It was new year’s eve 1994, through the rainforest that covers the majority of the Chiapas region of south western Mexico, a movement under the name of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) was in its embryonic stage. In 1984, thirty years ago, another movement was also was forming, uniting landless peasants from throughout Brazil, occupying fazendas (large properties owned by the affluent Brazilian landowners), setting-up up cooperative farms and building community gardens which allowed the resilient communities to be self-sufficient in many ways.
These two movements have been under the stoplight, capturing the international media’s attention through a combination of headline catching actions and an intelligent media blueprint. But the question of land reform is of utmost importance especially within an age of relentless inequality and climate change. Answers to some of the most important interrogations on the limits of capitalism and sensible solutions to the threat of climate change are enclosed within this quintessential question of land ownership.
Since the start of time, the problematic of land ownership has always been central to the development of human societies. The struggle between the ‘owners’ of land and the ‘dispossessed’ was at the origin of the fall of the Roman Republic (see Lex Sempronia Agraria). Many historians also link the ultimate fall of the Roman Empire to the over concentration of wealth and power within the hands of a landed elite.
Such a string of events is far from being relative to political development within Latium. In many ways land control has influenced the trajectory of societal development throughout the world.
The development of capitalism as we know it, is inherently linked to the development of a coercive notion of private property, where private property is hereditary. In this skewed ideological development, private has become linked to the notion of freedom.
This system of ownership of the land is the foundation of every caste system within the history of mankind, the distinction between those that have and the have-nots, the dispossessed. Parallel to this ‘land-grab’ is a reaction of resistance of the landless peasants, of the serfs, of indigenous communities against the landed elite, the power structure or the colonial state.
The development of neo-liberal capitalism has altered in many ways the structure of this relationship. Two elements have been the motors behind these changes: first of all the construction of the insane notion of the ‘corporate individual’ and on the other hand the continued erosion of regulations.
Corporations now, in many ways, are the new landed elite and the biggest obstacles on the road to fighting climate change. But also tied to the question of the corporate ownership of land is the corporate ownership of natural resources and the problem of redistribution of the wealth generated by the extraction of those same natural resources. Also included within the problematic of land ownership is the growing crisis of food security and frantic rise in food prices throughout the world.
In the end, the corporate land-grab is an essential question in the burgeoning of the 21st century. Movements such as the EZLN and Sem Terra have shown guidance in offering an alternative perspective with regards to the way we conceive the ownership of land, the role of land within our societies and the importance of communal and local agriculture. Both movements have understood one important thing: that climate deregulation is a direct consequence of the deregulation of the world’s markets and no solution will be found to counter climate change within this system of wild, wild, west capitalism.
On January 1st 1994, EZLN took up arms against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which took away from the Mexican people their undeniable right to the land underneath their feet. This right to the land was the most important accomplishment of the Mexican Revolution and had since been enshrined in the Mexican constitution.
The revolt of the Zapatistas was directly against this globalized system of dispossession of small farmers and indigenous communities on one hand and the subsequent repossession of that land by private interests on the other. Those interests were motivated by making the land ‘profitable’, by any means necessary. This is the attitude that turned the greatest delta in the world (the delta of Niger) into a massive oil spill.
The Brazilian Sem Terra sprouted out of the inhumane conditions that landless peasants were facing within Brazil, wandering from one agricultural tyrant to another on a regular basis, enslaved by one agro-alimentary multinational after another. The Sem Terra movement understood that the root of inequality is this disproportionate gap between those that control the land and those that work the land. The only way to counter this was to create communities in which each man had his plot of land to cultivate to provide for the wellbeing of his family without an inch of that land being privately owned.
This communal vision of land ownership thus entails the construction of an inclusive and participatory decision making system. Not only did these alternative visions of land ownership empower the ‘dispossessed’ and enable the development and reproduction of traditional modes of agricultural protection (read here biological and respectful of the environment), it also planted the seeds of a stronger strain of democracy.
Both movements know that land is power, the power to determine the future of generations, to draw the outlines of a distinct society, the power to hold the keys to a better world. In this age of globalized free-trade agreements, that relentlessly breakdown the ‘barriers to trade’ with the purpose of ‘opening up’ new markets such as the markets of land and of natural resources, in an age of growing inequality and destabilizing climate deregulation, the seeds have been sown, amidst the tempest, for an alternative future.
In one of the most famous Sem Terra occupations in July of 1996, thousands of landless peasants occupied one of the most important fazendas in Brazil-which they still occupy to this day and have turned it into one of the most important agricultural communes in the world. First thing they did once they had occupied the fazenda was to take down the Brazilian flag and put the red one of the MST with words that read “The struggle for all.”