Module One

Module One

Land Rights and Poverty

1.1.1-11: Introduction

Module 1, Section 1.1-11



In many developing countries and some formerly communist societies, rural families comprise a substantial majority of the population. For these families, land represents a fundamental asset: it is a primary source of income, security, and status. But almost half of these rural families—some 230 million households—either lack any access to land or a secure stake in the land they till. As a result, acute poverty, and related problems of hunger, social unrest, and environmental degradation persist. - Rural Development Institute



The most pressing cause of the abject poverty which millions of people in the world endure is that a mere 2.5% of landowners with more than 100 hectares control nearly three-quarters of all the land in the world, with the top 0.23% controlling over half. - Susan George, How the Other Half Dies



All are indigenous to a place who are willing to cherish and be cherished by that place and its peoples. A people denied the option of connection with their land are a people dispossessed of both place and self. - Alastair McIntosh in Colonised Land; Colonised Mind



The distinguishing feature of universal poverty is landlessness. - Kevin Cahill, Who Owns the World


1.4 The right to land is not to be found in most human rights documents. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts that "the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world." But the right to land and natural resources – the equal right to the earth itself – is not stated in the Declaration. The Declaration declares the "right to own property" but this is not the same as the right to the basis of all property – the land and natural resources of the earth.

1.5 Affirming the "right to work" and "the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing" begs the question – what if one cannot find employment? Must the state then provide all these basic needs, even to strong and healthy people who are willing to work for their living?

1.6 Also included in the Declaration is the right "to protection against unemployment." If economic efficiencies and labor saving devices result in fewer employment opportunities, how are people to survive without an income? Again, the Declaration seems to put this right as a responsibility of the State, but without information as to how the State can best secure this right.

1.7 The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states that "All peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources… In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence." But what about those who currently have no access to natural wealth and resources, nor any means of subsistence?

1.8 The Covenant recognizes "the right to work, which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts." But if there are more people seeking work than available jobs, how much freedom is there to freely choose work? The Covenant affirms "the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions" but we know that the market economy as presently constructed does not secure these rights for everyone, nor have governments generated sufficient capacity to secure basic economic human rights. Nowhere in this Covenant is to be found the right to the basis of all production – the earth itself.


Consider this... Without access to this planet and its resources you can neither eat, breathe, walk, sleep, work nor play. Land is more than somewhere to live - it is life itself. Without exception, everything around you, EVERY SINGLE THING you use and consume in the process of leading your life are products of the land. These are the simple facts: If you have no land to live from, you are dependent on money to purchase the products of the land; if you have no money to live from, you depend on employment to gain the money; if you have no employment, then dependent on the State; if the State refuses you, you beg for the charity of the rich; no charity, you steal or you die. Such is the chain which binds us to each other, and to the land. - BEarthright


1.10 Whose Planet are we Living On?

To live is to use Land - To own Land is to own Life itself

  • Nearly all of our planet is now owned by some person or organization
  • The majority population (60% to 90%) in EVERY inhabited country are landless - own no part of the planet whatsoever, not even their own homes
  • The richest 5% in every nation, rich and poor, North and South, East and West, now own between 70% and 95% of their own countries

- BEarthright


1.11 The reality is that a small minority of the people of the planet own or control most of the land and resources. Answers to questions such as "Who owns the earth?" and "How much is it worth?" are frequently difficult to find. Here are more numbers:

  • A United Nations study of 83 countries showed that less than 5% of rural landowners control three-quarters of the land."
  • "At best, a generous interpretation would suggest that about 3% of the population owns 95% of the privately held land in the USA." (Peter Meyer, Land Rush - A Survey of America's Land - Who Owns It, Who Controls It, How much is Left, Harpers Magazine, Jan. 1979).
  • 568 companies control 22% of the private land in the US, a land mass the size of Spain. Those same companies land interests worldwide comprise a total area larger than that of Europe - almost 2 billion acres. (ibid)
  • According to a 1985 government report, 2% of landowners hold 60% of the arable land in Brazil while close to 70% of rural households have little or none. Just 342 farm properties in Brazil cover 183,397 square miles - an area larger than California. (Worldwatch, Oct. 1988)
  • A joint project conducted by the Demographic Information Group and Population of South Africa (Popsa) cited that in 2001 blacks owned 20% of the land, whites 44% and coloureds 9%,and that muncipalities owned just over a quarter of South Africas land.
  • 60% of El Salvador is owned by the richest 2% of the population
  • 80% of Pakistan is owned by the richest 3% of the population
  • 74% of Great Britain is owned by the richest 2% of the population
  • In Scotland nearly two-thirds of the privately owned land is held by just 1,000 people. (recent survey by Andy Wightman)
  • The landowners of Europe, who get 60% of the EU agricultural subsidy of €48,000 million, own 60% of Europe and constitute less than 0.2% of its population.

Module 1, Assignment 1

Module 1, Assignment 1

Search the web to find out more about the ownership of land in your own country plus at least two others. Key in: "who owns land (then country name here)" What did you discover? Who and/or what percentage of the population owns the greatest amount of land in these three countries? Please record your findings in the comments section below. This is important research! PLEASE INCLUDE FULL REFERENCE TO YOUR SOURCES OF INFORMATION.


Who Owns the World? The Hidden Facts Behind Landownership by Kevin Cahill. Book contents at:

1.2.1-3: Thinking About Land Rights

Module 1, Section 2.1-3

Thinking About Land Rights

2.1 If you do not own enough of this planet to support yourself and you cannot support yourself without this planet, who is it who supports you? And do they support you..... or through their owning the land that supports you do they now own you, own your work, your space, your freedom to live as you choose?

  • If you own no land to support yourself, you must rent, hire or buy it from those that do, so that you may both live and make a living.
  • If you cannot use the planet to feed, clothe and provide for yourself then to stay alive, you must choose to either work for those who own your planet, to become a thief or a beggar, or to die.
  • This servitude has taken on many forms throughout history: slavery, serfdom, day-labour, employment, debt. The only variation being the share of the wealth produced left to the planet borrowers by the planet owners
  • This simple reality underlies much of today's poverty, inequality, lack of freedom, unemployment and powerlessness, experienced as the sheer struggle to get by that looms so large in so many peoples' lives
  • These latter day pharaohs, the planet owners, the richest 5% - allow the rest of us to pay day after day for the right to live on their planet. And as we make them richer, they buy yet more of the planet for themselves, and use their wealth and power to fight amongst themselves over what each possesses ~ though of course it's actually most of the rest of us who have to fight and die in their wars.

- BEarthright


2.2 In many parts of the world, the concentration of ownership and control of land is increasing. Even in countries with constituted democracies millions are being evicted, their lands grabbed out from under their feet. Democratic governance has failed to articulate and bring forth a clear and fair land rights ethic.

Land, that upon which we all stand, is the single most common characteristic of wealth worldwide. What the poor lack – land – the rich have in spades. In fact, land defines the wealthy to a far greater extent than cash. In the United Kingdon, there an estimated 420,000 millionaires, according to the tax authorities (Probate Office of HM Revenue and Customs, UK, 2005). Of at least 158,000 (37.6%) of these, their landholdings alone are enough to make them millionaires (UK Valuation Office). Of the remaining 222,000 millionaires, almost all have at least 40% of their wealth in the form of land assets (Merrill-Lynch-Cap Gemini World Wealth Report 2002). - Who Owns the World, Kevin Cahill, Mainstream Publishing, 2007, page 1


2.3 This failure of democracy is a primary reason that land tenure is contested all over Africa and elsewhere in developing countries. Women's rights are especially at risk, because land tenure in many societies are based on patrilineal systems in which property rights are held and transferred through men. The spread of HIV/Aids has made women's position still worse. In widowhood, they may be evicted from their land by their dead husband's kin.


Module 1, Assignment 2

Module 1, Assignment 2

Please read this article (click on the title): The new tragedy of the commons, by Camilla Toulmin.

Next go to the Forums section at the top of the course website, in the Thematic section click on Global Land Grab and read at least one of these articles.

Then add your comments about these readings below.

1.2.4-16 - Democracy and Land Rights

Module 1, Section 2.4-16

Democracy and Land Rights

2.4 Let us now look more deeply into this issue of democracy and land rights.

2.5 John Locke and the Crack in the Liberty Bell



2.7c Chief Little Bear, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe, with the Bell. Source:

2.8 To fully understand the limitations in our current form of democracy (as can be symbolized by the crack that developed in the "Liberty Bell" that rang out for freedom in the United States during the American Revolution) it is necessary to trace the thread of the democratic ideal back to its fundamental tenets. Pondering the problem of persistent poverty within a democratic system of government, Richard Noyes - a former recent New Hampshire State Representative in the United States and editor of the book, Now the Synthesis: Capitalism, Socialism, and the New Social Contract - identifies the current land tenure system as "the one great imperfection, the snag on which freedom catches."

2.9 Noyes shows us that the "Age of Reason gave us a thesis with flaws." John Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government, the political bible of the founding fathers, held that "the great and chief end of men's uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government is the preservation of their property." The central understanding was that only through the guarantee of property rights could the individual really be free.

2.10 In further defining property rights Locke stated that "every man has a `property' in his own person," so that anything a man has "removed from the common state," anything with which he has "mixed his own labor," is rightfully his own. The securing of this right was to be the main duty of a democratic government. Locke also affirmed that "God has given the earth to the children of men," (Psalm 115:16)."

2.11 But the trouble lies with Locke's Second Proviso regarding property. He maintained that it was correct for the individual in a state of nature "to mix his labor with land and so call [the produced wealth] his own since there was still enough [land] and as good left, and more than the yet unprovided could use." Locke said that people in England who wanted land could go to America to stake a claim from the vacant commons, the terra nullia of Roman law. This was justification for the Europeans to take land from the native peoples. Because the native people did not have former paper titles to their land, the colonizers claimed that it was "vacant."

2.12 In the Second Proviso the reasoning of the primary mentor of the founders of democracy was faulty and limited. In his justification for land enclosures and privatization Locke failed to grasp the consequences for democracy of a time like ours when so few humans would come to control so much of the earth, to the exclusion of the vast majority. Nor could he have known how the forces of a industrial economy would drive land values to such heights, to the benefit of landowners and bank lenders rather than wage earners.

2.13 The property-in-land problem, insufficiently scrutinized by John Locke and the founding fathers, is the crack in the Liberty Bell. It is the root dilemma of democracy. Having life and liberty without land rights breeds unhappiness, unemployment, wage slavery, suffering, militarization and even death. Democratic government as presently constituted, because it is not grounded and embedded in the principle of equal rights to the earth, cannot build a world of peace and justice.

2.14 Although John Locke was clear on several important tenets for democracy while unclear on the land rights issue, he nonetheless did have the seed kernel of a vision for earth rights democracy. The quote below indicates his belief that all land is a commons and that exclusive private property in land is not of the same order of "sacredness."

2.15 John Locke (1632 - 1704):

God gave the world in common to all mankind. When the "sacredness" of property is talked of, it should be remembered that any such sacredness does not belong in the same degree to landed property.


2.16 Land Grab: An aggressive taking of land in order to expand territorial holdings or broaden power.

Module 1, Assignment 3

Module 1, Assignment 3

  1. Do a websearch on "land grabbing" and read at least three articles. Then write a few paragraphs describing what you learned including your thoughts, reactions and concerns.
  2. Write about incidents of land grabbing in your own community or country.

Put your writing in the comment section below

Here are some of the articles you might find on the web:

  • Corruption and Land Grabbing
  • Corruption and Land Grabbing in Cambodia
  • Land Grabbing in Cambodia (on Utube)
  • Eco-millionaires’ Land Grab Draws Fury
  • Kenya’s Shocking Land Grabbing
  • Land Grab – Australia and Aboriginal
  • Land Grab South Africa
  • Land Rights Campaign in Nairobi
  • Land Reform in Nairobi
  • Land Grabbing in Contemporary Kenya
  • Land Rights Struggle India
  • Great Land Grab in India
  • Southeast Asia Viet Nam Land Grab
  • Russia to Sink Flag in Artic Ocean
  • Land Grab Israel’s Settlement Policies
  • Behind the Green Curtain (Environmentalism and Land Grabbing)
  • American Indian Homelands: Matters of Truth, Honor and Dignity
  • The New Tragedy of the Commons – Africa Land Grabbing and Enclosure –

1.3.1-15: Reasons for Claims to Surface Land and Other Natural Resources

Module 1, Section 3.1-15

Reasons for Claims to Surface Land and Other Natural Resources

Jakarta slum

3.1 Why might it be right that the use of a natural opportunity be reserved for one person and not available to others? Here are some reasons that might be given:

  1. The person for whom the opportunity is reserved is a better person, inherently more deserving.
  2. The person for whom the opportunity is reserved is a stronger person and will attack and drive off anyone who intrudes on what he claims.
  3. The person for whom the opportunity is reserved got there first.
  4. The person for whom the opportunity is reserved has had exclusive use of it for a long time; it would be socially disruptive to try to change things.
  5. The person for whom the opportunity is reserved paid a previous exclusive user to transfer exclusive access to the opportunity to him.
  6. A political majority voted to assign the opportunity to the person for whom it is reserved.
  7. The person for whom the opportunity is reserved is using only his/her share; natural opportunities of the same value are available to everyone else.
  8. The person for whom the opportunity is reserved is using more than his/her share, but is providing adequate compensation to those who have less than their shares.

Homeless in Los Angeles


3.2 The stance of this course is that only reasons 7 and 8 deserve full respect as reasons to maintain a system of allocating natural opportunities.

3.3 However, throughout the world, exclusive claim to land is made on a number of the other six bases. Much land now claimed by some people was originally grabbed from others - "Might makes right." Some argue for rights to land based on former occupation or "prior claim." Others claim land rights via discovery and/or the ability to maintain and secure possession. Constitutional law and length of residency are others.

3.4 We will now use the US state of Alaska as a case study of a land rights history that includes most of the above eight points. Under the Alaska Constitution (Article VIII. Section 2. General Authority) all the natural resources of Alaska belong to the state to be used, developed and conserved for the maximum benefit of the people. Funds obtained via state leases of oil and other mineral resources are placed into the Alaska Permanent Fund and fund dividends are distributed as annual direct cash payments to each citizen who has resided in the state for at least one year – a right based on length of residency.

3.5 Using Alaska as a case study on land rights, let us ask this question: Upon what basis is made the exclusive claim of the people of Alaska to the oil resources of Alaska?

3.6 Uncovering the history of this claim we note that the state takes its name from the Eskimo word "Alakshak." The land rights of "prior claim" and "continuous occupancy" would appear to make Alaska the exclusive property of the indigenous people.

3.7 Russia claimed Alaska by "right of discovery" after it was sighted by Vitus Bering in 1741. Purchase was negotiatied by the US government's Secretary of State William H. Seward who bought Alaska from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million, about two cents an acre. Was the "act of purchase" by the United States and thus the transfer of rights to exclusive claim legitimate on the basis of Russia's prior claim by discovery?

3.8 World War II had a substantial impact on Alaska as the United States sent thousands of workers there to build defense installments and the Alaska Highway. In 1942 the Japanese occupied several Aleutian islands, the only part of North America that was invaded during the war. "Might makes right" enables an exclusive claim to be secured and maintained and frequently is the origin of the claim itself. But does the ability to maintain a territorial boundary through military protection stand up as an appropriate basis for exclusive claim?

3.9 Is the exclusive claim of the people of Alaska to the oil resources of Alaska theirs by right of that state's constitutional law? Legally, yes, a legality that was put in place well after United States Federal and State Constitutional law was established for the "lower 48" states, and much later than the land of North America was grabbed by force of conquest from indigenous peoples. That a state "constitution and a democratic vote" of the people established a basis and a mechanism for equal rights to natural resources for residents of a particular territory is a profoundly important human rights achievement and should be acknowledged as such.

3.10 Nonetheless we must question whether democratic process itself is a sufficient basis for an exclusive claim to natural resources by people residing in a particular territory. If that territory contains resources essential for the well-being of everyone else on earth, then the absolute control of that resource by the people of that territory, no matter how democratic the internal politics may be, would give those people undue and unjust power and control over the people of the rest of the world.

3.11 Thus we see that the basis upon which the citizens of Alaska stake their exclusive claim to the oil and natural resources of Alaska is a complex historical weaving of territorial claims by discovery, purchase, military might and law.

3.12 The essential question then is this: Is it fair and just to exclude people from everywhere else in the world from benefiting from the extremely valuable, nature-created oil deposits of Alaska because of any of these territorial rights, rules and negotiations? Are any of these methods of claiming territory more moral and ethical, more in alignment with truth and justice, than others? In other words, is there a moral and ethical hierarchy, if you will, of territorial claims, some being more "right" than others?

3.13 We must conclude that while some of these means to claim natural resources may be more just or fair than others, the exclusive claim of the people of Alaska to the oil royalities of Alaska cannot be made on the basis of either prior claim, discovery, purchase, ability to maintain and secure possession, constitutional law, or length of residency.

3.14 Ultimately, the only rational, supportable, moral, just and ethical basis upon which the citizens of Alaska can assert a claim to the oil resources of Alaska is by birthright to the gifts of nature. And that cannot be an exclusive claim. The claim by birthright can only be legitimate if it is acknowledged that all other human beings have an equal claim to land and natural resources. The deepest ethical dimension of territorial rights recognizes that humanity is one and indivisible in its fundamental claim to the earth as a birthright of all.

(This section on the Alaska Permant Fund taken from (click on article title): The Alaska Permanent Fund: A Model of Resource Rents for Public Investment and Citizen Dividends.)


Land is not property ~ land is life.
Land is not created by people ~ it creates people.
We need land ~ but land doesn't need us.
We need land
It creates people
Land IS life.
Behold the Mother of All
These are the Powers in the Gift of Land
- BEarthright


Module 1, Assignment 4

Module 1, Assignment 4

Please view these two videos, then share your views on what you learned:

The Land Owns Us
Bob Randall, a Yankunytjatjara elder and traditional owner of Uluru (Ayer's Rock), explains how the connectedness of every living thing to every other living thing is not just an idea but a way of living. This way includes all beings as part of a vast family and calls us to be responsible for this family and care for the land with unconditional love and responsibility.

We Are Caretakers
Bob Randall, a Yankunytjatjara elder and traditional owner of Uluru (Ayer's Rock), explains explains the Aboriginal understanding of land ownership as one of shared responsibility and kinship with the environment, … that the real law of survival is to take care of the land and one another-not just for ourselves but for our children's children's children.

1.4.1-7: Concluding Quotes

Module 1, Section 4.1-7

Concluding Quotes

4.1 James Fintan Lalor (1807 - 49), Irish patriot:

The Irish Famine of 1846 is example and proof. The corn crops were sufficient to feed the island. But the landlords would have their rents in spite of famine and in defiance of fever. They took the whole harvest and left hunger to those who raised it. Had the people of Ireland been the landlords of Ireland, not a human creature would have died of hunger, nor the failure of the potato been considered a matter of any consequence.

4.2 Leo Tolstoy (1828 - 1910), Russian author:

The land is common to all; all have the same right to it.

4.3 Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 -1882), American poet and essayist:

Whilst another man has no land, my title to mine, and your title to yours, is at once vitiated.

4.4 Patricia Mische, Co-Founder, Global Education Associations (contemporary):

The more we grow in awareness of our own sacred source, the more we discover that our own sacred source is the sacred source of each person and all that is in the universe.

4.5 Erik Eckholm, wrote in his World Watch monograph, The Dispossessed of the Earth … Land Reform and Sustainable Development:

Many of the international community's widely shared goals - the elimination of malnutrition, the provision of jobs for all, the slowing of runaway rural-urban migration, the protection of productive soils and ecologically vital forests -- are not likely to be achieved without radical changes in the ownership and control of the land.

4.6 Thomas Jefferson (1743 - 1826) author of the (American) Declaration of Independence wrote:

The earth is given as a common stock for men to labor and to live on... Wherever in any country there are idle lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. Everyone may have land to labor for himself, if he chooses; or, preferring the exercise of any other industry, may exact for it such compensation as not only to afford a comfortable subsistence, but wherewith to provide for a cessation from labor in old age. (Notes on Virginia, 1791)

4.7 Henry George (1839 – 1897) author of Progress and Poverty:

The equal right of all men and women to the use of land is as clear as their equal right to breathe the air. It is a right proclaimed by the fact of their existence. For we cannot suppose that some men and women have a right to be in this world and others do not.

Module 1, Assignment 5

Module 1, Assignment 5

Write your own statement or quote on land rights. Please include in the comments section below.