A History that Repeats itself: Issues of Land Ownership & Control

The classic American folk song of Woody Guthrie sings, “This land is your land, this land is my land… this land was made for you and me….” Though somewhat taken out of context for the purpose of my blog, I can’t help but wonder if our need for ownership has been so rooted within our western culture, that it is inevitable for problems to arise within land use development.

The basic needs of every human being consist of: water, food and shelter. Often added are clothing, education, sanitation and healthcare, however I believe when looking at many of the issues that humanity faces today such as food scarcity, energy accessibility, water sanitation & poverty; the root of the problem can be traced back to land use. I would propose in this case that an additional basic need of humanity is adequate land use management.

Undervalued and underestimated I will take two examples of the importance of land management at the macro level and then at the micro-level.

Land Grabs Today

As the world searches for solutions to solve problems as I mentioned above; a new issue arises, that I believe is a new model or form of colonialism, called “land grabs”. Land grabs, defined by Oxfam International as:

when governments, banks or private investors buy up huge plots of land to make equally huge profits…land deals are happening so quickly and on such a large scale that poor people are more vulnerable to the injustice of land grabbing than ever before.

What does this mean for rural communities in developing countries? For the people living in the areas it means they are displaced and left without land that provides them their basic needs.

Are we in the business of creating a problem for few but solving the problem for many? I don’t see this as the answer. We need to encourage proper land protection and management by governments against multinational corporations or developed countries, which do not create further inequalities.

Land Grabs in Hawaiian: The Great Mahele

I want to talk about the issues of land and agriculture facing Hawai’i today, but I think it would be unfair not to mention the history of land ownership in Hawai’i in order to get a complete picture of the ongoing struggle over land today.

As we speak about “land grabs” of this century, we can look back in history in many countries and areas and discover that this is not a new concept. In Hawai’i it was in 1848 that the Great Mahele occurred.

The Great Mahele of 1848, a division of the land into four categories: land belonging to the king, land belonging to the alii or chiefs, land that could be purchased by the foreigners who lived in Hawaii, and land worked by the commoners or makaainana.

It was divided and common Hawaiian people had the opportunity to file for their family land in order to obtain it. The catch? An idea pushed by foreign advisors to King Kamehameha III was a western way of thinking about land, to the people of Hawai’i, who did not hold the same values of land as they did, failed to meet the requirements in order to obtain the land in which their family had lived on for generations. Most of the land of Hawai’i was then snatched up by what we refer to today as, “The Big 5” wealthy corporations of that time that still to this day control much of Hawai’i because of this division.

Now, back to the present day: Hawai’i faces a challenge. Land is limited and highly valued and no longer exclusively by agricultural corporations, but by developers that if not protected against, they will happily replace agricultural lands with time share and hotels.

Can we have hope within our government?

According to the Hawai’i Department of Agriculture, 90,000 acres are designated as Important Agricutural Lands. Great news, right? Well, if we have learned anything from our past it is that history repeats itself, and as we have seen large conventional agricultural businesses dominate Hawai’i before, we need to be careful in what our state defines as good agricultural practices.

In fact, Hawai’is State Constitution mandates that

“The State shall conserve and protect agricultural lands, promote diversified agriculture, increase agricultural self sufficiency and assure the availability of agriculturally suitable lands.”

An amazing, progressive mandate within the constitution that foresaw the need for diversified agriculture and self-sufficiency of the state but what has been overlooked is who the transfer of the 90,000 acres of ag lands goes into. My fear is that without strict language in defining diversified agriculture and without adding sustainable practices, we will fall victim to the Big 5 of the future that not only Hawai’i should fear, but the world: Monsanto, Pioneer, DuPont, Dow & Syngenta.

In conclusion, I believe we would have to tell Woody Guthrie, that this land no longer belongs to ‘you and me’, but to the players of the game and it’s important for civil society to play in role in making our governments accountable and the transactions of land transfers transparent.


Bibliography & Links of interest:

Star Bulletin Archives: Profiles of the Big 5, then and now

Hawai’i State Legislature: Senate Bill 590 Relating to Agriculture

Mother Jones: The Top 5 Land-grabbing Countries

Honolulu Weekly: Farming the Future


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