The Original Community Land Trust

| Create!

Above Photo: The Indian Line Farm. Photo courtesy of Amelia Holmes/Schumacher Center for New Economics

How Indigenous Land-Use Practices Inform the Current Sharing Economy

The concept of ownership is a social contract that allows certain individuals and groups to have rights to certain resources or items while excluding others from that access. Under the mainstream conception of private property, both the ownership of land and anything built on top of it are combined into one. This bundling of land and buildings is often problematic — it puts neighborhoods and residents of cities in an unnecessarily precarious position by making them subject to the whims of land speculators.

This form of land ownership also prices out locals from areas that they historically lived and worked in by increasing costs — catalyzing the process of gentrification. It also privatizes and encloses common spaces and areas that previously benefitted surrounding communities, ultimately leading to a more fragmented society, one required to focus on unsustainable short-term profits. All this holds true as long as land remains on the market.

Yet what we see today is a resurgence and re-invention of ownership models that allow communities to take care of themselves and steward their own natural resources. The Community Land Trust (CLT) model is one that reduces the socially-destructive effects of market forces by separating the ownership of land with the ownership of any property and equity atop the land itself.

Affordable housing-related CLTs are probably best-known, but this model can be applied for any community goal, including lowering costs for small businesses and ensuring local food production. Though the CLT model has been re-emerging since the late 1960s, it is actually somewhat of a return to indigenous practices around ownership of land and resources.

Winona LaDuke, anti-pipeline activist, water protector, and member of the Ojibwe nation spoke about this during the 1993 Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures. “Our traditional forms of land use and ownership are similar to those of a community land trust,” LaDuke said. “The land is owned collectively, and we have individual or, more often, family-based usufruct rights: each family has traditional areas where it fishes and hunts.”

Typically, a community land trust works by having a nonprofit (the community land trust’s legal entity) own the land and lease its long-term use to individuals — usually for 98 years. These leaseholders own anything that sits on top of the land, so if they make any improvements to their houses or other buildings, when they sell their buildings they can recover the buildings’ equity.

There is a fitting circularity at the root of LaDuke’s statements, because these lectures are hosted by the Schumacher Center for a New Economics (where I work and where LaDuke will again be speaking), a nonprofit co-founded by Bob Swann, who was also one of the pioneers of the first community land trust in the United States.

Another CLT started by Bob Swann in the Berkshires region of Western Massachusetts has put in place an additional innovation to ensure sustainable land stewardship. The Indian Line Farm gives farmers equity in not just their buildings, but the soil itself. A soil sample was taken at the start of the lease and another will be taken if farmers decide to move away. The farmers are entitled to the equity generated by any organic improvements to the soil on the land, in addition to improvements on the buildings.

On a deeper level, this leads to the question of whether natural resources can be owned at all. “In our language the words Anishinaabeg akiing describe the concept of land ownership. They translate as ‘the land of the people,’ which doesn’t imply that we own our land but that we belong on it,” LaDuke said.

Winona LaDuke. Image courtesy of Honor The Earth

Winona LaDuke. Image courtesy of Honor The Earth

As LaDuke explained, for the Ojibwe land and resources are managed as a commons.


“We have ‘hunting bosses’ and ‘rice chiefs,’ who make sure that resources are used sustainably in each region,” LaDuke said. “Hunting bosses oversee trap-line rotation, a system by which people trap in an area for two years and then move to a different area to let the land rest. Rice chiefs coordinate wild rice harvesting. The rice on each lake is unique: each has its own taste and ripens at its own time. We also have a ‘tallyman,’ who makes sure there are enough animals for each family in a given area. If a family can’t sustain itself, the tallyman moves them to a new place where animals are more plentiful. These practices are sustainable.”

If this sounds familiar, it may be because Elinor Ostrom won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics for analyzing and popularizing these ideas, debunking the belief that a tragedy of the commons was inevitable without government intervention. Ostrom was awarded the prize “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons” after she looked into the practices of natural resource management of groups like the Ojibwe, who had been managing their resources sustainably for centuries.

As new economy movements and sharing projects gain traction around the country and globally, it is important and helpful to realize that these models are nothing new; they are a return to centuries-old sustainable practices. As Ostrom, LaDuke, and many others have noted, the main reason why the indigenous resource management and land-use practices were trampled down is because the courts refused to uphold property held in commons. Now, in the nick of time with the CLT models and others, this is slowly changing.


  • Community Land Trusts are somewhat older in the United States than is suggested by this article without even taking into consideration the indigenous cultures that preceded the nation formed after the ‘American Revolution’. I live adjacent to the Celo Community Land Trust in Western North Carolina that was founded in 1936 and well established by 1948 well before the 1969 founding linked in this article. I suspect that the experiments date even further back in American history as the cultural clash between civilizations played out. The various cultural ideas cross pollinate one another creating cultural evolution, a process that is often much more rapid that biological evolution.

    The violence of European(and American) culture is deeply rooted in property and ownership traditions with its exclusive expressions. Every human was birthed onto a planet uniquely suitable for human life. How amazing to be birthed into such wealth only to have it stolen and squandered by the cultural ideas of property, ownership, markets and money. The capacity to share complex ideas is uniquely human. We are cultural creatures. It is not any particular idea or set of ideas that make us unique or particularly successful as a species but our capacity to ‘share’ and evolve ideas that allow us to adapt to a wide variety of situations and environments. Sharing. The cultural Zeitgeist of monetary market economics has evolved from those who sought to limit sharing and access to ideas as well as land and things by various means with the aim of gaining individual and group advantage. These ideas are culturally counter evolutionary.

    It should be no surprise that today we find American political and cultural dialogue fragmented into identity silos that suppress and inhibit the very sharing that has always been the foundation of humanities evolutionary success. The ideas of property, ownership, markets and money are the dirty cultural bath water of humanity that we must toss out without also tossing the baby, our newborn global human civilization.

    I recently read some remarks made by Krishnamurti. He was discussing ‘facts’ as opposed to ‘ideas’ about ‘facts’. He was pointing out that as humans we often confuse the two, ‘facts’ and ‘ideas’. There is a debate raging these days about fake news. The same confusion that Krishnamurti pointed out between ‘facts’ and ‘ideas’ about ‘facts’ is at the heart of the fake news controversy. Facts are still just facts, events, things that have happened. How we spin those ‘facts’ based on any given set of ‘ideas’ gives birth to what is being called ‘fake news’. Of course ‘fake news’ comes in very many shades of ideas. News, like Sargent Friday liked to point out, is “just the ‘facts’ Ma’am, just the ‘facts'”.

    Don’t misunderstand me. The cultural dialogue is critical to the continuing evolution of human culture. If human cultural evolution dies, we will all die. The sharing, especially of ideas, is paramount. What we must learn not to do is to confuse facts with ideas. That’s what science is designed to accomplish. Many people today are hungry and homeless while food is wasted and homes stand empty. We have the technical capacity to feed, clothe and house everyone alive today. Those are facts. It is also a fact that the reason we don’t feed, clothe and house everyone is because of traditionally evolved cultural ideas like property, ownership, markets and money. There a plenty of other outdated and dysfunctional ideas rampant across human cultural. So let’s talk, and let’s keep talking until we have evolved a cultural understanding that allows us to feed, clothe and house everyone while protecting and nurturing our beautiful birth planet the way she nurtures us. But never forget, facts are immutable, while ideas and a healthy human culture evolve and change over time to accommodate recognized facts.

  • Jon

    Well said. I hope you run for office as a Green as this is fully consistent with our outlook. Barring that, support Greens who do.