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Not owning but belonging to the land



There is a certain lookout on the bluffs of Lorne, on Victoria's surf coast. I've been there several times yet feel like a tourist each time. It is a breath-taking vista: the road running like a thin, grey ribbon next to the blue expanse of Bass Strait, which brushes here against a sandy cove.

LorneWe were heading back to the car, in the middle of the bush at midday, when I had to stop. The scent of eucalypts was intense. I could feel the sun on top of my head, and millennia below my feet. Tears sprang unbidden, inexplicably. I felt, for want of a better word, embraced.

I had not gone looking for this moment, did not even know I had needed it. It is still the only time I felt fully welcomed, and I cling to it when everything else seems so hostile. I took it as permission to be here.

Someone once told me that it is a mistake for migrant-minorities to want to belong, because it will always be under nationalist/supremacist terms. But when racist rhetoric and policies come buffeting, anyone would want to be tethered to something.

There are severe limitations in the western ways we tend to think about country, and land. Land is often conceived in terms of ownership and property — ideas that are implicated not just in colonial histories, but in extractive industries and concentrations of wealth.

In this model, land is a fulcrum of power. That is how seizures become a necessary precursor to occupation. Owning is licence for all sorts of things: homesteading, livestock, plantation economies. It stands for control. In the period when nascent democracies were granting suffrage, it was still only men with properties who could vote.

Even today those with property are rewarded through all sorts of fiscal incentives, at the expense of those without. The wealth gap has reverted to pre-modern conditions, when inheritance rigidly determined not just the character of individual lives but sociopolitical hierarchies. Our parliamentarians likely all own property.


"Their calculation of value, of what it means to live on the land, is distinct. It comes from a position of humility, where natural resources are held as debt rather than entitlement."


In economic discussion, land barely features on its own, as distinct from the tensions between labour and capital. It is merely the sphere in which wages and rent are paid, a passive site of production or competition. It holds most value where its resources can be turned into commodities for trade. This has facilitated deforestation and pollution so drastic that it has changed the global climate.

But what if, rather than owning land, we could belong to it? What if, rather than belonging to nations and tribes, we could conceive an allegiance to something fundamentally inclusive and egalitarian? What would it change about the way we think of ourselves and our relationships to one another?

These questions lie at the faultline between modern and traditional approaches to land. While there can be no doubt that people have prospered from distribution of property, and production from it, the idea that land is for 'using' and 'improving on' — for profit — has distorted our sense of place.

It has severed us from the natural world, replaced relationship for transaction, and prioritised short-term extraction over securing resources in perpetuity. In other words, land in the western, capitalist sense has been permission to be self-interested, rapacious and damaging.

This has been adopted in countries like the Philippines, where occupied ancestral domains have shrunk or been turned into militarised zones, in anticipation of development. Earlier this year, President Rodrigo Duterte announced plans to offer millions of hectares held in common by indigenous Lumad peoples in Mindanao to foreign investors, whom he would personally select.

'You were given your ancestral domain,' he said. 'The problem is, you didn't use it.' What that means is that the Lumad have been vehemently against mining and have rejected proposals to establish palm oil plantations for export. They are told that such activities would improve their standard of living, yet they do not accept the premise that plunder makes things better.

Their calculation of value, of what it means to live on the land, is distinct. It comes from a position of humility, where natural resources are held as debt rather than entitlement. It is also collectivist not just in the sense of sharing with those present today, but with those to come beyond sight. It is grounded in a sense of belonging and relationship that predates nationhood and needs no validation from it.

I think it is this last element that might explain the lightness I felt when I descended from that lookout in Lorne. It is something that continues to animate my sense of what it means to live on this land, alongside those who were here before me well into the past, and those who are here now from other lands.



Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She hosts the ChatterSquare podcast, tweets as @foomeister and blogs on Medium.

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, property, land



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Existing comments

"The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!" Wordsworth: "The World Is Too Much With Us", written in 1802, at the time of the First Industrial Revolution (the time of Blake's "dark Satanic Mills"). In their time, these poets were like canaries in a coal mine. We can't turn the clock back, but if we were to turn it forward, what devastation might we see? Thank you for your reminder of what we are in danger of losing - our contact with and appreciation of Nature, which helps to make us truly human in the best sense of that word.

Jena Woodhouse | 19 July 2018  

In his book "Atlas of Untamed Places" Chris Fitch has written these words: "What if wild places, like people, had fundamental rights? What if a natural landscape could become a 'legal entity', enabling it to possess the same constitutional liberties as a human being? How different would such an obviously unrealistic utopian world be? Except, this isn't a work of fiction. In 2014, the New Zealand government passed the revolutionary Te Urewera Act, which, among other things, granted the forest of Te Urewera, in the country's North Island, 'all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person'. This goes beyond World Heritage status and makes us aware of just how important land is to our survival.

Pam | 20 July 2018  

Great work Fatima, keep it up.

David | 20 July 2018  

This is just beautiful.

Phillip Kadaoui | 20 July 2018  

"The road running like a thin grey ribbon" might be your road to Damascus, Fatima, marked by a signpost, your tears.

john frawley | 20 July 2018  

It brings to mind that old fashioned Christian ideal of "stewardship". I think we all have a lot to learn from our Aboriginal brothers and sisters about belonging to country... And lovely writing as usual Fatima - I have really enjoyed reading your articles since I found Eureka Street a year or two ago.

Claire | 20 July 2018  

It is so good to read of your feeling that you belong to the land, in this country of my birth, a country to which you have come to live. And I do enjoy all the comments others have made before me.

Ian Fraser | 22 July 2018  

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