In India during the 1950s Vinoba Bhave, the spiritual successor to Gandhi, was concerned with inequity in land distribution, which prevented the landless from constructing homes and earning a livelihood. To address this concern, Vinoba personally journeyed from village to village on foot. When he arrived, the villagers would gather around him; he was greatly revered. Vinoba spoke to them as follows: “My brothers and sisters, those of you with more land than you can use, won’t you share that land with your brothers and sisters who are in need?”
Inspired by his appeal, those with excess land would assign the title to Vinoba, who would reassign it to the village. It was then leased to the landless for housing, farming, or small-scale manufacturing. If the lessee left the region, the use rights reverted to the village for redistribution. Any buildings or other improvements on the land could be sold to the new lessee, but ownership of the land remained with the community.
Known as the Gramdan or Village Gift Movement, over a hundred of India’s villages participated, bringing about a peaceful land-reform initiative.
In the twenty-first century, faced by the rising global crises of climate change and wealth inequality, land redistribution remains an urgent concern. Not just a social and economic issue, lack of access to land also poses a deep cultural loss to black, indigenous, and immigrant communities who are cut off from traditional practices connected with land cultivation. These issues combine to create an environment in which it is no longer a question of whether land redistribution will occur, but how.
Can we take instruction from Vinoba and initiate a culture of land gifting that redistributes land on a voluntary basis? And if so, by what means?
Time tested and democratic, the Community Land Trust model was designed for this moment. For decades community land trusts (CLTs) have enabled local communities to create affordable homeownership opportunities by providing low-cost access to land held in a Commons while enabling private ownership of the homes on the land. There are nearly 200 CLTs in the U.S., and the movement is growing in Canada, the UK, Europe, and around the world.
Could CLTs further broaden to serve a robust land redistribution effort?
Gifts of land (or buildings and land) to CLTs could be designated for uses as specific as a locally owned bookstore, a wool processing facility, or a furniture factory using locally sourced lumber. They might also be more generally allocated to cultural use by groups that have historically been removed from the land, such as black or indigenous communities. Or, use may be unspecified by the donor, allowing the democratically appointed board of directors to best determine the most critical needs of the regional community.
At the Schumacher Center, we envision a world in which gifts of working-lands to CLTs are as common as gifts of ecologically sensitive lands to conservation land trusts. To reach that goal will mean educating estate planners, lawyers, and philanthropic advisors about the mechanics and options of land gifting to CLTs. Lands held by CLTs can help address such issues as climate disaster recovery, urban displacement, rural community revitalization, and socially positive commercial development.
Vinoba Bhave provided the spiritual leadership that inspired such land gifting in India. Region by region around the world, a new Gramdan movement will be led by engaged citizens who are alarmed by a deteriorating eco-system and who recognize the injustice of the current system for distributing land. It will start with localized examples of land gifting and grow into a broad cultural revolution for the Commons.
This giving-season, seek out a CLT in your region and donate to build its capacity to accept and manage additional lands. To read what journalists are saying about loss of access to land go here. To read stories about innovative CLTs go here. To read a draft proposal of how CLTs might be used for reparations go here.
Many good wishes,
Staff of the Schumacher Center