A fair distribution of resources is a question of justice, and a call for justice is at the heart of most religious traditions. Not only African spirituality but also biblical tradition, Christian social ethics, human rights pacts and international law can provide a framework to approach complex land issues and provide orientations to find just solutions
Biblical tradition has two interconnected focal points: The Lordship of God of everything and God’s demand for justice within the human community.
- God is the only owner, human beings are tenants
“The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” (Lev. 25:23) The bible repudiates the idea of absolute ownership rights. No one created the earth and its resources; they were given, not to individuals but to God’s people, who use it as tenants. Many of Jesus’ parables reflect this world view. God is the owner of the vineyard; his people work the land in his name. Biblical teaching thus stands in sharp contrast to the practice of the surrounding empires of the time where the Egyptian Pharaohs or the kings of Babylon were absolute masters of the land. It also differs from current modern ideologies that make private ownership an absolute right or make the state the sole owner of all resources.
- Do not accumulate resources at the expense of others
God’s intention in creating the abundance of nature is that all creatures should enjoy its fruits. Accumulating resources while others lack the necessities of life contradicts the very purpose of creation. It is an abuse of God’s gifts, as the prophets proclaim in the face of the rich and the mighty: “Woe to you who join house to house, who connect field with field.” (Is 5:8) Moreover, his contemporary Micah complains, “they covet fields, and seize them.” (Mic. 2:2).
Jesus condemns the accumulation of riches in the face of poverty and deprivation with unusual sharpness: “Woe to you who are rich…” (Lk 6:24) and dramatizes the fate of such abusers of creation in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man: they will have no part in God’s promise.
The first Christian community practiced the original purpose of resources – satisfying the needs of all – in a radical way. The same idea lies behind the vow of “poverty” taken by religious communities. The goods of creation belong to all and are allotted according to the needs of everyone.
The perspective of social ethics
Over the centuries, the church has struggled to develop biblical teaching, apply it to different historical contexts, and formulate some underlying principles. With respect to the control and ownership of natural resources, like land, the following principles of catholic social teaching need to be considered.
- The universal destination of goods: This principle reaffirms the biblical teaching that creation is destined for all human beings. “God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples. Thus, under the leadership of justice and in the company of charity, created goods should be in abundance for all in like manner.” (Gaudium et Spes no. 69) The teaching on the universal destination of goods is reflected in the modern discussion on the global commons or global public goods, which cannot be privatized as they belong to humanity.
- The right to private property: The church’s teaching at the same time maintains both the right to private property, as an instrument to advance human dignity and freedom, as well as the limits of the right to private property whenever it infringes on the rights of others and endangers the common good. Personal property is never absolute. It carries a social obligation and is limited by the needs of others. Acquiring property such as land must never deprive others of the necessities of life.
- The common good: The right to personal property might be restricted by appropriate authorities in favour of the common good. Where the good of the whole community necessitates the dispossession of land, an adequate compensation that guarantees equal possibilities for the
losses endured must be given in justice. When powerful elites claim for themselves that which belongs to all, they are perverting the common good.
- Solidarity: At the heart of the biblical revelation lies God’s solidarity with humanity, this became visible in the person of Jesus Christ and in his solidarity with the poor and the marginalised. Christian social teaching expresses this basic truth through “an option for the poor.” The common good cannot be realised if persons and groups are excluded from accessing the basic resources of life. Taking land from the poor without giving them adequate means to live is a sin against solidarity.
- Sustainability: Care for creation is justice towards future generations. It means that the limited and precious resource of land is to be used in a way that preserves soil fertility and avoids erosion and contamination of the environment. Land policies should aim to ensure economic and ecological sustainability. In his encyclical Caritas in Veritate (at no. 27), Pope Benedict XVI insists that agricultural investments must ensure sustainable development.
- Participation: Christian social thinking insists upon the need to participate in decision-making processes, particularly those concerned with the issue. This principle is based on the biblical concept of the human being as an image of God, and on the more modern perception of individuals as autonomous subjects responsible for their own decisions. Excluding people from decision-making processes that concern their lives and their future means treating them as mere objects.
- Subsidiarity: Decisions that can be made responsibly and effectively at the local level should not be taken at a higher level. The presumption is that those closer to the issue will have both the wisdom and the concern to make the best decisions. Subsidiarity respects the ability of human beings to think and make decisions at their own level of competence. Governments that make decisions on such vital issues as the change of land use, without involving the communities concerned, offend the human dignity of their citizens.
The human rights perspective
Many human rights are directly concerned with the question of large-scale land acquisitions.
- The right to life, to food, to water, to housing: life is first a fundamental good of all human beings. Access to food and water are necessary conditions to sustain one’s life. Large-scale acquisition of land by investors often includes access to water and can prevent the former users from accessing both the land and the water. Access to land is connected to the right to food, which is recognised as a basic human right.
- The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to life... (Article 3) “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing… (Article 25)
- The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights further specifies: “The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food…” and “to be free from hunger” (Article 11.1-2). States have the duty to work and cooperate to achieve that aim. Every person also has a right to adequate housing and to be protected against forced evictions. Land grabbing often involves the displacement of people and the destruction of their homes.
- The right to self-determination
The International covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights stipulates in its first principle that “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development” (Article 1.1). By extension, this also holds true for communities who have a right to pursue their development according to their own concepts. If someone imposes on them a system of industrial agriculture, in the name of modern development, that destroys their cultural values and their social identity, it is an infringement of the right to self-determination.