Publications / Essay

World Resources Trusteeship

Land trusts in their various forms represent concrete ways, at the local community level, of addressing what is in fact a global problem – that of wise stewardship of the world’s natural resources. Here Robert Swann provides an encompassing framework for addressing that question, building upon the land trust movement in the U.S. and comparable efforts in other countries.

[Chapter 15, from Building Sustainable Communities, Tools and Concepts for Self-Reliant Economic Change, published by The Bootstrap Press, New York, NY; 1989]

If we look at the question of natural resources form a world perspective, most people will agree in theory that, ideally, such resources as oil, gas, and minerals, for instance, should be held under a trusteeship for all the people of the world, allocated and used in such a way as to distribute equitably their use with a planned phaseout as other sources (such as solar energy) are made available for use. For example, if a world trusteeship were presently holding oil and gas, the two major sources of energy, it could lease their exploitation (at prices to control unearned profit) to private or public corporations for drilling and selling, and use the lease income to promote, research, and develop alternative sources of energy such as solar. In this fashion, the concept of the Community Land Trust could be applied on a world level to all natural resources.

Lest anyone suppose that this is a purely theoretical problem, consider the debate which has been going on over the so-called “Law of the Seas” for several years, over the issue of who (what countries, corporations, etc.) are going to control exploitation of the rich mineral resources on the bottom of the oceans. Clearly, no country can claim “sovereignty” over the middle of the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans.

It is true that the issue would not have arisen except for the fact that new technology has made such exploitation possible. But it is also true that, if such technology had been available to the “big” countries several years ago, it is likely that they would not have waited for an international agreement before going ahead with exploitation. In fact, the U.S. and other countries have been threatening to go ahead in any case. What is important is that so far they have been restrained, even though the Reagan Administration says that it does not consider U.S. companies inhibited by the “Law of the Sea” agreement that was finally negotiated after years of effort.

Why have they been restrained? Perhaps the most plausible answer may be that there exists today a worldwide consciousness of the moral issue involved in such unilateral exploitation and even the big countries feel constrained by this consciousness. It is also true, of course, that within the United Nations, where the debate is taking place, the number and role of the less powerful countries has grown significantly in recent years so that, in number at least, they play an increasingly important role. But it was not many years ago that such considerations of unilateral action were no deterrent to the big countries when their own interests were involved.

If we can agree that while the world may be moving slowly towards a world trusteeship of natural resources, the real problem is how can it move more rapidly in that direction, and, more specifically, how can the present land trust movement contribute toward this direction. Clearly, the educational value of CLTs and their impact at a local level is part of the process which must go on. This educational process, however, may be greatly enhanced, if there exists an organic relationship between local Community Land Trusts and the resources which they possess and the development of a world trusteeship of resources. The purpose of this chapter is to explore how this might come about.

In the first place, every local Community Land Trust possesses certain potentially valuable mineral resources which it withholds from the lease rights it designates to leaseholders. These mineral rights could, in theory at least, become very valuable if oil, gas, or coal, for instance, should be discovered beneath the land held by a CLT. While this may seem a remote possibility, it is not beyond imagination as CLT holdings increase around the world. However, perhaps the most important consideration, or the consideration of most immediate consequence, is natural forests. How should such forests be treated? Should they be treated as natural resources which Community Land Trusts hold for the common good (as mineral resources are) or should they be considered the sole possession of the leaseholder and for his/her use and purposes only? Clearly, this is an important question because probably more than 50 percent of all the land which is being acquired by CLTs, at least in the Northeastern United States, consists of natural forests.

I would argue that these grown forests should be treated as natural resources, since they generally grew through natural regeneration or were planted by other people – certainly not the leaseholders who now occupy the land. (This does not mean that they should not be used by the leaseholders in the same way that the leaseholder uses topsoil, a natural resource, for farming in return for payments of the lease.) The Community Land Trust’s role is first to protect the forests from being misused, in the same way its role is to protect the topsoil from being misused and lost.

But, unlike the topsoil, which only the individual farmer can use and plant, the forests represent a unique problem. The best management of the forestland, partly because of the nature of forests themselves and partly because forests take more than one generation to grow and produce, can be accomplished only on a broader community basis. Thus, the forests represent a resource for the whole community. This has long been recognized in most parts of the world where forests are often held as “town forests,” or at the state and national level as resources for public recreation, wildlife preservation, as well as for firewood or lumber resources.

Generally, good professional forest management becomes possible only when fairly large acreages of forestland can be managed as a unit. This is due to several reasons, but primarily it is because individual landowners (or users) are not skilled or knowledgeable regarding the complexity of forest management, particularly sustained yield management, which requires a sophisticated knowledge of many species of trees, their use, value, and role in the forest ecology. Moreover, considering the relatively low return per acre on forest production and the long-term perspective required (compared with farming), it does not pay a farmer, or small woodlot owner, to spend his/her time studying and learning all of the intricate ecology and economics which foresters spend years in school learning.

A landowner or land user may, of course, hire a professional forester or have a state paid forester advise him/her on the management of his/her forestland. In fact, however, this seldom happens because it is either too expensive to hire a professional for the small size of a woodlot, or because state foresters are either unavailable or when they do advise, their advice alone is inadequate to maximize utilization and protection of the forest as a resource.

For all of these reasons, management of forestland as a resource should become the responsibility of the Community Land Trust. It is in the position (once its acquisitions are large enough) to hire very competent foresters to manage on a continued, sustained-yield basis all of the forests, or woodlots, which it has acquired and will acquire in the future. My contention is that only in this way can both the maximum utilization and the protection of this natural resource be maintained for the present as well as future generations.

Presently, due to our problems of small private ownership, the forestland is the most underutilized (or improperly utilized) of all natural resources in the United States. (In New England only about 5 percent of the forests are under management.) Except in some European countries, I suspect this is true on a worldwide basis. This is not the place to elaborate on the importance of forests as a worldwide resource and the growing danger which presently exists in many so-called developing countries of the loss or erosion of forestland due in large part to increasing population and demand for firewood.[1] So far, this danger has not existed in the United States, but with the pressure of the “energy crisis” and the growing demand for paper, lumber, and other forest products, it will in the future become increasingly important and more difficult to protect the forest-land against rapacious cutting. Community Land Trusts can and should play an important role in preventing this from happening.

Therefore, I would suggest that Community Land Trusts establish the use factor of forestland in the price of the leasehold, which would permit all leaseholders to cut firewood within the framework of a Forest Management which the CLT provides, but only to the extent of the leaseholder’s needs for his/her own heating purposes, etc. (During the early years of CLT establishment, before a management plan has been worked out, the CLT would permit selective cutting on the basis of advice from state foresters, if possible.)

Revenues, then, from forestry management, logging, etc. would accrue to the CLT to help cover its operating cost and to develop a land acquisition fund for further land acquisition. Some portion of this revenue, however, should be set aside for the development of a World Resources Trusteeship Fund, just as we were postulating that oil lease revenues should be held by a World Resources Trusteeship for the benefit of the population as a whole. Thus, we can see in outline the possibility for an organic relationship between local Community Land Trusts’ natural resources (primary forests) and the beginning of a World Resources Trusteeship.

The most difficult question is how could, or should, such a World Resources Trusteeship be constructed or developed. To sketch in an outline, it would be useful, probably from the very beginning, to try to utilize the principles which we have tried to use in constructing the local boards of Community Land Trusts and the regional networks. Initially, of course, at the local level board members of the CLTs are essentially self-appointed and to some degree self-perpetuating, since a constituency does not exist. As local organizations grow and a constituency develops this constituency has a vote, usually according to the by-laws of local CLTs.

However, in order to create a network of experienced board members and to provide an objective viewpoint to the local situation, we have recommended that some board members (perhaps one-third) should come from a wider regional area and be persons with some experience, hopefully, to contribute. We also suggest that professionals, or local officials who have some special skills (legal, land use planning, architectural, and so forth) should be invited on the board (also one-third) in order to create as balanced a board as possible.

Applying this concept to a worldwide trust, we could invite individuals around the world with the widest experience in land and trusteeship. One thinks of Vinoba Bhave or J.P. Narayan in India, while they were alive, or Lanzo Del Vasta in France, and perhaps Julius Nyere in Tanzania. Included might be some key members of the UN particularly those working on the “Law of the Seas” problem, such as Elizabeth Mann-Borghese or others involved with global’ resources (of the stature of Buckminster Fuller, were he still alive). Perhaps, initially, these “elder statesmen” would have an honorary position, while the working members of the trust would be selected or appointed by local or regional groups.

While all of this may seem relatively far off and visionary, I want to point out several factors which would make it much more practical than it might at first seem. I have often observed to local groups that one important reason for setting up a non-profit Community Land Trust is simply because without such a local organization, gifts of land (or money to purchase land) have no place to go. And if this seems idealistic, consider the facts: a quarter of a century ago, the Nature Conservancy was established as a private agency to receive gifts of land (or money to purchase land) which needed to be protected for special ecological reasons. Since then, millions of dollars and thousands of acres of valuable land have been given to or bought for the Conservancy to be set aside for these reasons.

It is not at all inconceivable that as Community Land Trusts grow in significance an increasing number of landowners and contributors will provide the bulk of CLT land as gifts. (One of the Nature Conservancy directors once told me that we should get “all the land we need” as a gift to Community Land Trusts.) We are working on a number of ways to facilitate and encourage such giving (with advantages to landowners also), which already amounts to thousands of dollars in land and money.

One major obstacle to such gifts has been the reluctance of the IRS to grant tax deductible status to local CLTs. Nevertheless, the IRS will grant deductability for gifts which are natural resources for conservation, including forests. For this reason, we have established the American Natural Resources Trust, which like the Natural Conservancy can receive gifts of land, including farmland, but is permitted to retain only the natural resources (mainly forestland). Thus, gifts of land (some have already been received), of which the American Natural Resources Trust retains only the forestland, would be put into long-range forest management (probably managed by the local CLT), while the farmland would be conveyed to local CLTs, and the revenues from the forestland would be put into the World Resources Trusteeship Fund. But since the land had been given without purchase cost, the ANRT should be able to add revenues to the World Resources Trusteeship Fund more rapidly than land purchased by local Community Land Trusts.

But most important, it needs to be pointed out that in order to encourage such gifts of land, the entire CLT movement must be strengthened in such a way that potential land donors perceive that at a local, national, and even world level, the movement consists of responsible trustees and has a structure that provides the greatest possible stability and long-range continuity. Hence, the importance of an integrated structure and of well-known, reputable persons as national or world trustees.

How would revenues to a world trusteeship be expended? This, of course, would be a decision for the world trustees. But we could speculate that first priority would be the long-range viability of the forestland already held. This would mean assurance of the best management and use of the forests. Second, would be acquisition of additional holdings on a world basis wherever the need (for forestation and protection) exists and wherever CLTs exist or could be developed (India, for example). Also important would be general education about forest conservation and use of the trusteeship principle with the objective of increasingly including other natural resources in the holding of the World Resources Trusteeship (oil and gas), increasing pressure through education to take such resources out of private or national holdings and place them in the World Resources Trusteeship, and providing funds for research or work on other alternative energy sources (particularly solar energy).

A further note needs to be added here to underline the importance of land as a gift or gift money to purchase land. The point is simply this: in its widest or deepest concept, the Community Land Trust movement is designed to reduce the cost of land or the cost of access to land towards zero, or as close to zero as possible. This does not mean that the yearly leasehold charge should be reduced to zero. The lease is the individual’s payment to society for the use of land and resource which are limited and cannot be equitably distributed in any other way. Land, which was originally given without cost by God or nature, should be returned to society (the general welfare) without the addition of a price, which as Henry George pointed out represents “unearned increment.” Thus, gifts of land (or money) have a very important economic role, and should be treated as a partial return to nature or God, the spiritual part of humankind from which it originally came.

Such an attitude or feeling about land is very widely felt among human beings and was clearly expressed by native Americans, indeed native people all over the world, before the commercial spirit of the “industrial revolution” overtook Western civilization in the last 200 years. But the original spirit remains in many people and today we see it manifest in different ways. We must not ignore this spirit as the classical (and Marxist) economists have done and assume that land must be sought and paid for as a community or taken forcibly away from individuals and placed in the hands of the state. For it is on this spirit, this instinctive need to protect and care for land that resides deep inside all of us, it is on this spirit which the future of the human race depends gradually returning land to its original place in economics, a gift from God or nature.


  1. Erik Eckholm, Losing Ground: Environmental Assets in World Food Prospects (Elmsford, New York: Pergamon Press, 1978) for documentation.

Publication By

Robert Swann

Robert (Bob) Swann was the founder of the E. F. Schumacher Society, now the Schumacher Center for a New Economics. In 1974 E. F. Schumacher asked Robert Swann to start a sister organization to his own Intermediate Technology Development Group, but it was not until 1980, when prompted by Resurgence editor Satish Kumar, that Swann organized the E. F. … Continued

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