The Power of Land: Race, Equity, and Justice

By Danielle Russell, Openlands School Garden Coordinator as part of a blog series, Race, Equity, and Justice: Lessons for Climate Resilience

“Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.”

– Malcolm X

What is the power of land?

Land itself is power. Land is the source of both material and spiritual wealth and stability. Connecting to land boosts our mood and has physical benefits. From food, to minerals and fossil fuels, access to land and the ability to manipulate and extract from it is a great privilege and gives those that wield it power.

When Europeans came to the Americas and other lands around the globe, they just decided what land was “theirs.” They looted the land to find riches and disrupted the rhythm that had been in place for millennia. We can’t talk about the current uprising  that we see as a response to the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and too many others at the hands of the state, without talking about the history of capitalism and slavery in this country.  While some just see protesters “looting” and “rioting,” others see an uprising in response to centuries of oppression. The “looting” we see is nothing compared to the continual looting of Indigenous land and Black, Brown, and Indigenous bodies. The current uprising is a direct response to the legacy of wealth built by the exploitation of land and Black and Brown communities by way of capitalism that is protected by the state. In America, capitalism is rooted in and thrives on the intersection of racial injustice and a degraded environment, and to effectively combat climate change, we need environmental justice.

America, Built on Stolen Land, by Stolen Labor

Given that the wealth of America is built on the oppression of enslaved Africans, and Indigenous people to America, there is an incalculable debt to pay. One necessary step in progress is for African Americans and Indigenous people to get reparations. Reparations are forms of allocating resources to repair harm of injustice directly to the people that have been harmed. Reparations can take many forms, and can, and should, take the form of direct payment and land-based wealth redistribution. Soul Fire Farm has a reparations map that curates a list of BIPOC ( Black, Indigenous, and people of color) farmers to donate to.  As a form of reparations, land trusts should help BIPOCs acquire land for their own land sovereignty, to grow food for their own communities, for economic stability, for protection against racism – environmental and otherwise, and really to do what they see fit with that land.

The people Indigenous to America have endured, in the past and the present, an unimaginable amount of violence at the hands of our nation. The United States Government violently displaced Indigenous people so that they could have access to fertile land. Injustice against Indigenous people isn’t something of the past. The construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline not only violates treaties, but it degrades the land Indigenous people are on, and puts their water at risk. Indigenous land loss is not a thing of the past. Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Trump administration recently revoked the reservation status for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts, taking away their sovereignty over their land.

After the Civil War, when the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, with the exception of being convicted of a crime, Black folks did not have the legal right to own land, so many folks rented land from White landowners to sharecrop. Share cropping was  slavery by another name. It continued the economic foundation of slavery by obstructing share croppers from getting paid for their labor, and only being allowed an allocation of the crop they were growing. Similarly to slavery, it was a degrading experience that many people risked their lives to flee from. People think sharecropping is something that happened long ago, but it is not. I personally know people who are in their 60’s that sharecropped with their families by picking cotton as children. While some Black folks were able to own their own land to do what they wanted with it, because of ongoing discrimination, between 1910 and 2007 Black farmers lost 80% of their land.

Today, most of the BIPOC folks who have access to land don’t have the sovereignty to do what they wish with that land. BIPOC farmers don’t tend to own the land they work. 94-98% of farmland in the US is owned by whites, yet 80% of farmworkers identify as Hispanic or Latinx. If BIPOC folks own their own farm business, they are most likely renting that space, mimicking a less brutal form of sharecropping. Exploitation of labor is at its height in the migrant farmworker crisis, where immigrants, often from Latin America, are exploited for their labor since they aren’t protected under law. Migrant farmworkers often aren’t provided healthcare, endure abuse, and are now dealing with being more susceptible to COVID-19.

Making progress

Fortunately, there are land trusts that are working to help BIPOC acquire and access land. I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Stephanie Morningstar from the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust (NEFOC), one of the land trusts that are doing this work. NEFOC functions through conservation and farmland preservation. The organization was founded by a board of BIPOC farmers in the Northeast. NEFOC is unique in that it functions as a traditional land trust while also facilitating relationships between BIPOC farmers and land trusts who want to help them acquire land.

NEFOC’s work is not only in conserving land, but in facilitating healing and solidarity. “Healing and truth telling are just as important as our conservation work.” Morningstar says, “Conservation is often a practice of trying to return the land to a fictional idea of what it used to be – untouched by humans. We can’t separate the land from its history with people, and even if we were trying to return it to a pristine state, we’d return it to Indigenous stewardship. In our work we listen to our ancestors, listen to our elders, and listen to the land for guidance.”

One mechanism that NEFOC and other land trusts are using are cultural respect easements and agreements. These emphasize building relationships between land trusts and BIPOC groups to come up with an agreement of what access to that land will look like. It involves centering needs and voices of Indigenous people whose land you’re on, consulting the community before you do work on the land, and working with the community to decide how land will be used. The Dennis Conservation Trust in Massachusetts worked with the Native Land Conservancy, led by folks from the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, to establish a Cultural Respect Agreement on Dennis Conservation Trust lands. This allows for Indigenous people to engage in traditional practices on their lands, such as ceremonies and harvesting, which isn’t allowed on other public land. Reciprocation is a large part of what the Native Land Conservancy does, so they offer public education programs on their site for being able to use the land. Relationships and building trust are the most important part of this process.

Some recommendations from NEFOC for white-led institutions that want to collaborate in this way with BIPOC:

  • Watch out for the white savior complex
  • Don’t jump in without doing a justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion audit of your organization. Who makes up your board and staff? What are you doing to reduce harm of white supremacy?
  • There’s no fast way to do this. Don’t jump right in. This is a listening journey. Just be in a listening space.
  • Ask for consent at every turn.

A few land access policy changes to consider:

  • Reform Chicago’s $1 lot program to prevent land speculation by non-resident developers and subsequent displacement of community residents
  • Stop and assess Chicago’s disproportionate enforcement of laws against property owners, like the Weeds Ordinance, in majority BIPOC neighborhoods
  • Help property owners to build financial equity in their land by offering support through incentives like the Urban Agricultural Areas Program, which can abate property taxes, utility fees, and other economic barriers to productive land ownership
  • Level the playing field for economic opportunities between rural, suburban, and urban areas – channel adequate resources into brownfield remediation, support (and enforce) industry compliance with environmental laws, and dedicate fines from noncompliance to benefit affected communities

A few things the conservation community could be doing to improve land access opportunities:

  • Partner with BIPOC farmers through buy/protect/lease-to-own arrangements through which farmers build equity in the land while protecting it and earning a living from it
  • Seek out, embrace, and support the land-based visions of non-traditional partners, like housing cooperatives and places of worship
  • Bend traditional notions of land protection to include models of communal ownership, intensive community management, and combination conservation-housing projects
  • Extend legal services and support to prospective BIPOC property owners for the acquisition, protection, maintenance, and estate planning of their land at low or no cost