Food security is one of the first victims of the increasingly extreme weather patterns linked to the climate emergency. People face even greater insecurity when they have little or no access to land to grow food. Unequal land ownership is a consequence of both historical inequalities linked, for example to colonialism and the enclosures, but also to ongoing contemporary land grabbing. Huge amounts of land outside of the European Union are controlled by companies within it. In response, many international movements are seeking to secure access to land for millions of marginalised and economically insecure people.
Questions of land ownership are vital because there is a limited amount of land, a growing number of people wanting to secure rights over it, but an increasing concentration of ownership in fewer hands. As the American writer Mark Twain famously advised: “buy land, they’re not making it any more”. Philosophers and lawyers might say that no one owns land; they just have rights over it. In many traditional communities, customary as opposed to legal rights was the norm, and it still is for many indigenous communities. Often people share entitlements to different uses of the same land. Even in the global North today, one person may own the right to occupy land, another to travel through it, and someone else to extract the minerals. Usually the state has some sort of veto, which it may use in times of extreme emergency, such as war, societal breakdown or perhaps in the future, climate change. Or, again, it may exercise such rights in pursuit of policy objectives such as the development of transport, energy or housing infrastructure.
The Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations (FAO) notes that agricultural production will have to increase by 60% by 2050 to feed our growing population, saying:
Agriculture must therefore transform itself if it is to feed a growing global population and provide the basis for economic growth and poverty reduction. Climate change will make this task more difficult under a business-as-usual scenario, due to adverse impacts on agriculture, requiring spiralling adaptation and related costs.
Given the importance of land, and land-use change, to tackling climate change, and the need to revisit food systems in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is worth looking at innovative models of land tenure that can help in building resilient agricultural systems in a warming world.
Sometimes governance is so poor and land ownership so historically unfair – often due to forms of asset looting, such as in the legacy of colonial land grabbing, or the expropriation of land by elites during enclosures – that people feel compelled to take matters into their own hands. This has happened in numerous countries around the world, by many people denied land or subject to expropriation – and often in the face of extreme government and corporate-backed violence.
But in highly unequal Brazil, the Landless Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra or MST) is the country’s biggest social movement, with over 1.5 million members. In Brazil less than 3% of the population owns two-thirds of the land and more than half of it lies unused. MST have used direct action to occupy land and claim ownership through a long, arduous and personally dangerous legal process. To date, 350,000 families now have legal ownership of small farms as a result. But many lost their lives in the process and 17 April is designated International Day of Peasant Struggle in memory of the 19 MST members killed and 69 wounded during a police attack in 1996. The movement has also taken what it has learnt in order to support and educate others, using training and exchange programmes.
In North America, the Community Land Trust (CLT) has emerged as a successful tool for urban communities to enable poorer people to own homes and to fight back against the gentrification of areas. But it is also being used to take ownership of rural land for farming. It’s estimated that more than 400 million acres of farmland in the US will change hands over the next two decades as a generation of farmers and ranchers retire, with the average age of farmers in the United States being 58. Much farming land has been priced far outside of the economic viability of a young, incoming farmer trying to start in agriculture. The purpose of a CLT is to remove land from the speculative market and make it available to those who will use it for the long term benefit of the community. A CLT generally owns full title to its lands and grants long term (like 99-year) renewable leases to those who will actually use the land. Lease fees vary from one CLT to another, but they are generally less than typical mortgage payments, and less than full rental cost. The leaseholders have many of the use and security rights we normally associate with ownership; they own the buildings on the land and can take full benefit from improvements they make to the land. They cannot, however, sell the land, nor can they usually rent or lease it without the consent of the trust.
The Agrarian Trust works by holding agricultural land in a community trust to ensure that elder farmers have the opportunity to pass on their craft while also still preserving the ecology of their land. It enables them to maintain small, sustainable enterprises and to prevent them being swallowed up into bigger, mainstream commercial ventures. These farms not only serve as tools for reviving rural communities and bolstering small-town economies, but they also seek to improve sustainability. In the face of a changing climate, the Trust has prioritised the importance of bringing people back in tune with the landscape in the hope that this will regenerate both land and people. The Agrarian Trust is now engaged with 12 foundation farms/ranches to create 10 Agrarian Commons in 10 states across the country.
Land across the global North is expensive and too often used for construction speculation, rather than for food production. In the UK, it is almost impossible to get into farming unless you inherit a farm or are wealthy enough to buy one. However, groups of people are working out how to share unproductive land – albeit on usually on a smaller scale – outside the existing financial system. A landshare scheme was started in 2009 by a TV show host, chef and sustainable food campaigner, Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall. It put people who have land they were not using in touch with people nearby who are wanting to cultivate their own fruit and vegetables. Over 75,000 people signed up, growing into a large and thriving community of growers, sharers and helpers. The scheme wound-down in 2016, however, perhaps because it relied more on fashion and a famous figureheard without forming a strong supporting network. The efforts of the Transition Town network around the world are less high profile, but more successful, with local, small scale cultivation of community land becoming the norm. Under their global network, shared gardening schemes between individuals usually operate for free and with no, or minimal, formal legal documentation.
The MST movement in Brazil goes beyond the simple redistribution of land. At the heart of the movement is the fight against the corporate takeover of food, and for a countryside which provides healthy food and a decent livelihood for all. It points out that this is not the case for many parts of the world and illustrates one way in which various peoples have taken back land for their own sustenance. La Via Campesina, is an example of another similar but international movement bringing together millions of peasants, small and medium size farmers, landless people, rural women and youth, indigenous people, migrants and agricultural workers from around the world. It too builds on a strong sense of unity and solidarity between these groups, defending peasant agriculture for food sovereignty as a way to promote social justice and dignity and strongly opposes corporate driven agriculture that destroys social relations and nature. La Via Campesina was born in Belgium in 1993 and today comprises 182 local and national organisations in 81 countries from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. Altogether it represents some 200 million farmers. It is an autonomous, pluralist, and multicultural movement, which demands social justice while being independent from any political party.
Occupations of unused land have been a crucial part of Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement struggle for agrarian reform. This has taken huge personal sacrifice, with some families spending more than ten years living in black polythene tents on a roadside, risking violence from police and armed guards. But the strategy has worked because the occupations force the government to enact a clause in the Brazilian constitution that allows land which is not performing its social function to be expropriated.
Once the land has been expropriated and it becomes a legally recognised settlement, MST activists can move onto the land and start building houses and farming. Although organic farming and collective organising are part of their vision for social change and MST educates its members about the benefits of these, it does not impose this at a local level. The organisation believes that, since members organise the struggle for their land themselves, they have the right to farm it as they see fit. Nevertheless, most small farmers grow a much wider diversity of crops than is seen more broadly in Brazil, which is increasingly being taken over by the vast ‘green deserts’ of single cash crop plantations such as soya and sugar cane.
The MST has achieved its successes through direct action. In addition to the occupations of disused land, protests have targeted major corporations such as the pesticide giant Syngenta and biotech firm Monsanto, who they see as responsible for forcing them into poverty and keeping them there. They have also taken their occupations into energy companies and government departments to push for the allocation of services to MST settlements.
The Agrarian Trust was formed in 2013 specifically to provide land access to new agrarian communities and allow each individual group to establish its own system of management and leadership, influenced by the needs of each locality. It has taken the already successful CLT and used it to develop the Agrarian Commons model – a structure that could be replicated in other northern countries. The commons are multiple, community-based landholding entities located across the US, from West Virginia to Minnesota to California. They provide long-term equity leases of farmland and property to farmers and other agrarian enterprises. While the commons closely resembles the CLT structure, the focus on farms and the collaboration with multiple local farm-based CLTs that are aligned collectively is what makes the Agrarian Commons model unique. The process entails:
In the Agrarian Commons model, growth is slow and sustainable, and everyone involved has a voice and a direct and personal relationship with the landscape and the organisation. Agrarian Commons develop five to six 501(c)(2) legal landholding entities at a time, with each starting with at least two farms and growing to not more than 10 to 12 farms.
Landshare schemes operate in a way that enables almost anyone to participate, which is its strength. The landowner does not charge any money for sharing their land but may receive a share of the produce. Land offered for growing space for others can be a part of a garden, or a larger more public space, such as the area around a church or village hall which can support several growers. Those organised by the Transition Town network work under the umbrella of the wider global community, which gives them stability, local knowledge on tap and the opportunity to share information easily. These schemes are often local initiatives which link up people who have unused areas of their garden with people living nearby who are committed to growing their own food but otherwise lack access to growing spaces.
In Brazil nearly 2% of landowners control approximately half all agricultural land. The rural poor, whose numbers increased during the 20th century as a result of agricultural mechanisation, are forced to rely on unpredictable day labour on the large estates or – if they cannot find regular work – to move to urban areas, frequently ending up in the vast favelas that surround Brazil’s cities, where violent crime makes daily life dangerous and sanitation is minimal, making health risks high.
MST was officially founded in 1984 at Cascavel in the southern Brazilian state of Paraná, although its roots go back to the peasant uprisings and the organisational activities of progressive wings of the Roman Catholic Church before and during the military dictatorship of the 1960s. MST aims for a radical transformation of land distribution by using Article 184 of the Brazilian Constitution of 1988, which states that unused farmland should be expropriated and used for redistribution. MST pressures the government into fulfilling its constitutional obligation using direct action and occupation, because government-led initiatives have been slow and famously ineffectual. The movement organises marches, demonstrations, and awareness-raising campaigns to bring the issue of agrarian reform to public attention, but its principal form of direct action is land occupation.
An MST land occupation involves a group of landless people (usually numbering 500–3,000) entering a large estate and occupying a piece of unused land. Given that it can take years for the rights to the land to be granted via the government land-reform organization INCRA (Instituto Nacional de Colonização e Reforma Agrária), the occupiers make temporary camps known as acampamentos. These are highly organised, with each family taking on responsibility for specific areas, such as health, education, and food. MST considers the process of learning to live and work cooperatively fundamental to the development of and allegiance to the political struggle they believe is necessary. If the rights to the land are won, an assentamento (settlement) is formed, and each family gains a plot of land of a minimum of 25 acres (10 hectares). MST originally hoped that all communities would farm the land collectively, but some may choose family, or individual farming, provided some collaboration with others is maintained.
In the US, from 2012 to 2017, mid-size agriculture lost 37 farms a day and those that survived found it is only possible with very thin margins and with the additional cushion of off-farm income, with healthcare benefits only possible thanks to full-time or part-time employment elsewhere. The value of land in the US ranges enormously from $300 to $200,000-plus per acre in another—a price rarely based on the natural value of a space or its ecological suitability for agriculture. Small-scale farmers are required to internalise all environmental costs, investments, and remediation/regeneration with almost no support, and are forced to spend their own money and absorb the costs associated with organic certification and the poor productivity that results from mistreated landscapes and soils. Meanwhile, corporate agriculture entities are often able to externalise environmental costs and are frequently the greatest local polluters of soil and surface water.
In local Agrarian Commons, collective ecological stewardship creates a shared community engaged in sustainable agriculture, soil, ecological, and agrarian community health. The structure re-engages humans with each other and their communities, connecting them back to the land and the seasons. Prioritising the retention of equity and capital in local communities creates a circular flow of capital that returns to the soil, the farmers, and local people. This model works through agrarian sustainability to also plant the seeds of cultural change.
The garden sharing idea was part of Transition Towns from its birth in the UK Devon town of Totnes in 2006. The movement sees growing your own food, swapping seeds, and sharing produce and knowledge with your community as part of the concept of transition to a fossil-free economy. Most transactions and activities are free or at low cost to enable all to participate. The movement also supported the TV show-driven Land Share initiative while it lasted.
In Brazil, the well organised and driven MST movement has understood the power of education and passing on knowledge. The Florestan Fernandes National School (ENFF) is a school about 70 miles outside Sao Paolo that was built in five years by MST members sent from the various camps and settlements all over Brazil. It was inaugurated in 2005, and in its first five years around 16,000 activists from Latin American and African social movements passed through the school. They offer a wide range of courses, from political philosophy and the political economy of agriculture, to the social history of Brazil and practical training on organic farming and political organising.
The ENFF has also inspired the setting up of organic farming institutes in other countries in Latin America. To date, there are institutes in Venezuela, Paraguay, Ecuador and Nicaragua. The ENFF library houses over 40,000 books, all of which were donated by political groups from around the world. The school plays an important role in the MST’s support for social movements internationally, encouraging them to cooperate in direct action for change.
The MST delivers education for all ages at a local level with over 1,800 schools set up in settlements, many providing literacy courses for adults. Education and training are central to the movement, and they use this to address other societal issues that cause oppression, such as sexism, inequality and prejudice.
In the US, the development of the CLT as a vehicle has made the Agrarian Commons structure of farming much easier. The relationship between the national not-for-profit organisation, the Agrarian Trust, multiple local community not-for-profit Agrarian Commons setups, and all the leaseholders provides a solid framework. This allows for shared and diversified support and investment into ecological stewardship, farm viability, and community opportunity. The multiple layers of the national and local organisation’s relationship bring the benefits of both structures while mitigating the sometimes narrow focus of a local community or the often overly broad strokes of a national campaign. The organisations and partners are dynamic, operating as a set of checks and balances, and through these layers equity is held in land, local agrarian initiatives are given national support, and investment is made toward the stewardship of soils and ecosystems.
The Transition Network has grown from one UK small town to a global community of regional hubs connecting multiple countries within language groups or geographic regions, and thousands of individual community groups across the world. It is a fluid, self governing organisation following principles and focused on local action, enabling much to be done with as little red tape and time-consuming governance as is only really necessary. The garden sharing schemes are good examples of this – fluid arrangements made to suit people and communities at particular times. They do not always last, but ebb and flow according to local need and demand.