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

When Thinking About Climate, Think About Land

On August 8, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the Land and Climate Change report, which details the impacts of land use on the climate and the impacts of climate change on land. The report is upfront in its message: the ways humans use land impact the climate, and now we have the choice to either change our behavior to avoid catastrophe or double-down on our current efforts. Either way, the report indicates both tremendous risk and peril to our global livelihood and ability to adequately produce food and shelter.

This report adds to the increasingly clear message that the climate equation is far more complex than greenhouse gas emissions and reduction strategies. Yes, we need to decarbonize the global economy; dramatically reduce consumption patterns; and limit new extraction of natural resources. But we also need to fundamentally transform how and where most of our basic economic activities – such as farming, transportation, and housing – take place.

One of the key takeaways from this report is the reminder that land and the ways we use land have a very precarious relationship with the climate. Land can offer tremendous benefits towards influencing the climate by mitigating air temperatures and pulling carbon from the atmosphere, for example. But land, when mismanaged and abused, can also make destructive contributions to emissions, particularly when we convert natural areas and natural resources for the development of things like highways, sprawl, or mining. We have completely reshaped global landscapes and ecosystems to support our production of food, timber, clothing, and energy, and those combined land-uses now contribute about 22% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

The particular focus on emissions from land use in this report is alarming. As global populations continue to grow, become more affluent, and change consumption patterns, emissions from land uses are only expected to rise, which presents the need to overhaul how we produce food, how we manage natural resources, and how we protect land.


Somme Prairie

Land as a part of the ecosystem

Both the science and the task are daunting: how to undo arguably 250 years of emissions, still maintain the quality of life found in wealthy industrialized nations while providing for gains sought by poorer nations? In the search for answers, land and nature can lead the way.

In a truly functioning ecosystem, no resource is wasted, and every square inch provides a service – sometimes with ruthless efficiency. Simply, land and land use in a truly functioning ecosystem provides several functions: food, shelter, clean water, waste receptacle, and so on. While humans have technologically advanced since the industrial revolution, we have gone backwards in many ways and must look to nature for both inspiration and answers.

In terms of the IPCC report, humans no longer have the luxury of viewing land and land-use for single functions and to provide single benefits. Instead, land-use must mimic nature and provide two if not three essential functions or benefits in order to begin to solve our climate problems. For example, dwellings and structures should not only provide housing, offices, commerce, or manufacturing sites, but also include vegetation rich structures like green roofs that lower ambient air temperatures and serve as habitat. Urban forests, likewise, shade structures and intercept rainwater, while providing myriad other benefits like providing oxygen and helping improve the mental health of residents. Ideally, agriculture should not just provide food for humans, but also provide a symbiotic habitat for bugs, birds, and pollinators, and serve as a greater carbon sink than they currently contribute.

What’s striking about the recent UN report is the recognition that we don’t have unlimited land where these activities can take place, so we need to get much better at doing several things at once.

We know the solutions we can enact both for reducing our global emissions and for using land to our advantage against the looming climate crisis, but we face enormous societal, economic, and political challenges. Protecting and stewarding natural areas, supporting sustainable agriculture, and expanding the urban forest are all cited as solutions in the IPCC report. Similarly, these are all priorities for Openlands, and we will continue to lead on a regional scale. To do so, however, we need our elected officials to get serious about addressing this crisis by devoting the necessary resources to sustaining a healthy, habitable climate. Those resources and that leadership cannot come soon enough, and we are all responsible for holding our leaders accountable to deliver them.


Farmbill

Adopting Societal Approaches for Land Management

To some, this notion that land must now have multiple uses or provide multiple benefits may be foreign, but once again, we can say that we know the answers needed here. In terms of agriculture, what’s generally good for long-term farming is also good for the climate. As the IPCC report indicates, conservation practices build soil health in a way that holds carbon and puts it into crops, and crops are fuller and healthier because of it. But building soil health is an investment that sometimes takes years to pay for itself and farmers who are selling into globally competitive commodity crop markets can’t always afford to invest in their soils today. That’s where policies like the Federal Farm Bill need to incentivize conservation practices in order to bridge this affordability gap. Unfortunately, by failing to even acknowledge climate change and by cutting $5 billion from conservation-friendly programs, the 2018 Farm Bill did nowhere near enough to address the circumstances outlined in the latest UN report. Since farmland is key for these considerations not only because it’s where we produce food, but also because it’s the vast majority of land in the Midwest, we must change our societal approach, relationship and perception to both farming and our food.

The IPCC report also explicitly calls for better protection and stewardship of forests, which play a key role in mitigating climate. Countries like China, India, and Ethiopia have answered this call and are each planting billions of trees this year alone. They recognize that healthy forests are key to keeping carbon out of the atmosphere and prolonging a hospitable climate. Consequently, they are prioritizing precious public resources to re-establishing the forests they’ve lost, even when so many competing and dire needs exist. The Chicago region must follow the examples of those like China, India, and Ethiopia as well as the recommendations of the IPCC report. We must conserve and protect more natural areas, restore more ecosystems to health to strengthen carbon mitigation and climate resiliency, prevent further conversion of natural and agricultural lands to development, and localize our food systems to reduce emissions from food production.


PingTom_8038

While the continuing onslaught of news in the IPCC report on the climate is again grim, it is important to remember that we still have the ability to prevent a climate crisis. We as a society need to do a better job at protecting forests, assigning uses to and managing land, and producing food. And yes, as the IPCC report indicates, changing our dietary habits to local sources of food and eating less meat are important steps to take to reduce our personal carbon footprint to a sustainable level. But there is hope. The IPCC executive summary concludes by stating:

“Actions can be taken in the near-term, based on existing knowledge, to address desertification, land degradation and food security while supporting longer-term responses that enable adaptation and mitigation to climate change…”

Near-term action to address climate change adaptation and mitigation, desertification, land degradation and food security can bring social, ecological, economic, and development co-benefits. Co-benefits can contribute to poverty eradication and more resilient livelihoods for those who are vulnerable. With record spring rains in the Midwest, heatwaves in Europe, devastating wildfires in the Amazon and across Central Africa, and the warmest month ever recorded this past July, we are all looking a little vulnerable right now.

Despite those challenges, it is comforting to know that the authors of the IPCC report, as well as the United Nations delegates who can veto any portion of the executive summary, think we can handle this.

Photo: Patrick Williams

Read more about Openlands’ efforts to address the climate crisis or email climate@openlands.org for more information.

Links, Livestock, and Local Food

Openlands works to promote and protect healthy lands across northeastern Illinois. With so much of our region dedicated to agriculture, this vision must include farmland, so we support small and local farmers, interested in conservation-friendly land management practices, to secure new land for sustainable agriculture.

In late 2017, Openlands identified a unique opportunity for agricultural land protection: the Plum Tree National property, an approximately 265-acre former golf course located in rural McHenry County, just outside the small farm town of Harvard, Illinois. Abandoned golf courses typically feature vacant or naturalized areas, substantial acreage, and existing infrastructure that could support a logical transition from golf course use to agricultural operations. These features make golf course properties an attractive option for farmers looking for large tracts of land.

Openlands hoped to convert the site to agricultural grazing to help increase opportunities for sustainable local food farming. We also wanted to provide financial support for a farmer to implement the infrastructure that was required to make the business viable and profitable with the assistance of Food:Land:Opportunity.

However, when we conducted soil sampling during the initial due diligence process, we found soil contamination that rendered the property unfit for a swift and economical transition into grazing use. This meant the project couldn’t proceed, but we realized that we have learned a number of important lessons. Openlands’ experience with the Plum Tree National property revealed that golf course properties may present other unique challenges. To plan ahead for those challenges, we published a new report to assist farmers, land trusts, and other conservation agencies think through the work.

Full Report: Links, Livestock, and Local Food — Challenges of Converting a Golf Course Into a Sustainable Local Food Operation


due-diligence-02.jpg

Although the project to create a local grazing operation on the former Plum Tree National golf course property did not come to fruition, Openlands remains hopeful about the possibilities of such land use conversions in the future. As golf courses trend towards closure and sale across the U.S., more such properties will become available in the coming years. Additionally, we hope that our experience can serve as an example for land conservation organizations across the country.

As Chicago’s regional land trust and one of the only land trusts to work in a major metropolitan area, Openlands is uniquely positioned to test innovative land protection models like this. We recognize that these lessons need to be learned and we are willing to take these risk, conduct these studies, and share the results to better inform the land trust community across the country. The story of Plum Tree can inform other opportunities for Openlands, and these lessons will help protect more agricultural land and help to localize food systems across the country.


Food:Land:Opportunity supports Openlands’ work testing new and innovative models that combine agriculture and land conservation, including the Plum Tree National project.

For more information, please contact Aimee Collins, Director of Regional Conservation at acollins@openlands.org.