Making land available to people who want to sustainably manage it is a key part of landscape restoration. In a 4 Returns Community of Practice, a group of experts gathered to talk about Access to Land initiatives and the Commons (scroll down to watch the full session!).

Land as a symbol of ownership and prosperity is woven deeply into modern society. However, the conventional notions of land ownership are being challenged by a dynamic movement that seeks to reimagine land as a shared and accessible resource – a commons for the collective benefit. In an era marked by pressing environmental concerns, increasing wealth disparities, and the need for resilient food systems, who owns the land – and who has access to it – is becoming an ever more urgent topic.

In the latest 4 Returns Community of Practice online session, we hear about Access to land initiatives like ALPA and Ecoruralis which oppose land grabbing and support access to land for small agroecological producers in Romania. There are presentations from organisations like Aardpeer in the Netherlands and Kulturland-Genossenschaft in Germany which raise money to buy land for farmers and remove it from speculative markets. And we learn about the work of Terre de Liens: a pioneering French organisation that has a 20-year record of bringing affordable land to farmers. During the session, Natasha Hulst, a researcher, and a specialist in community land trusts at the Schumacher Institute, shares how she views the current state of Access to Land initiatives and where they should be focusing.

Here are four key takeaways from the session:

1. Land as a commodity prevents the sustainable food transition

In Europe, land is mostly understood as an asset to be bought and sold. Land is for those who can financially afford it, rather than for those who wish to responsibly steward and manage it sustainably for present and future generations. And because land prices are always rising, young farmers with pioneering ideas simply can’t afford to buy land from the retiring generation of farmers. The speculative nature of land prices is therefore holding back a food transition happening at the scale we need it to. Sjoerd Wartena, Terre de Liens, highlights: “Land as a commodity is absolutely the barrier. If you don’t change the ownership of land and make a policy toward land as a common good, everything else won’t be possible”. Access to land initiatives attempt to create a counter-narrative from the speculative model and promote land as a commons – and as a community to which we all belong.

2. Governance models are crucial

The mechanisms of many Access to Land initiatives involve raising the necessary funds to acquire land and withdraw it from the speculative market. While this is important, Natasha Hulst says that experimenting with governance models is key. She describes the community-land trust model, in which the legal owners, the users of the land, and the community come together to have a say on how the land should be managed. She explains that it is fundamental to make a distinction between legal ownership (such as a trust) and user ownership (such as a farmer). “The time is really ripe now to look at the governance models,” says Natasha.

3. Governments are not the right actor to lead

Many hope that the government can play a role in creating land commons and providing access to land. However, according to Natasha, the way politics currently works hinders equitable access. “If we take land out of the speculative market,” Natasha says, “the government is not the right actor because they are often short-term in their thinking.” Creating the commons becomes a balancing act between the market and the state – that’s why it’s such an important movement.

There are examples within Europe in which governments control land outside the conventional market framework. In Switzerland, legal ownership is replaced with usage rights, which come with legal restrictions on how land can be used. The state determines the price of agricultural land based on its productive value and only registered farmers are permitted access to farmland. Such approaches offer valuable insights into reshaping our relationships with the land.

4. Europe can learn from other parts of the World

While access to land initiatives in Europe is a (re)emerging field, many parts of the world have long maintained the concept of land as a shared resource. For instance, in Zambia, the traditional perspective is rooted in the idea that land cannot be owned outright – it exists as a communal asset. Commercial use of the land requires a lease of 99 years, after which it reverts to the commons. “That perspective is what will change our relationship with the land and open up new models and frameworks in which we engage with the land” describes Ceferino Cenizo, a regenerative farmer based in South Africa. Embracing a viewpoint that sees land as part of the community is crucial for shaping a paradigm where land transcends its status as a commodity.

Land as a commodity to land as a community

In a world grappling with ecological crises and striving for greater social justice, embracing the commons paradigm offers not just a solution, but a profound shift in perspective that has the power to shape a more harmonious and equitable future for all. As we seek new avenues to foster equitable land access and promote sustainable food production practices, we must draw inspiration from global experiences and work collectively to embrace an understanding that land is not a commodity, but a vital commons and part of the community.

Watch the full session below: