“Property Rights” Aren’t Just for the Rich

Through the mid-fifteenth century, access to land in the typical English village was regulated on the so-called “open-field” model. Village lands were the common property of peasant communes, and occupancy right to arable land was periodically redivided between families, with each family receiving a number of strips in each field proportionate to its size. Access rights to pasture and woodlot were similarly assigned by family. This family patrimony in access to the land was a permanent source of economic security. What’s more, the ability to build a cottage on the border of the uncultivated waste, or a marsh, was a way of insuring minimum subsistence for the landless and land-poor peasantry.

Beginning in the Tudor period, the landed classes of England enclosed a growing portion of the arable land for sheep pasturage, essentially robbing the peasantry of its traditional property rights in the land — established by the venerable title of cultivation for time out of mind — by brute force.

Henries VII and VIII seized the land and monasteries of the Church and gave them away to royal favorites, who disregarded the peasants’ customary rights, either evicting them to enclose more pasture or rack-tenting them. By the eighteenth century, probably half the arable land in England’s open fields had been stolen in this manner. The process continued through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries under the so-called Parliamentary “Acts of Enclosure.” Arable land, but even more so common pasture and waste, were enclosed as fee-simple property.  Although in legal theory the peasants were compensated for their share in the common with fee-simple rights to a share of enclosed land, in practice most claims by customary right weren’t recognized under royal law.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Permanent Settlement was undertaken to determine the ownership of land — and consequently tax liability — in British-ruled India. The colonial authorities identified some landed family in each village, whose rights were heavily restricted by customary law, and recognized them as fee-simple owners in the English sense, nullifying the peasantry’s previous customary rights in the common lands of the village and turning them into tenants at will.

The same act played out, in various forms, in the villages of Western Europe and much of the colonial world.

Today, the Enclosures are being reenacted on what’s left of the common lands of India.

Under the terms of the post-Independence Indian constitution, customary rights to common land — like tribal common lands — were preempted by the state, which became “guardian” of such lands. And as usual, the state has demonstrated whose interests it really guards.

The Indian government has recently carried out wholesale “privatization” of tribal lands, bulldozing forests and driving the population off the land, in order to transfer it to transnational mining corporations. The Indian government — of course — engages in brutal counterinsurgency campaigns against the disgruntled victims of dispossession.

And on a global scale, according to an article in The Free (“International Land Grab — Save the Commons,” July 11),  land in Africa, Asia and Latin America is being gobbled up by investors with government help, amounting to “an unprecedented and novel set of enclosures of worldwide land, much of it customary land that rural communities use and manage collectively.” 

So-called “unowned” or waste land, as vital to today’s Third World rural poor as it was to the cottagers on the English waste three hundred years ago, is being declared state property and given away to corporate land-grabbers. In many cases this land, previously used to feed the people cultivating it, is instead used to grow cash crops for the export market — or cattle feed for Big Macs.

A peasant family’s right to a strip of arable land in the field, or to a cottage on the waste, or to keep some geese or a goat on the common, is every bit as much a property right as anyone else’s. And while the usual suspects on the right squeal about the oppression of those poor old rich folks, the biggest act of robbery these past five hundred years has probably been the expropriation of most of the world’s land from the people living on and working it.

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