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.