Contemplating the past, present and future – and land redistribution – in the middle of
nowhere somewhere in Chile.
All photos © copyright Craig Mackintosh
He stares back at us from the t-shirts of millions of youths worldwide. Che Guevara‘s face has become one of the most recognisable counter-cultural and political symbols ever known. The history books tell us the man was famously sympathetic to the lot of the poor, and that his overriding passion was to fight against inequality, oppression, control. Che comes to my mind as I write this article from South America, because, in his rise to power, one of his driving ambitions, and which became one of his key responsibilities under Castro, was land redistribution – where he sought to break the stranglehold that was keeping the masses impoverished and robbing them of their potential. I bring this topic up, as, when I look at what’s happening in the world, and the radical changes needed to put us onto a sustainable path, the issue keeps coming back to my mind. These two words – land redistribution – strike fear into the hearts of the rich, and feelings of ambition and even violent revolution in those of the poor, yet, if we’re to stake a claim on the future, I feel we must, both rich and poor, come to terms with them.
Those studying how to address our precipitant trends – our dire soil erosion issues, our increasingly desperate water situation, and the complete vulnerability of our having made our entire large scale food system, from seed-sowing to consumption, completely dependent on waning supplies of fossil fuels – will recognise the need to harmonise our culture with the realities of biology, of soil science, and the urgent need to diversify and relocalise our food production, and, indeed, the production of everything we need for human habitation.
Forging a permanent culture, particularly in the era of energy descent we now find ourselves in, necessitates a rapid shift of food production to small scale biodiverse systems – polycultures. A logical flow should cause us to turn to face our current predicament – where millions of farmers over the last fifty years have succumbed to the onslaught of ‘get big or get out’ agricultural policies and have done just that; gotten out. Most of the agricultural land in the ‘developed’ world today is held, and abused, by Big Agri. Indeed, only a handful of companies control the land, seed, fertilisers, pesticides and even distribution and sale of much of what we eat. Unfortunately it is not well recognised that the same can be said for much of the best land in the South as well, which is also largely serving only the needs of the wealthy – inefficiently, as industrial agriculture is – to the detriment of locals who should have the rights to that land (example) but who are exporting their water and their best soils in the produce that feeds the North.
The question of how to rapidly, but peacefully, transition society back to small scale farming systems should be on everyone’s mind, and should be pressed upon politicians at every turn. But, we should be aware that carving up land is never an easy ask. Historically, land redistribution almost never came without bloodshed. Land reforms, whether in the form of a centralised government-enforced collectivisation program or government-enforced redistribution, or whether by bloody grass-roots uprisings, are arguably the biggest cause of radicalisation, revolution and violent unrest within regional social contexts. The reason for this is simple – they are based on the most pressing of human needs: food and water.
But, worse, and this is central thought to this article: despite all the upheaval and unrest, usually these ‘reforms’, by whatever method, fail miserably.
Often, for example, the peasant class who might benefit from land redistribution look upon the situation as a way to ‘get even’ or to take back wealth from their ‘oppressors’. It becomes a class war, rather than a conscious, sober-minded and objective effort to rebuild society for the betterment of all.
Conversely, it is entirely difficult for those with large land titles to objectively appreciate the demands and needs of the landless – particularly when profits are still being made and an entire economy is based on the current paradigm. Just as medieval feudal lords fought to retain their hold on power, our contemporary corporate feudal lords will be just as unwilling to relinquish it.
And, often land reforms come to nothing because of a lack of skills, equipment or capital. People receive land, or take it by force, but then end up failing to accomplish anything with it simply due to their own inability to do so. Or, the rapid change brought about by redistribution rudely interrupts market mechanisms in place, and people fail to build a viable new system to replace it from one day to the next. This inability to plan, to strategically and objectively implement – to transition – has been the cause of some of the world’s worst famines and social implosions.
Why do I talk about these things in the context of this particular series? Well, the community development here at El Manzano is, I believe, better appreciated in the light of its historical context – and from it we may draw some lessons for the social adjustments we need to work towards and press for.
El Manzano history in a nutshell
In 1931, an ex-navy man by the name of Sydney Raby-Matthews (the great great grandfather of Grifen and Javiera’s son Anaru) bought 600 hectares of land right here in El Manzano, converting it to dairy pasture and installing electricity, fencing and roads. In the 1970s his son Lionel took over and continued with the same. El Manzano was highly self-sufficient in food, water, etc. and became a bustling little village with a much greater population than we see today.
This was the time of the Marxist politician Salvador Allende – one of whose defining acts was to expropriate lands from wealthy land holders for redistribution. The abject failure of this move set the stage for the U.S./CIA-backed military coup by Augusto Pinochet, whose regime, despite being highly repressive, happened to favour neo-liberal capitalism during the cold war years and thus endeared it to the U.S., who were, by the way, only too happy to assist him and other South American leaders in a rather muddied and murderous history.
Grifen Hope explains what happened here at El Manzano:
As the story goes, armed young men with training in Cuba came to El Manzano and rallied the villagers to take the land. They held the family at gunpoint for a few weeks in the house. They destroyed buildings and ate all the cows or herded them off. When the siege was over the leaders took everything of value – the machinery, tools and animals, etc., and left the campansinos the land. With nothing to work it they abandoned and sold it. People left and migrated to the cities of Concepcion and Santiago to find work.
Pinochet offered the land back to Lionel but he refused all but 120 hectares.
In 2004 the municipal government zoned El Manzano urban and shared the land with remaining families, giving them all a small plot. They have since constructed half of the promised homes, installed a pump, electrics and septic tank. Half the villagers remain in shacks. Around this time Maureen, the daughter of Lionel received the land and began to repair it. With her husband, Victor, CEO of a mining company, she planted 80 hectares of forest, re-employed seven of the villagers and began to live on the farm again. Her three children, Javiera (now my wife), Jorge and Jose, all with a passion for the farm and a desire to live here, trained as agricultural engineers and rallied to keep the farm in family hands and make it turn a buck.
Javiera, in a quest for knowledge that saw her visiting several countries, ultimately took a Permaculture Design Certificate course in New Zealand in 2006. One of her instructors, Grifen, quoted above, an accomplished kiwi permaculture practitioner and teacher, took an interest in both Javiera and El Manzano – resulting in Grifen leaving his country, culture and language behind to start anew in a strange land.
Investing in a future for all
Seeing great potential right here in El Manzano, Chile, the combined drive of Javiera and Grifen helped move the family’s plans ahead apace. Together they are seeing the kind of community development I’m endeavouring to share with you all. This development goes well beyond the kind of thinking that normally categorises land-holding elite. As well as seeking to transition the farm to sustainable systems and increasing diversity, some of the ‘oddities’ include:
- Encouraging and facilitating participatory decision-making for the community.
- A half/half system, where the farm supplies land, seeds, fertiliser (compost) and tools, and the villagers supply the labour. Come harvest time the villagers get half the produce. No money changes hands, no taxman, and fresh nutrient-dense food goes to families who do not possess sufficient land, and for very little input in time.
- Victor Carrion, the very supportive patriarch in this picture, is subsiding the farm with capital as it makes its transition.
- Maureen Raby, matriarch, is working with the family to bring to fruition long-studied plans to change the pattern of land ownership in the village. Legalities have yet to be finalised, but portions of land will be leased for token sums for long term use (100 years) by the community – for community facilities and common spaces (more details on this in a subsequent post). Rather than give land allotments to people outright – people who are not yet capable of making the most of it, or who are not fully aware of the crises we face and the need to maximise potential (and who may otherwise sell it or simply try to work independently of the community) – the plan will instead provide strong transition elements that incentise community development for a win-win-win scenario with promise.
- There are several transition initiatives underway (example from just my brief stay here). In fact, El Manzano is the only official transition community in Latin America.
- Assisting in times of difficulty – example.
- Five of the family members are working together as sustainability professionals to develop natural capital in the land, provide employment for villagers, and build an education centre that will increase capacity for the excellent instructional programs run here (Permaculture Design Certificate courses, full Permaculture Diplomas and even Bachelors and Masters degrees via Gaia University).
This scenario is very interesting to me. South America is well known for its massive land aggregation by the wealthy. Here many people are either Dueños (owners) or Campansinos (peasant farmers). Landlords or peasants. The family could easily just defend their ‘rights’ as land barons – and live for their own gain – but, instead, see their energies targeting the needs and development of the community around them. We see a determined effort to not only keep El Manzano alive, but to see it develop along wholly sustainable lines – to create a community that works in mutually beneficial ways, just like the symbiosis and synergism found amongst elements in a permaculture garden. And, more, the ambition is that this community will set an example to the rest of the region, country, continent and world for how people can work to create harmony and all the other elements that, in total, represent true wealth – fertile soils, clean water, sensible housing, and positive social interaction and interdependencies.
For even greater context – although the children of the community here go to school, many of the parents are illiterate. As such, it is harder for these people to progress their skills for land or any other kind of development. The family’s work to educate the community, and to educate in historically appropriate ways to build resilience (given our energy-challenged future) is thus a significant, positive intervention from people with the means to do so. In the context of peak oil and the inevitable social upheaval that will come with it, such community investment ultimately leads to self-preservation as well.
I said above that land redistribution rarely occurs without bloodshed. One exception that comes to mind – an alternative, if you will, to Che Guevara’s armed approach – is Vinoba Bhave‘s Bhoodan movement. Vinoba Bhave was a disciple of Gandhi, and is often regarded as his spiritual successor. The Bhoodan movement was his effort to peacefully redistribute land – he walked from place to place asking the wealthy to voluntarily donate a portion of their land holdings to him, which he then passed on to the poor. In total some 5 million acres of land were redistributed, entirely peacefully, by these means.
But, it needs to be understood that, whether delivered voluntarily or by force of arms, distributing land to our current generation would, for the most part, end in catastrophe either way. Today, with an alarming proportion of mankind a few decades removed from life on the land, we’re now far more adept with our Xboxes and Chevrolets than we are with plants, life cycles and hand tools. With all of our technological smarts, we’re barely more capable at living off the land now as adults than we were the day our umbilicals were severed.
As much as many of us loathe the system we’re held captive in, the reality is if it were pulled down tomorrow, most of us would perish. This, again, screams of the need for transition – for investment in knowledge and commitment to training; for investment in community building.
In this sense, I wonder if there isn’t a place for feudalism, of an ethically motivated kind, where well positioned individuals and corporations – rather than defend their castle walls so they can cling to riches they can’t eat and hoarding their wealth for descendents who can’t possibly defend them from starving masses – consider the real needs of the future and start to use their means and potential to invest in natural capital and the knowledge needed to create and preserve it.
Imagine if the more privileged amongst us gave up the easter island attitude – vying to beat the other guy to take down the very last stand of trees – and instead put their means and energies into rebuilding the future, and in doing so creating sustainability and peace? Imagine land holders in every region coming to terms with reality, and beginning to work with the people around them? Imagine how fast the world could change for the better!
We share this planet with 6.8 billion people – more than half of whom are packed into urban centres. Re-educating the masses in sustainable and highly productive land management, and getting them onto plots they are incentivised to steward, has got to become a priority. I don’t know about you, but I shudder when I consider the alternatives.
Che Guevara took up the struggle by force of arms, living by the sword and dying at the hands of C.I.A.-backed Bolivian forces – summarily executed without trial. Today, I would propose, despite glaring flaws in his personal character, he has become the symbol for what is now a purely conceptual and impotent struggle against oppression and inequality. His face is meant to represent hope for the underdog, and be a warning to the leaders of unbridled capitalism – yet it has become little more than a logo, a brand name to be exploited by capitalism itself; a feel good but ineffectual abstraction to give a little identity to young capitalist drones.
But, as the world’s population rises, and resources deplete, and competition grows, the prospect of renewed and increasing calls for revolution seems likely. Desperate times lead to desperate measures. But, I like to dream of another kind of revolution – one based on foresight, on objectivity, on cooperation and on education. This kind of revolution needs to happen worldwide, but, at the very least, I think I can see these concepts coming to life here at El Manzano.
Continue on to read Part IX: Building Community Around a Permaculture University
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