to the courts to end wild camping on their land. He won, and now the Dartmoor National Park is going to pay landowners like him to allow people to camp on the commons. If this sounds nonsensical, it’s because it is. Not least because it furthers the idea that a relationship of ‘access’ to nature requires financial transaction.
When the concept of private land ownership dominates, so do certain values, beliefs, and assumptions of how land and life is structured in society. Owning land as a private good is often underpinned by the desire to commodify it, meaning its exchange value (usually monetary) is prized above all else. This often disregards the non-monetary values of land, including its ecological health, its ability to sustain people across generations, as well as the question of who gets to be on the land and how.
Where private land regimes proliferate land ‘owners’ hold significant, often absolute, rights on their property. As land access researcher Olivia Oldham has explained, we can imagine private property rights as a ‘bundle of sticks’. Each stick represents a different right to do something with or to the land; to exclude others from it, to alter it, build on it, sell it, or even destroy it. In contrast, when one considers the land as a bundle of responsibilities, life cycles, and relationships, it becomes quite odd to think that one person can ‘own’ all of this and need act only out of self-interest.
Whilst not always inherently destructive, the vision of land as a marketable, commodifiable asset is a narrow one. It leaves little space for a plurality of knowledges and practices which care for the land as a collective need and heritage.
Under private property regimes, land ‘owners’ might hold absolute rights over land as their possession. But they must not be allowed to do so over the stories we tell about what land could be. Or, for that matter, how the land once was. “Landowners have the land, the money, the lawyers and the law in their pockets”, notes Nick Hayes, author of The Book of Trespass, but our stories “lie dormant in our soil for when we need them most.”
When we see beyond enclosure, and towards treating land as a commons, we can open up a space for critical thinking (and doing) beyond private property of any kind.
Carving out stories of the land which question land for what and land for whom is vital. As land reparations activist Josina Calliste puts it,
“Those who own the land decide what to do with it, who can access it, and how they are allowed to behave on it.”Josina Calliste
Even Hardin, the infamous author of the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ theory (or ‘The Imaginary Tragedy of the Hypothetical Commons’ as the Srsly Wrong podcast call it) wrote:
“We must admit that our legal system of private property plus inheritance is unjust”.
He goes on to say, however: “but we put up with it because we are not convinced, at the moment, that anyone has invented a better system. The alternative of the commons is too horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total ruin.” Injustice, contrary to what Hardin thought, is unacceptable. Nor is it true that there is an absence of a better system. In fact, there are a plethora of already-existing practices and approaches which decry the injustice brought by land enclosure and are trying to uproot it.
Challenging enclosures in the ‘Global North’
Elise Wach already noted in the case of England that property rights are often thought of as relatively ‘settled’. Perhaps, as Wach proposes, there is more awareness of ‘contentious’ movements for land reform in states which continue to have largely agrarian economies, like Zimbabwe or Brazil where more people depend directly on the land for their subsistence.
To see how the unsettling of private, enclosed property regimes can look in so-called ‘Global North’ countries too, let us look to three initiatives that are physically challenging these regimes in Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom. These territories are characterised by a predominantly private property tenure regime, where struggles for land access are acutely felt by food growers. I present these examples as vignettes of what living with the land can look like outside of the lens, language, and relations of commodification and towards commons-oriented forms of land tenure for food production.
Kulturland (Germany): Raising community capital for convivial farming
Kulturland is a cooperative which operates a model based on people pooling together their money to enable the ‘community purchase’ of land for social-ecological farming, indefinitely. Currently, 26 farms have been bought using community capital by way of shares.
Germany has laws to prioritise farmers in land sales. But this hasn’t stopped one-third of the land being owned by non-farming interests. Rising land purchases increases the cost of land which makes it harder to access for new entrant farmers food producers wanting to do things differently. This situation is echoed across Europe (where 60% of all land is privately owned), in countries like Romania, Albania and Ukraine. In response, Kulturland takes land out of commoditised markets, transfers it to communal forms of wealth designated specifically for the agroecological transition in Germany.
A key characteristic of this replicable community land purchase model is that Kulturland doesn’t offer any financial returns on the investments people make in farms. This is designed to prevent people investing in the initiative for financial gain. Instead, it asserts the social value of land for local food production and enables people to contribute shares in the cooperative and thus become collective custodians of the land. The bylaws involved in the structure of the cooperative are such that the land cannot be sold for profit.
So, what happens when farmers are allocated land through community-funded purchases? Though not a perfect definition, most ‘commons -based’ management frameworks begin with a ‘resource’ and certain ‘rules’ (social relations) to steward that resource. There are two key ‘rules’ that farmers must abide by if they are to farm on community-funded land.
The first is related to the practices affecting the bioregion; farmers must farm organically and in a way that minimises the impact to the nature-culture matrix in which it operates. The second rule is to maintain a ‘living connection’ with the people around the farm to keep it ‘socially active’, including young people and systemically marginalised people interested in getting into food growing. Kulturland illustrates the relationships of care that come when the ‘rules’ of how land is valued and treated are oriented towards its capacity to repair and sustain human and nonhuman life.
A key barrier to challenging hard-edged private property regimes are the threats of development (driven by growth for growth’s sake), speculation, and corporate ownership. The Agrarian Trust counters these forces in the United States as part of a movement seeking to transition land from private ownership to ‘local, community-governed commons’.
The Trust wrangles with the constraining realities of existing and harmful legal frameworks which often fail to accommodate the logic that land can be treated as a collective common. Up against corporate and large-scale agriculture land-ownership models, but the Trust pays attention to diversity in the ‘who’ in food production. The Trust aims to build an ecological food production system, whilst also providing opportunities to gain affordable access to land and infrastructure for farmers of diverse backgrounds.
Currently, 83% of agrarian commons held under the Trust have board members who identify as Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC) and/or women. Additionally, 75% of long-term leases have been transferred to BIPOC farmers.
Focused on longevity and inter-generational health, the Trust provides a functioning example of how land redistribution is possible. Given that it operates amongst landscapes mired by histories and legacies of settler colonialism, plantation agriculture, and capitalism the initiative is not without its contradictions. The (ongoing) land dispossession enacted through colonial practices of enclosure did not just cause ecological ruptures but severed many social relations too. The Agrarian Trust is therefore working in the context of stolen lands, placing land reparations in their framing of ‘re-commoning’ land.
In many cases, giving land back is a process of liberation already being traced on the land. The Agrarian Trust thereby asks: how can communities organize and come to a consensus on taking action for reparations? How can institutional landowners be engaged and involved?
Land In Our Names (UK): Land for reparational ecologies
Reparations are at the core of the UK-based group Land In Our Names (LION), as is the understanding that land is a site of struggle, oppression, liberation and autonomy. The question of how people acquire land is extremely important, particularly when – in the context of England – land acquisition continues to occur through wealth accumulated by colonial plunder and displacement abroad. LION holds a mirror up to these histories, naming and exposing the still widely unnamed racist roots of how the land-wealthy gained and inherited their power in England.
Today, the top 50 landowners in the UK own over 12% of its landmass and, perhaps unsurprisingly, are also overwhelmingly white. LION draw on an ethos of land as a means and space to repair and heal both human and nonhuman wellbeing, representing a ‘reparational ecology’.
LION supports minoritised people from ‘formerly colonised countries, people who were enslaved, and peoples whose ancestors built the wealth of Britain’. Importantly, LION’s reparational ecology framework is committed to anti-capitalism. Together, this creates a land ethic – much-needed in the land justice debate in England – capable of recognising land inequalities as hidden drivers of systematic racial injustice.
The voices of BPOC landworkers are centred in their building of ‘connection, and insurgency through the strategic renegotiation of the landscapes of captivity and dominion’. In their struggle to do this work, redistribution of land is necessary to support black agrarian traditions and raise the number of farmers who identify as non-white in England up from the current 0.8%.
LION’s ultimate goal is to create a community land trust, to provide practical solutions for BPOC land stewards to access to land. This mission, backed by a new report titled ‘Jumping Fences’, shows the possibilities that come when land is valued as a space for diverse, creative, and intersectional communities rather than the ‘increasingly isolated and alienated’ trajectory of many exclusive rural idylls.
The relationships that counter enclosure
It is important not to simplify the work of these initiatives, and to recognise their challenges. They also reveal how identity and belonging are important considerations in building more desirable land tenure systems, which deserve a conversation in their own right. But they show that to unsettle the exclusionary nature of private property and inequitable land access, no less than anti-capitalist, anti-colonial kinship making and allyship is needed.
This, of course, needs to happen alongside broader land reform – something that Elise Wach has discussed in her recent article. For many people this is is not to have a ‘seat at the table’, but to determine what the table is (i.e., to assert how land is debated and framed, to borrow from Farhana Sultana).
All three of these stories depict the reclaiming of community control of a certain area of land with their specific contexts and where community is defined in diverse ways. They are stories not dormant in the soil but alive; drawing on the role of imagination, unlearning, relearning, and care-centred labour to shape a post-capitalist land commons.
Where enclosure has become a settled feature of a society, particularly when dominated by Eurocentric thinking, navigating alternatives appears difficult but yet essential. Going back to the Linklater quote at the start of this article, there is a need for a counter ‘creative cultural force’ that reworks and prefigures human-land relations – the ‘commoning’ relations; all the while asking how we can reproduce ourselves on and with land.
These stories work, as Guatemalan agroecology activist Antonio Gonzalez maintains,
“Within the constraints and limits of the present” but without “losing sight of the long-term goal of radical transformation of dominant socio-economic structures”.Antonio Gonzalez
Unsettling enclosure is a process which, in many ways, seems to be defined by relationships: ones with the creative power and potential to move the land towards a means of repair rather than source of ruptures, displacements, and pain.