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

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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.

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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