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Context within NORA

Relationships to Needs

The nature of the land in an area has a large impact on air and water quality – for example, trees and other vegetation on the land can help clean the air; rainwater that percolates into the ground to recharge groundwater can be filtered and cleaned in the process, but it can also pick up contaminants (such as pesticides or heavy metals) and thereby contaminate groundwater.

Land is essential for food production, and for the production of fibers used in the production of clothing. In fact, the majority of all land used by people is used for agricultural purposes, among which food production is the most important.

Humans, as well as other living species, are at home in particular places, and the nature of places is in large part defined by the land and its condition. We also seek security in the places and lands where we feel at home.

We are mobile by moving across the land, water or air, and have to devote some portion of the land area to paths, roads, railways, ports and airports, and the like. Terrestrial animals also require land routes for their migrations.

The quality of the land affects our physical and mental health; toxic contamination of the land negatively impacts the health of people and other species; we are more likely to feel peaceful and at ease in places where the land is sustainably managed with attention to preserving its beauty.

Managing the land well involves fostering supportive relationships among people in an area, taking the time to learn from the land (thinking like a mountain, as Aldo Leopold put it), engaging in collective decision-making that attends to the needs of humans, animals and plants, and enabling meaningful livelihoods that take care of the land while providing for human needs. Outdoor activities ranging from sitting in a scenic spot to hiking, hunting, fishing, and all kinds of outdoor sports can be forms of self-expression that connect people to the land.

Many people engage in spiritual search or contemplative practice in places where they can find peace; often land covered in natural vegetation for the area.

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Relationships to other Resources

The quality of land, air and water are intimately tied to each other through nutrient and hydrological cycles, and through the movement of pollutants from one medium to the other. In regards to biological productivity, land is useful only if there is water available in appropriate amounts. The organic matter in the soil contains huge amounts of carbon; if that is degraded, much of it will end up in the air as carbon dioxide.

All terrestrial and freshwater living things depend on the land directly, marine life depends on the land indirectly (for example, nutrients are carried by rivers into the sea and affect marine life). Maintaining the integrity of land resources is therefore vital to life on earth.

Fossil fuels, our major commercial energy source today, as well as minerals, are found in the land. Mining of these mineral resources can have major negative impacts on land quality, both in the mines themselves (especially open pit mines or mountaintop removal), and in the vicinity where overburden and tailings are deposited. Renewable sources of energy also depend on the land, for example biomass (fuelwood, charcoal, ethanol etc.), geothermal energy from underground heat, or solar thermal energy that requires substantial land areas.

The physical assets we produce all require land, both the land they occupy directly (as in buildings, cities, transportation infrastructure), and the land that is used in order to produce these things (as in the forest land needed to produce anything made of wood). These assets also affect the quality of the land, whether positively or negatively.

The land also provides us with intangible resources. If we study it carefully, it holds huge amounts of information which adds to human knowledge. As beings that are born of this earth, we may also experience spiritual connection with the land, and harbor love for the land.


Relationships to Organizational forms

Most obviously, the natural resources management cluster of organizational forms relates to the use of the land, of the biological wealth it supports, and of the mineral resources it contains.

Land can support self-provisioning, particularly food production in gardens and subsistence-oriented farming. It is also essential to many forms of community solidarity, many of which are agriculturally based, or are rooted in a specific place and its land.

Products produced from the land commercially (via currencies and markets) are most often sold through individual sales, but committed services or sales are also possible (e.g., community supported agriculture). Organizations of the committed services cluster are very often territorially organized, even if their services are not directly tied to the land (for examples, utilities serve all customers within defined service areas, courts have jurisdictions over specific administrative divisions). The organizations of the coercion/denial of choice cluster are almost all territorially organized, as they control people within defined spaces or territories.

Land is highly suitable to being shared (as when nomadic groups share the land depending on seasons and the amount of rainfall) or rented (as when landowners rent land to the people who actually work the land).

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Understanding current patterns of abundance and scarcity


Land surface of the Earth

The surface area of our planet is fixed; the terrestrial portion of this land (not covered by water) is around 30% of the total (about 149 million km2), and varies somewhat depending on varying sea level as well as efforts by people to reclaim land from the sea. In light of climate change, the total terrestrial surface of the earth is likely to decline somewhat, because higher average global temperatures lead to the thermal expansion of the sea water, and may also lead to the melting of ice caps in Greenland and parts of Antarctica, adding more water to the sea. This decline will account for only a very small percentage of the total land area, but it includes many of the great cities and other densely populated parts of the planet, with potentially severe consequences (for potential inundations in the US, see Architecture 2030, Nation under Siege). This is one of the very important reasons why it is vital to slow down or stop global warming.

The remaining land area varies widely in quality, as regards the fertility of the soils and its ability to support diverse life forms. People through their agricultural and other activities can improve or degrade land quality. Some of our adverse impacts on land, such as soil erosion, salinization and the like, as well as contamination with heavy metals or radio-active isotopes with long half-lives, can be virtually irreversible over time spans meaningful to human decision-making. This means that it is vital that we take care of the land, to improve it rather than to destroy it. Unfortunately, many of our social institutions today tend to favor land uses oriented to short-term profit rather than long-term sustenance.

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Land value and property

Our social institutions that govern land use are based in modern Western ideas concerning land value and property. Land is regarded as valuable only if it used to produce marketable commodities, and is treated as lacking value (essentially wasted) if it is left in a “state of nature” (not obviously transformed by people) or if it is used to grow crops for subsistence purposes (to directly feed the people who are cultivating the land). It is regarded as “owned” only if a state authority recognized by Western powers has issued official, written land titles to its owners. Otherwise, it is “empty land” available to be taken by anyone with the power to do so. These conceptions were used by European and other colonizing states (including the United States as it expanded westwards all the way to Hawai'i) to expropriate innumerable peoples of their land. Still today, peasants and indigenous peoples in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Oceania are often denied secure tenure of their land. This means that they are left at the mercy of private or state-owned companies in search of quick profits from minerals, timber, or agricultural plantations. Currently, peasants may be thrown off the land by international land deals, documented worldwide by the Land Matrix. Even when they successfully struggle to defend their land rights, oppressed people often have to adopt alien Western legal forms that subtly or overtly change their relationship to the land. The Oakland Institute (2011) provides an account of such land struggles over international land deals in the case of Mozambique.

Ironically, land property is justified in Western thought (e.g., John Locke) as a reward for “mixing one's labor with the land.” That is, secure land tenure is thought to be necessary so that people have an incentive to invest their time, labor, and capital into growing a crop or into some other productive activity that provides rewards only after some time has passed. However, investing one's labor in the land is NOT recognized as a way to claim ownership of the land, particularly if one is a peasant or an agricultural laborer working on somebody else's land. Furthermore, it is not recognized that it is very often a group or community of people who share in the use of the land, which by the logic of “mixing their labor with the land” would justify not private land ownership by one individual, but various forms of community or commons land ownership (of which innumerable forms have evolved all over the world). Hence, despite the fact that many local communities have stewarded the land available to them successfully as commons for centuries, it was posited that commons would inevitably lead to destruction of the land, or the “Tragedy of the Commons.” Such discourse justified the “enclosure” of commons, both in Europe (as in the enclosures of the commons in the British Isles) and everywhere else. The favored form of land property was, and still is, private “fee simple” property, in which the (usually male) owner can do anything he pleases with the land, without any regard for his numerous relationships with other people and nature. This is thought to provide the incentives for the most “productive” use of the land.

What does this “productivity” consist of? Land is expected to provide a rate of return on investment determined by financial markets and not by natural growth processes. This means that there is a single-minded focus on those productions of the land that obtain a monetary return, while neglecting everything else – such as organic matter to maintain soil fertility in the long term, any food "only" grown for subsistence purposes (although all food is ultimately for subsistence!), any “inefficient” use of space that “merely” adds to the beauty of the rural landscape and provides homes for a wider diversity of animal and plant life. This is a very short-term calculus, because ultimately even the most narrowly defined forms of productivity depend on myriad ecological and social connections; if these are degraded, productivity will also decline. That creates scarcity – enhanced by the rapid population growth that has been promoted in the meantime (discussed further below).

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Inequality in rural land ownership

Because land is so often held by those who conquered it and by their descendants, rather than by the people who work it, there are massive inequalities in land ownership. The rural landless people are prevented from producing crops for their own nourishment, and have too little money to create much market demand. This means that market production is oriented not to their survival needs, but to the demands of the middle class and the rich, either in the same country or abroad. Consequently, large land areas are devoted to producing feed or pasture for livestock, cotton, coffee, tea and the like, rather than grains and vegetables for human consumption. This misallocation of land leads to hunger and obesity at the same time, and pushes the landless to search for land wherever they can, which is usually the land of the lowest quality, that is most vulnerable to degradation (e.g., highly erodible mountain soils). These problems could be fixed if the people who actually work the land could reap the benefits of their own labor.

In these circumstances, life for the poor becomes a lottery. They have no assets to share out among their descendants, but every new child may be lucky and get some kind of income to share with the family. And every child may die. It is these circumstances that lead to rapid population growth. It is only when families have assets to lose – assets such as a small farm which they might have to subdivide – that they are likely to limit their family size. This happened as early as around 1800 in France; with land reform (along with universal education and improved health care) it happened in the Indian state of Kerala since the 1980s, and where similar conditions prevail it happens today as well. In other words, more equal distribution of land not only allows the poor to feed themselves, it also leads to diminished population growth in the future, instead of leading to compounded population growth in the future as Malthusians would predict.

The outcome of all these property relationships and ensuing social struggles is that the most and best land is devoted to the “needs” of the wealthiest people, the marginalized try to make maximum use of whatever remains to them, and only the unusable land is left to natural habitat, unless special efforts are undertaken to protect it in nature reserves.

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Urban land

Land is no less important in urban areas. Property values are much higher in cities than in rural areas, not because of the greater productivity of the urban land owners, but because of the greater economic opportunities where there are many people to whom one can sell things. As a result, rents for urban land (and consequently for apartments, shop spaces etc.) are bid upwards. As the economist Henry George realized, land values are created only in small part by the people who own that land; they are mostly created by the entire community around a parcel of land. However, rents that accrue from the land value are appropriated by the land owners (minus taxes) rather than by the community.

In a “perfect market” high prices for a commodity lead to more production of that commodity. However, more land can not be created. Within an unregulated capitalist land market, there are two possible responses: one is massive urban sprawl, and the other is massive increase in real estate prices (sometimes both at once). All those who do not own land are put at a great disadvantage, and essentially work for the benefit of the landowners.

Where urban infrastructures are built around the “needs” of the car (which, as an inanimate object, has no needs), the scarcity of urban land is reinforced. Cars are the most space-demanding of all modern forms of transportation, because they require large amounts of space both when they are moving (roads) and during the majority of the time when they are stationary (parking spaces). Expansion of roads and parking lots means that residential and commercial buildings are torn down precisely where they are most needed (in the cores of cities); even if new ones are built on the periphery, the people living there become more dependent on cars, leading to a vicious cycle of even more gutting of central parts of the city for car-oriented infrastructure.

Some parts of the city decay and suffer from numerous social problems. This tendency may actually be reinforced by efforts to protect the urban poor by controlling rents, which lead landowners to disinvest from those areas where rents are controlled. However, artists may move into derelict areas because of the cheap rents, and initiate a process of urban revival. Rents go up, and the original inhabitants of the area (as well as the artists) can no longer afford to live there. The area becomes chic, and “gentrified.” This is a no-win situation for the urban poor – either the place remain depressed and they can continue living there, or things improve and they are pushed out. What could be more demoralizing?

Hence, in urban as in rural areas it is vital to rethink property relationships, establishing some kind of shared ownership of the city and its land. Around 1900, such people as Ebenezer Howard and Henry George offered solutions to this problem; similar ideas are still being promoted in such forms as community land trusts and land value taxation.

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Approaches to creating greater abundance

Reversing climate change

protecting coastal lands


maintaining soil quality: strategies

  • to prevent soil erosion
  • to prevent or reverse soil salinization
  • to prevent or reverse soil compaction and hard pans
  • to maintain or increase organic matter
  • to maintain nutrient content at healthy levels (neither too nor nor too high)
  • to maintain appropriate acid-base balance

holistic grazing management (mimicking large herds of grazing animals in grassland/savannah environments)

providing secure land rights to peasants and indigenous peoples in culturally appropriate forms

land to the tiller agrarian reforms

family farming


community land trusts


making better use of urban space

  • transport-oriented development (TOD)
  • urban infill
  • brownfields development
  • reducing parking space in cities
  • urban gardening
  • rooftop gardening


land value taxation


Subcategories of land:

  • land for agriculture and forestry (annual crops, horticulture, gardens, orchards, grazing and range land, forest plantations, freshwater aquaculture etc.)
  • land for nature preservation
  • land used for mining
  • land used for industrial manufacturing and energy generation
  • urban (residential and commercial) land
  • land used for waste disposal

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Common Land in England: Database of all common land in England

International Land Coalition

Land Matrix. Database on large (>200 ha) international land deals with the intention of converting land in low- and middle income countries from smallholder agriculture or natural habitat into large-scale commercial production. It includes links to sources regarding the land deals it documents. This database is maintained by a consortium of organizations, including the International Land Coalition linked above.

P2P Foundation:



Bollier, David. 2003. Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth. New York: Routledge.

Feiring, Birgitte. 2013. Indigenous Peoples' Rights to Lands, Territories, and Natural Resources. International Land Coalition.

Franke, Richard, and Barbara Chasin. 1989. Kerala: Radical Reform as Development in an Indian State. San Francisco: The Institute for Food and Development Policy.

George, Henry. 1884. Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Causes of Industrial Depresssions, and of Increase of Want with Increase in Wealth. The Remedy. New York: D. Appleton and Co.

Hall, Ray. 1995. “Stabilizing population growth: The European experience.” In An Overcorwded World? Population, Resources and Environment, edited by Philip Sarre and John Blunden, pp. 109-160. Oxford: Oxford University Press and The Open University.

Harvey, David. 1974. “Population, Resources, and the Ideology of Science,” Economic Geography 50 (3): 256-277.

Howard, Ebenezer. 1902. Garden Cities of To-Morrow. London.

Lappé, Frances Moore, J. Collins, and P. Rosset. 1998. World Hunger: 12 Myths. 2nd edition. New York: Grove Press.

Mayers, James, Elaine Morrison, Leianne Rolington, Kate Studd, and Susanne Turrall. 2013. Improving Governance of Forest Tenure: A Practical Guide. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and International Institute for Environment and Development.

Leopold, Aldo. 1987 (originally published 1949). A Sand County Almanac, and sketches here and there. New York: Oxford University Press.

Milun, Kathryn. 2010. The Political Uncommons: The Cross-Cultural Logic of the Global Commons. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

Neumann, Roderick. 2004. “Nature-State-Territory: Toward a Critical Theorization of Conservation Enclosures,” in Liberation Ecologies: Environment, Development, Social Movements, edited by Richard Peet and Michael Watts, pp. 195-217. London: Routledge.

Oakland Institute. 2011. Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa: Mozambique Country Report.

Peluso, Nancy Lee, and Michael Watts (eds). 2001. Violent Environments. Ithaca, NY, and London: cornell Unviersity Press.

Prosterman, Roy, Mary Temple, and Timothy Nanstad. 1990. Agrarian Reform and Grassroots Development: Ten Case Studies. Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Richards, John (ed.). 2002. Land, Property and the Environment. Institute for Contemporary Studies.

Vallianatos, Evaggelos. 2006. This Land is Their Land: How Corporate Farms Threaten the World. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press.

Williamson, Thad, David Imbroscio, and Gar Alperovitz. 2002. Making a Place for Community: Local Democracy in a Global Era. New York and London: Routledge.

Wright, Angus, and Wendy Wolford. 2003. To Inherit the Earth: The Landless Movement and the Struggle for a New Brazil. Food First Books.


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