‘Who was Rosas? An owner of land. What did he accumulate? Land. What did he give to his supporters? Land. What did he take from his enemies? Land.’ This crisp summary of the nineteenth century Argentine dictator and sometime gaúcho, Juan Manuel de Rosas by one of his successors, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, reminds us that, for most people for most of history, the ownership, cultivation and exploitation of land have been of decisive importance in determining the character of societies.
In many cases, they still are.
Land rights and land reform movements are active in many parts of the world. In Australia, Land Rights Now aims to double the land legally recognised as owned by Indigenous People and local communities. In India, Ekta Parishad has been leading a movement for land reform for the last two decades, for, while land reform has been a principle of the Indian state since independence, in practice, it has only been carried into effect in certain parts of the country. The Landless Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST)) in Brazil has an even longer history. A mass social movement, formed in 1984 by rural workers, it has led more than 2,500 land occupations, winning some 7.5 million hectares of land on which 370,000 families have settled.
The current edition of Alliance demonstrates that it is often Indigenous peoples who are at the forefront of disputes over land. What’s at stake is not just the preservation of tradition. It’s a matter of livelihood and, on occasion, of life and death. Last year, Emyra Waiãpi, a 68-year-old indigenous leader, was stabbed to death by gold miners in the Waiãpi indigenous reserve in the northern Brazilian state of Amapá.
For those in the so-called developed world, though, the extent and importance of land rights movements have been easy to overlook. Easy for us to believe that predominantly agrarian societies are part of a past that seems increasingly remote. Wealth is accumulated by manufacturing, commerce and the provision of services. Agricultural production itself has become industrialised. ‘Land’ becomes ‘the countryside’ – a place of recreation or an object of aesthetic contemplation (in 2017, only 1 per cent of the UK workforce worked in agriculture, in Germany 1.28 per cent and in the US, 1.66 per cent). We might be tempted to think that this is an inevitable trajectory for developing societies, but it rests on two assumptions. First, while the term ‘developing world’ may be less insolent than ‘third’ or ‘under-developed’ or ‘undeveloped’ world, it is nonetheless based on a progressivist view: there is a point towards which those societies ought to be moving and which we – the developed world – have reached. The second is that, once you get there, you stop – the ‘end of history’ fallacy. However, the idea that either development – or history – has an end is demonstrably false. On the contrary, what seems obvious is that societies change (or ‘develop’, if you prefer the term) and will continue to do so. The industrial age has given way to the post-industrial age, which has itself given way (in varying degrees) to the information age.
Meantime, the perennial concerns of the cultivator not only abide, they are taking on a new importance. Food security is already a source of anxiety and, in the era of climate change and the need for responsible environmental stewardship, Indigenous peoples and rural communities are seen as guardians of fragile ecosystems (the Lands Rights Now website points out that they ‘protect [my italics] more than 50 per cent of the world’s land surface’). A number of funders already understand this and the work of a few of them is chronicled in the new issue of Alliance.
So what? This is not to suggest that all funders should immediately turn their attention to land rights and rural communities. Or that we should start a ‘back to the land’ movement. Or that ‘developing’ communities should reject the evident benefits associated with the development process, like universal education and effective and comprehensive healthcare. The aim of this article is to try and show that land rights movements and Indigenous peoples are not some quaint anthropological survival. Support for them is a matter of helping people who are often marginalised, even despised, within the states of which they are nominally citizens to live in the way they have chosen and to secure the kind of consideration other groups take for granted. Moreover, while land continues to be an enduring source of wealth and power for those who own it, its future use and exploitation may well be critical to the welfare of all of us.
And one final thing: it’s tempting for societies to assume that their form of life and social arrangements represent some sort of culmination. Let’s re-examine that assumption. The industrial age lasted barely two hundred years at the most generous estimate. In terms of the lives of individuals, this is a long time, but not in historical terms. It may well come to seem that we are the temporary phase, the slow blink of time’s eye and that ‘developing’ communities of cultivators and custodians have devised strategies for their survival which will prove to be more durable than those of our own.
Andrew Milner is associate editor of Alliance magazine