RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

We All Have the Right to Remain Active

Over the winter holidays, I’ve been gathering past columns for an E-book that will be available soon. Certain themes are obvious—industry’s grab for markets, how communities can fight back—but I’ve come to realize that I haven’t said nearly enough about the growing threat of rural land grabs. So, writing more about that is my resolution for 2016.

Land is the big prize of industry’s decades of takeovers. The loss of livestock markets due to consolidation and the loss of seed sovereignty due to industrial patenting are just appetizers. Land is the basis of rural wealth. In recent years, global warming, floods, drought all have taken their bites and created landless refugee peasants, but industrial greed is even more menacing.

The deal is that, unless you own at least a piece of the place where you live, your right to stay is in jeopardy. A landlord can sell a place out from under you, subject to your few rights under your lease. For refugees, with no citizenship in the nation where they are camped, the situation is even more tenuous.

There are few exceptions to the rules of real estate ownership. The Mexican Constitution of 1917 limits the amount of land a person can own and gives Mexican peasants communal rights to shared land in their country. Those rights were won in the revolution of 1917 which broke up the large haciendas where peasants worked as landless peons.

In most places, though, rights of indigenous people are in jeopardy all the time. In 2011, Iowa multi-millionaire Bruce Rastetter figured out how to buy 800,000 acres of land in Tanzania for an estimated 22-23 cents per acre. He had already landed a place on Iowa’s Board of Regents and committed Iowa State University, which the board oversees, to help with loans.

The land would be set up in industrial-scale, highly mechanized fields for grains, livestock and, of course, fuel production. He had the Tanzanian government on-board with the plan, including “Strategic Investor Status” for officials and tax breaks for profits. According to the Oakland Institute, the scheme would have displaced three refugee camps with 162,000 “small-holder farmers—Burundian refugees who had made that land their home for over 40 years.”

The shenanigans of Rastetter could fill several e-books. He made his fortune in the consolidation of the hog industry and one recent scheme was to organize an “Iowa Agriculture Summit” in 2015, introducing GOP presidential hopefuls to the wonders of industrial ag. Don’t blame Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Jeb Bush and the others who turned up for putting the rights of billionaires ahead of the rights of farmers. They haven’t been told that we HAVE rights.

And the problem is partly our own. We haven’t been speaking up. We’ve been home on the range, glued to Facebook or the TV set, scared into inaction by the threatening news from Fox. We need to grow up, take charge of our rights. Sadly, we need to do more than show up at the polls although that’s a start. Some local campaigns, which are easily as important as national campaigns, only draw a pitiful few voters.

The 2014 midterm elections set records for the lowest voter turnout. According to the New York Times, “In 43 states, less than half the eligible population bothered to vote, and no state broke 60% ... ” They didn’t divide the puny turnout in terms of rural and urban.

The Times blamed “apathy, anger and frustration at the relentlessly negative tone of the campaigns” but there are arguments a-plenty for rural folks not learning how to ply the ropes of government. Too busy. Too confused. Too intimidated. No ride to the poll. No poll in the neighborhood. And then there’s that apathy, anger and frustration working against good citizenship.

When we’re finally up against it, like the refugees in Tanzania, we act. Those refugees, with almost no rights to exercise, made noise. They found leadership in their own communities. Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement stepped up, revealing Rastetter’s plan to Iowans. The Des Moines Register, helped out by running articles and op-eds. At the end, after struggle, the refugees gained citizen status in Tanzania and got to keep their homes.

Land grabs can come in many disguises. Wars, which are often tied to religion and nationhood, are the biggest culprits. But here in the US, politics usually nudge land grabs along by offering tax incentives to corporate buyers. A couple of years ago, my rural neighborhood was declared an impaired zone where industry could build and gain tax incentives. The charade has corporate buyers promising jobs, and political entities caving in with tax breaks. Usually, behind the scenes, there’s a campaign contribution involved. When the government offers incentives, developers will quickly put people off their land.

We’ll be seeing more of this in 2016, no doubt.

Let’s all resolve to speak out when we see it.

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2016

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