Property and land use




Property and Land Use. A Theoretical and Diachronic Approach to Land Grabbing

Thick lines for the lecture held at the Summer School of the Agricultural Studies Faculty at the University of Bologna, Italy, June 2012.


The course was supported by Gruppo Volontariato Sociale (GVC) within the EU funded project Energizing Development.


Why are biofuel policies and economy related to land grabbing?

What are the theoretical foundations, both legal and political, of land use change?

What are the essential different evolutions of land-related property rights and why are these creating global social injustice and allegedly higher emissions?


The construct that states the passivity of the earth is of colonial origin.

Furthermore, the consequent creation of the colonial category of land as terra nullius (empty land).

(Vandana Shiva, Earth Democracy, South End Press, Cambridge.Massachussetts, 2005)

However, we shall see further on that the concept of terra nullius  has a strong root in Roman law, being a civil law institution related to the acquisition of property.

TERRA NULLIUS – a contemporary term

In the colonial approach, the concept served two purposes:

-It denied the existence and prior rights of original inhabitants;
-It obscured the regenerative capacity and processes of the earth.

> It allowed the emergence of private property from enclosures and allowed non-sustainable use of resources to be considered “development” or “progress”.

For the privateer and the colonizer, enclosure was improvement.

In Australia, colonizers justified the total appropriation of land and natural resources by declaring the entire continent – terra nullius. This declaration established the path to privatizing the commons, because, legally, within the colonizers’ system of law, there were no commons.

In the American colonies the takeover of native resources was justified on the ground that indigenous people did not “improve” their land.

“Natives in New England, they enclose no land, neither have they any settled habitation, nor any tame cattle to improve the land by soe have no other but a Natural Right to those countries. Soe as if we leave them sufficient for their use, we may lawfully take the rest.” John Winthrop, 1st governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1669