Thoughts on Land Privatization and Community Creation

By Evan Pye

I’d like to talk about two things today: private land ownership and how to create “community” in today’s society. The first issue comes from a Crash Course World History video I was watching and taking notes on about Europe in the Middle Ages. The host, John Green, explained that until 1500, most land in Europe was shared by everyone and was known as the “Commons.” When monarchs began to distribute plots of land to the wealthy class, the new landowners removed peasants from their land, which drove the peasants into the city to beg or work menial jobs. These conditions reminded me of what I saw in Uganda during my summer trips there in 2013 and 2014. My classmates and I visited rural villages in the central district of Oyam. The villages were quite remote and consisted of small huts separated by large plots of land. When we asked the villagers if they owned all the land we saw, they told us that most of it was communal grazing land. No one necessarily owned it, but for generations the land was shared for animals to graze. The plots of land that the villagers we met owned were usually about one or two acres near their home. We were all struck at how much land was going un-farmed. Furthermore, the vagueness about who owned the land seemed to mean that no one could use it for growing crops and making a profit. This seemed very inefficient, but the communal land we saw can’t be utilized for agriculture unless it is legally owned and sold by specific families. It seemed that the legal structure is not set up to handle that kind of land distribution policy.

John Green explained in the Crash Course video that land privatization in Europe during the 1500s was harmful to the peasants who were removed from the land, but it led to great advances in agriculture. Green notes that since you no longer had to worry about someone else’s cow stepping all over your crops and eating them, you could focus on carefully planting seeds in rows. Land privatization gave farmers incentives to make more efficient use of their land and “experiment with new methods of food production.”

This history lesson reminded me of another article I read the other week about the purchasing of land in Africa by urban dwellers. Although legal systems have a long way to go, it seems many Africans have been able to buy up large plots of land that was previously known as communal grounds for local communities. They are unhappy with the upswing in “land grabs,” but it reminds me a lot of the land privatization that occurred in Europe. Perhaps the concept of communal land has been inhibiting African economic development, because it promotes an inefficient use of fertile land. If so, there could be a race in the next few years to “grab” fertile African land from communities that have had it for many generations. This may upset the social order but pay off in terms of agricultural output. And if a traditional lifestyle really is at odds with the most financially lucrative use of land, is the new system really worth it to improve economic conditions?

This question leads to the second topic of creating communities in today’s society. I was watching an interview with Louis Cole from his Youtube channel Funforlouis. I’m a big fan of his daily vlogs, so I was interested to hear his answer to the question of what he’s learned from traveling around the world and visiting so many different cultures. Louis told the interviewer that the biggest takeaway from his travels has been the difference between the communal/familial/tribal lifestyle of less developed regions of the world and the individualistic, high tech lifestyle of the developed Western world. Louis and the interviewer conclude that Americans and other Westerners have created a culture in which we don’t really need each other for very much, because nearly everything is available to us at our fingertips. The interviewer makes the case that communities only form when people truly need each other for some reason or another. And in the West (especially in cities), as the need for others diminishes, our connections with others diminishes. But we look around at our lives and realize something is missing. It’s that sense of communities that humans have lived with and valued for our entire collective history.

I think there’s a really important point being made in this interview. I think they’ve identified an issue that leads to so much of the mental illness that is present in our society and in our cities. Technology and advancement has satisfied so many of our needs, that the role of other people in our lives is becoming less important. This is, of course, a terrible consequence of high-tech convenience and social media. I think it’s a problem that has to be addressed and figured out, or else our entire society will suffer greatly at the hands of the technology we’ve created to “improve” our lives.

Haiti’s History

By Evan Pye

This week I began to prepare for a trip I am planning to Haiti at the end of June by studying the country’s history. I have been interested in Haiti for a long time, having read Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder and Haiti: After the Earthquake by Paul Farmer. Most people probably associate Haiti with a high level of poverty and the earthquake that caused so much destruction in 2010. Yet, its history has been extremely rich and intriguing since before it even became a country in 1804. It’s a story full of violence, accomplishment, and misfortune; and it is very much in the middle of its own history today. My sources of information this week were Haiti: After the Earthquake, a BBC timeline, and a long article written by Paul Farmer in 2004.

To start with the present day, Haiti is in the midst of an election cycle which will have taken over a year to complete. President Michel Martelly completed his term in February 2016, but the first round of presidential elections in the previous October had been marred by fraud and corruption. He therefore was unable to welcome the new president and Haiti has appointed an interim President until they are able to re-do the contested elections, which are now scheduled for October 2016.

Haiti’s encounters with Europe began as early as 1492, when Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola during his first expedition to the Americas. The island was inhabited by a native people known as the Taino. The first European settlement in the Americas was the city of Santo Domingo in what is now Dominican Republic, a city which I have visited without realizing its historical significance. After only 100 years, all of the Taino people were wiped out by disease or violence, both on account of the European settlers. Spain controlled all of Hispaniola (little Spain), but ceded the western third of the island to France in 1697. France called this colony Saint Domingue, which would later come to be known as Haiti. France wasted no time bringing over slaves from Africa and had transported 30,000 of them via the Columbian Exchange by 1540. As a result, Haiti became an extremely brutal, efficient, and productive colony for France. It provided ⅓ of the tropical products to Europe and was the world’s leading exporter of coffee and sugar, making it more valuable to France than all of its other colonies combined.

In 1791, a freed slave named Touissant L’Ouverture led a rebellion that conquered the country that was 85% slaves by the point and declared himself ruler over all of Hispaniola. In response, Napoleon sent his brother-in-law Charles LeClerc with an armada of 40,000 troops to quell the uprising. L’Ouverture had already been captured and taken to France, where he died in prison. But Jean-Jacques Dessalines replaced him as leader of the rebellion, defeated Napoleon’s army, and declared Haiti an independent nation on January 1st, 1804.

Although Haiti had succeeded in freeing itself from France, the country was surrounded by hostile Caribbean colonies of European superpowers and America, which was afraid of the influence the slave revolt would have on the South. America wouldn’t recognize Haiti’s sovereignty until the 1860s. In 1825, France demanded reparations from Haiti for its lost land and property (meaning the slaves) of 150 million Francs. With its Navy surrounding Haiti’s water to threaten recapture, Haiti had to comply and begin paying the debt, which they would continue to pay until the 1950s. The total in today’s dollars would become $21 billion, and severely limit their their economic growth for more than a century.

In 1915, the United States invaded Haiti and occupied the country for 19 years, after disbanding the Haitian military and seizing control of the treasury. America’s reasoning for these actions were fears over the conflict between Haitian blacks in the North and mulattoes in the South. The US removed their troops from Haiti in 1934, but maintained fiscal control until 1947. It wasn’t long before more poor leadership would seize power in the form of a voodoo physician named Francois Duvalier, known as “Papa Doc”, in 1957. Duvalier was a corrupt and oppressive ruler. He was succeeded after his death in 1971 by his 19-year-old son, known as “Baby Doc.” Haiti finally kicked the Duvaliers out of power in 1986, and immediately drafted a new Constitution with changes such as making Creole the country’s official language.

After several failed and corrupt elections, Jean-Bertrand Aristide won the country’s first free and peaceful elections in 1990. He was ousted in a coup just one year later, but he would return in 2000 and be elected as president once more. He took over for Rene Preval, who served peacefully between 1995-2000. Aristide was a very pro-poor, socialist leader who President and Bush did not approve of. Bush decreased development aid to Haiti’s government and got the rest of the world to do the same. Haiti’s budget shrunk, leaving their education, health, and security systems to suffer. There was an increase in gangs and crimes, and Aristide was exiled in 2004 with the help of the Americans and the French. Aristide claims he was kidnapped by these foreign powers, who airlifted him to the former French colony, the Central African Republic. The rest of the 2000s were marked by gang violence, several contested elections, and deadly natural disasters. Rene Preval became president again in 2006, and was replaced by Michel Martelly in 2011. In January of 2010, the 7.0-magnitude earthquake killed nearly 300,000 people and led to an international pledge of $5.3 billion in aid money, most of which has not arrived or not been well-spent.