Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
June 5, 2000
Property ownership an expanding notion
Last year the Jubilee 2000 focus was on the forgiveness of debt. Some progress was made in that direction, but the battle is far from over.
Flood-stricken Mozambique for instance is still burdened by the structural adjustment program imposed by the International Monetary Fund. The financial institution showed no mercy.
But Jubilee 2000 is more than a campaign to forgive debt. Based on Leviticus 25, it also seeks the restoration of property, especially land: "Your land must not be sold on a permanent basis, because you do not own it. It belongs to God, and you are like foreigners who are allowed to make use of it."
The Old Testament command flies in the face of some fundamental concepts upon which our western societies have been built. Native tradition still holds that air, water and land and all that grows and lives on the earth are a gift from the Creator for the respectful use of everybody with a view of considering the needs of seven generations hence.
This is no way to get rich. But wealth in the old traditions was measured by how much you shared with others. The potlatch, the soup dance and other such ceremonies were designed as ritual means to distribute the wealth. Land was held in common, at least within the confines of the clan or tribe.
The "commons" was also a European tradition before the industrial revolution and it still exists in certain regions of South America among the very poor. But when the accumulation of private wealth took precedence over shared wealth, land and water became a commodity to be bought or sold.
The beginnings of this new reality can possibly be traced back all the way to the agricultural revolution and the first empires some 10,000 years ago.
When the Church became a power to be reckoned with after Constantine, it counted much of its wealth in land holdings. A good portion of it was lost to the Protestants after the Reformation, but, with colonization in full swing, land was claimed in foreign domains to make up for the loss. Entire continents were stolen without consulting the indigenous populations.
The supreme pontiff, acting in the name of Christ, believed that it was within his jurisdiction to draw a line through the centre of the New World and grant one half to Portugal and the other to Spain. Last year the Vatican came out with a document to express regret for this land grab.
Huge tracts of land in the exotic colonies were gifted by the ruling monarchs to generals, bishops, governors and members of the nobility as favours in return for protecting the interests of the throne.
Once ownership was established, the land could be sold or made profitable through plantation culture, mining or forestry.
This required labour, which could also be bought and sold on the open market. Slavery, which has existed since ancient times, became globalized, with human beings shipped from one continent to another.
In the present economy, the notion of private ownership has been expanded to frightening dimensions to include intellectual property, and patented life forms of plants and animals. Now, ownership of the very stuff that constitutes the building blocks of life is being contested in the genome project.
As in earlier plunder raids, most of the raw material, including knowledge, comes from indigenous populations. If the meek are going to inherit the earth, then the not so meek are going to make sure that every nook of this earth has been exploited before judgment day.
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