The tenure of agricultural land is at the core of many disputes and advocacy actions nowadays.
The common lands tenure is foreseen as the only way to counteract land grabbing. Such a common tenure, however, was put aside when Roman law Act introduced the concept of dominium and exploded in our modern times with the Enclosures Act in 19th Century England.
As Alanna Hartzok writes, “Over several hundred years 4,000 Private Acts of Enclosure were passed covering some 7,000,000 acres. Probably the same sized area was enclosed without application to Parliament. About two thirds involved fields belonging to cottagers while one third involved commons such as woodland and heath. In the census of 1086, more than half the arable land belonged to the villagers. By 1876, only 2,225 people owned half the agricultural land in England and Wales and that 0.6 per cent of population owned 98.5 per cent of it.
As newer agricultural methods and technologies were applied, landowners could raise the rents of their lands by phenomenal amounts. As the cash economy developed, the rent money accumulated into the hands of the landholders and the plight of the people worsened. To survive, they sometimes were forced to borrow money from the handholds at high rates of interest.” (The Earth Belongs to Everyone, 2008, p. 36)
Enclosure was the legal – it does not mean just – process in England of enclosing a number of small landholdings to create one larger farm. Once enclosed, use of the land became restricted to the owner, and it ceased to be common land for communal use. The Enclosures were introduced after the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 and marked “the violent direct suppression of the indigenous people of Europe. Between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, masses of peasants were evicted from their holding or saw their common land fenced off for sheep” (ib. p. 31). In the other part of England, Ireland’s story was an anticipation of modern land grabbing, i.e. “of many in the Third World today.
In 1801, Britain made Ireland part of its empire and dissolved the Irish Parliament. By now, the Protestants had the upper hand and were given a voice in the British Parliament while the Catholic majority had none. Heavy taxation was placed on Irish goods, and the British controlled almost all of Ireland’s farmland. Tenant farmers had to give their entire crops to the landlords as rent. When their subsistence potato crops failed from blight, there was nothing to fall back on. Some three million people died of starvation and disease between 1845 and 1849, while one million fled to US and Canada. Ireland’s population of eight million was cut in half. During the famine Ireland exported to England enough grain, cattle, pigs, butter and eggs “To feed the Irish people twice over” (Elisabeth Ward, When Ireland was Europe’s Ethiopia, quoted p. 36).
Nevertheless, this coming reality encountered opposition from advocacy precursor leaders before time. In 17th century England, there appeared the Diggers who “were sounding a lot like land-rights prophets.” The Diggers were a group of Protestant radicals, sometimes seen as forerunners of modern anarchism, and associated with agrarian socialism. Gerrard Winstanley‘s followers, they were known as True Levellers, because they wanted (by “levelling” land) to reform the existing social order with an agrarian lifestyle based on the ideas of small egalitarian rural communities with economic equality based upon the Book of Acts. Later they became known as Diggers. Gerrard Winstanley, in his “New Law of Righteousness,” clearly saw the forces at play when he said, “The rich, in their enclosure saying ‘this is mine’ and the poor upon the common saying ‘this is ours, the earth and its fruits are common.’ Leave off dominion and lordship one over another for the whole bulk of mankind are but one living earth!”
Even before Diggers, Thomas More (1478-1535), Chancellor of England, “made passionate pleas against the cruel injustices when whole villages were being pulled down to make way for the more profitable industry of sheep farming and families were turned adrift onto the roads to starve. His plan for a better England was based upon a thorough Common Ownership. More was murdered as a martyr. The root meaning of this word martyr is one who remembers and cares.” (Ib. p. 35)
“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9) – why then is human kind is so slow to learn from its own history? Maybe because “Human kind cannot bear very much reality” (T.S. Eliot)