Land Justice: Re-imagining Land, Food and the Commons in the United States

Land Justice: Re-imagining Land, Food and the Commons in the United States review by Liz Henderson

If you are looking for a deeper understanding of the ills in our food system and how to address them than “vote with your fork,” this is a book you should read as soon as possible. Land Justice stands in contrast with so many food movement books that never question the basic premise that with a few adjustments, we can correct the excesses of the capitalist marketplace. Eric Holt-Gimenez lays out the book’s basic premise: “Racial injustice and the stark inequities in property and wealth in the US countryside aren’t just a quirk of history, but a structural feature of capitalist agriculture. This means that in order to succeed in building an alternative agrarian future, today’s social movements will have to dismantle those structures. It is the relationships in the food system, and how we govern them, that really matter.” (P. 2)

A collection of essays, Food Justice brings together stories of old injustices and on-going ones, stories that we all need to hear and take to heart. We learn about the Gulluh Geechee farmers, George Washington Carver and Booker T. Whatley, the Republic of New Africa, the Land Loss Prevention Fund, women farmers, white and black, the Acequia Communities, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, Rosalinda Guillen and farm worker organizing in Washington State, the People’s Community Market in Oakland, the Black Community Food Security Network in Detroit, and students taking action in Occupy the Farm in Berkeley.

Prefaces from three voices open Land Justice – a Native American, an African American and a family-scale farmer –voices that must be heard if we are to sort out the strands in the history of the “land problem” in this country and imagine a way forward towards a more just food system.

Winona LaDuke contrasts mainstream industrial, monocrop agriculture with the indigenous approach “based on biodiversity and the use of multiple locally adapted crops.” (P. xii) Plants, LaDuke tells us, are magical and “provide complex nutrients, medicinal values, cultural and spiritual connections, and they feed the soil.” She recounts the struggle of Native Americans for control of their land culminating in the successful class action suit, Keepseagle vs. Vilsack (1999) which won $680 million in reparations. While this award is far from adequate, it marks the resurgence and recovery of indigenous farming that is underway. LaDuke declares that it is time for “decolonization.”

Taking as her chant “This Land is Contested,” LaDonna Redmond, laments the Indian removal that preceded the importation of slave labor: “The holocaust of the indigenous set the stage in the US for the rise of capitalism.” (P. xv) The free labor of 12 million enslaved Africans on stolen land “is what built the wealth of the so-called New World.” The Homestead Act, which allowed many landless European immigrants to access land, was not for former slaves. Redmond urges the soli-darity of her people with Native Americans, the water and land protectors, and calls for unity against “corporate oligarchy and federal imperialism.” (P. xvii)

Belittling the ‘vote with your fork’ vote analogy, Iowa farmer George Naylor declares: “We need to recognize how market forces affect farmers, the land, and consumer behavior, and demand policy solutions to achieve a sustainable future.” (P. xix) Naylor insists that “We need to de-commercialize food and land.” To accomplish this, Naylor proposes that we replace the cheap food policy that has enabled corporate dominance, with a system based on “Parity,” the New Deal farm programs involving “conservation-supply management to avoid wasteful, polluting over production; a price support that actually set a floor under the market prices rather than sending out government payments; grain reserves to avoid food shortages and food price spikes; and a quota system that was fair to all farmers and changed the incentives of production.” (P. xxi)

The authors of these essays have every reason to be bitter and pessimistic given what they have experienced and the long history of atrocities that mar our country’s past. Yet, despite the recitals of inhuman cruelty and brutal greed, Land Justice leaves the reader energized and inspired by the writers’ courage and determination. Together they show us a path forward through alliances and collaboration with the marginalized communities represented to “change the politics of property.” This book makes a major contribution to helping us develop a radical and coherent program for transformative change. As Holt-Gimenez concludes his incisive introduction, the authors are “in a struggle to remake society.” It is up to us to harken to their passionate words and to take “land justice” as “both a vision and a clarion call.” (P. 13)