How the Green New Deal Can Deliver Land Justice

Land is a source of both enormous wealth and horrendous inequality. The Green New Deal can reverse historic injustices while pushing agriculture into the sustainable, low-carbon future.

Corn grows on a farm on July 13, 2018 near Amana, Iowa. Scott Olson / Getty

In 2013, when brandon king and others launched Cooperation Jackson — a radical project to bring economic democracy and worker ownership to Jackson, Mississippi — they decided to put their funds toward purchasing land instead of paying themselves salaries. “We were renting just to have a space for meeting — that’s completely not sustainable,” said king, who spearheads the group’s sustainable urban farm cooperative. Added his colleague Sacajawea Hall: “We needed to acquire and also be thinking about land ownership in a collective way. I don’t think it was ever a question.”

For Cooperation Jackson, the question of land — who owns it, manages it, and accesses it — is at the heart of the climate crisis, and a major source of wealth and inequality. It is also essential for ensuring that our sustainable, low-carbon future — the future envisioned by the Green New Deal (GND) — is a just one.

Agriculture contributes 9 percent of US carbon emissions and, by one estimate, a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, largely from livestock, refrigeration, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These emissions are a product of the model of industrial monoculture farming, which maximizes profits by growing a single crop, like soy or corn, over vast swaths of land. The Green New Deal is calling for the elimination of “pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector” by “investing in sustainable farming” and “building a more sustainable food system that ensures universal access to healthy food.”

“What we’re trying to do is release the investments from the federal government to mobilize those resources across the country,” New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez explained in February, responding to right-wing scare-mongering about a government takeover in Green New Deal clothes. “It could be Tennessee Valley Authority–style public programs, but it could also be public-private partnerships. It can work down on a municipal level. There could be some potential contracting involved.”

But AOC’s statements raise the fraught issues of racism and capitalism at the heart of GND politics. In other words, contracts and partnerships with whom?

In the popular imagination, the quintessential US farmer tends to be the hardworking, corn-fed, (white) family farmer, toiling in the fields from sunrise to sundown. The reality is much different: US farms have rapidly decreased in number and grown in size, meaning they are consolidated in fewer hands. Today, many family farms are factory farms, only run by private individuals instead of a corporate board of directors, while some aging farmers are selling off their farms to neighbors or larger agribusiness firms as urban development encroaches on rural land, making it particularly difficult for younger farmers to purchase land.

The distribution of land in the US is also shaped by legacies of racial hierarchy and violence. Ninety-eight percent of private rural land and 96 percent of private agricultural lands are white-owned; less than 1 percent of farms are black-owned. It wasn’t always this way — in 1910, that number was 14 percent. The rapid decline was partially a product of the Great Migration and mechanization (themselves outgrowths of a racist political economy), but black farmers were also pushed off their land through discriminatory lending practices and inadequate legal, political, and financial resources to stave off real estate developers. And today in the fields, 80 percent of farm workers, who pick the fruits and vegetables that appear neatly packaged in our grocery stores, identify as Hispanic or Latino.

Then there’s the often-overlooked fact that these farmlands were once stolen from indigenous people by the federal government, which established US sovereignty in the West by offering free, newly privatized land to white settlers through the 1862 Homestead Act. The act cleared the path for corporations to extract resources from the land: fur, oil, minerals, lumber, and much more. And as indigenous water protectors have highlighted, the process continues to this day, with the Army Corps and other government agencies offering construction permits to pipeline corporations on indigenous land.

Ultimately, the issue of agriculture shares a common basis with battles over fossil fuel pipelines. As indigenous historian and activist Nick Estes puts it in his book Our History is the Future, “There is one essential reason why indigenous peoples resist, refuse, and contest US rule: land.” (Full disclosure: I was the editor of Estes’s book.)

Throughout its history, the federal government has allowed private corporations to expropriate public goods such as air and water while shifting the costs and impacts of pollution, damaged ecosystems, and climate change onto communities that will depend on the land long after the corporations have gone. And public lands, stolen from indigenous people and entrusted to the government for the benefit of the public, have been no exception: a 2016 federal study found that a quarter of US carbon emissions were produced by fossil fuel extraction on public lands — a trend that has only accelerated under Donald Trump.

History thus offers few reasons to believe that government contracts and “public-private partnerships” won’t simply perpetuate the inequalities and injustices of our current food system, consolidating wealth — and economic power — among those with deep pockets and Washington connections.

Still, there is some cause for hope. Sustainable farmers, scattered throughout both urban and rural areas of the US, are already deploying permaculture methods of farming that, in some cases, can even help sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

On her Soul Fire Farms in Albany, New York, Leah Penniman cultivates some of her crops on rocky slopes that Namibian mounding and Kenyan terracing farming techniques have made productive, but which industrial agribusiness would have considered unusable. Some 1,500 miles away in Minnesota, the indigenous environmental activist Winona LaDuke initiated a project in 1989 to recover reservation lands lost settlers, revive old traditions of land stewardship, and produce wild rice and other Ojibwe foods. Further west, in Washington state, migrant Mexican farmers who organized the Familias Unidas por la Justicia farmworkers union have launched a new farm cooperative, Cooperativa Tierra y Libertad, to grow organic berries and offer a more secure future for its worker-owners. There are others too, run by brown, black, and indigenous farmers drawn to sustainable food-growing methods both as a cultural inheritance — organic farming is a method developed across millennia, but first revived in the US by a black farmer, Dr George Washington Carver, in the early 1900s — and as a way to provide cheap, healthy food for their communities.

Could these be, to borrow AOC’s words, the “resources” that the federal government needs to mobilize with investment?

Some elements of such a Green New Deal might already be found, in limited, seedling form, within existing legislation and government programs. The federal Farm Bill’s 2501 program includes special funding, through land trusts, community colleges, tribal governments, and nonprofit organizations, to help farmers of color acquire, own, operate, and retain farms. Penniman suggests that farmers be paid, via the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Reserve Program, for using methods that conserve the environment and sequester carbon. (And, on the flip side, industrial agriculture should be taxed for outsourcing the long-term effects of its pollution and ecological destruction onto the public).

Yet these measures leave intact the economic and political structures that favor corporations and the wealthy over sustainable farmers, and will continue to be limited by one essential factor: land. Last spring, Penniman helped convene a gathering of the Northeast Farmers of Color Network, an informal alliance of about 150 black, Latinx, and Asian organic farmers. The animating question: “What are the biggest obstacles for being able to feed and sustain our communities, and maintain the businesses that support our families?” One answer emerged repeatedly: “access to land.” Long-term planning and construction projects are difficult for farmers who rent, and this includes investing time and money into implementing (and, in many cases, learning) sustainable farming methods.

As long as people depend on water, air, food from the earth, and natural environmental processes to survive, these resources — and the land that holds them — should not be controlled by a small number of billionaires. A just, equitable Green New Deal would acknowledge that land is a major source of wealth and inequality, and work towards what activists call “land justice” — the access to land that farmers need to “build healthy, equitable food systems that provide jobs and keep the food dollar in the community,” as Eric Holt-Giménez, the executive director of think tank Food First, writes.

It might do this by creating, as Penniman and the Northeast Farmers of Color have advocated in the past, a commission to “study reparations and propose a comprehensive redistribution of wealth and land.” Federal programs to buy back land are, while limited, not entirely without precedent. The Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations allocated $2 billion in 2009 to repurchase indigenous lands that had been “fractionated” into small, individually owned parcels, and returned to reservations and communal tribal ownership under the Cobell v. Salazar settlement. And in an interview, the historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz noted that, despite its manifold problems and shortcomings, the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act — part of the original New Deal — did include funding to buy back similar lands and restore them to tribes.

These steps would not reverse the historical processes that deprived black, brown, and indigenous communities of resources, power, and dignity for generations — the same ongoing processes that drive corporate resource extraction and created the climate crisis. But they would be steps toward rectifying historical wrongs. And climate chaos, spreading heat waves, deep freezes, droughts, floods, and fires throughout the continent will only further threaten land access for people long divested of it.

USAID has stated that land tenure “will be instrumental in managing the increased population in migrant-receiving communities” — in other words, climate migration. Even the World Bank acknowledges that “secure land rights are essential to reduc[ing] disaster risk and build climate resilience.” Land rights allow communities to grow their own food, build their own housing, install their own solar panels, and create public places where local markets and social networks can be cultivated — resources that, when disaster strikes, can make the difference between perishing and bouncing back.

Yet at the Northeast Farmers of Color gathering, the questions did not stop at the issue of land access. “When we have access to land, what are ways to hold land in common?”

“There’ve been communities all over the world who, before they were impacted by capitalism and globalization, were operating in a similar fashion,” said brandon king of Cooperation Jackson, laying out their vision for an “eco-village” on a block of land they’ve acquired near downtown Jackson. The imagined eco-village would be a mixture of new and renovated homes, all manufactured by the industrial 3D-printing Fab Lab machines they’ve acquired; permaculture design and a farm; and solar panels for the community. “The eco-village is a way that we can show a different way of life and relating to the land, and to each other,” he said. “It’s those models that we want to affirm.”