Thoughts on Land, Part 1

Posted on May 18, 2009 by ELCA World Hunger

Since my trip to Appalachia, I’ve continued to grapple with the concept of land ownership. As usual, I am still trying to find a coherent way of thinking about it. In the meantime, my son has been meandering around the house singing (with gusto) “This Land is Your Land,” courtesy of his kindergarten choir. So here are some preliminary thoughts.

As noted in an earlier post, this thinking began when Bishop Dunkin of the Western Maryland-West Virginia Synod informed me and my colleagues in Church and Society that coal companies owned the land under his house. In short, if a natural resource was found under his house that a company wanted to acquire, they hold the rights, and he would be forced to move. This is the case for 75% of the land in West Virginia. This felt somehow intuitively wrong.

We also heard the testimonies of two women who were suffering from the effects of land degradation. The biggest issue was water contamination. They were asked by one of my colleagues why they did not simply up and leave. The response was something along the lines of, “My family has lived on this land for 250 years. This is my land. The coal companies should be the ones going.” (While I could sympathize to a certain degree, I also wondered to myself, What about the Native Americans before her? What about the flora and fauna before all of us? Can we really lay claim to something that existed long before us and will continue to exist long after we are gone?)

The director of the Washington advocacy office, Drew Genszler, brought the Israel-Palestine issue into this discussion of land ownership. A key component (perhaps the key component) in that conflict is defining who has the rights to the land. How many other violent conflicts around the world have rights to the land at the center?

These three stories of land ownership highlight for me some of the tensions inherent in our current conceptualization of land ownership. The two big problems for me are 1) The abuses (both to each other and to the earth) that can be justified because of a sense of ownership and 2) The conflicts that inevitably follow a claim to the land.

All of this said, some good can come from a clear definition of who has rights to the land. First, it strikes me as somehow fundamental to our sense of wellbeing to have a “place.” Perhaps it is learned, but the idea that coal companies could kick people out of their houses and off the land on a whim just doesn’t feel right. Second, in the current system, land and property rights make development possible. If someone knows that they own the land, they will make personal investments, knowing that they will be able to reap the benefits. Likewise, outsiders will be more likely to make investments, trusting that the owner of the land will be able to make good on his or (much less often) her promises, and if not, the bank or the lender will receive the collateral.

In this post that is already too long I’ve painted a picture in pretty broad strokes. I will follow up later this week with some theological musings on the topic. In the meantime I welcome your feedback and insight on the question.

David Creech

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