From tenant farmers to landless homeowners, LTC fall lecture and film series explores land tenure

September 10, 2015

Explore the agrarian roots of apartheid, or Honduran migration related to the U.S. drug war. Mix in a Robert Redford film on the struggles of a small-town bean farmer, then reminisce with a viewing of The Grapes of Wrath. This and more is available in a lecture and film series hosted this semester by the Nelson Institute Land Tenure Center (LTC).

The series, free and open to the public, kicks off Sept. 10 and runs through Dec. 16. It includes ten lectures and five films with related discussions – “a mix of international, national, UW and local speakers covering a diverse set of themes, from the global to domestic and from history to policy,” says Brad Paul, an LTC honorary fellow who helped organize the events.

Lecture topics include linkages between long-term poverty, homeownership and land tenure in rural America; political ecology and large-scale plantations in Laos and Cambodia; land security and patterns of election violence in Kenya; and the roots and roles of community land trusts.

Among the film screenings – ranging from Dirt and Deeds in Mississippi, documenting the importance of black Mississippi landowners in the American civil rights movement, to The Field, about an Irish farmer’s fight to save from highway development the land his family has cultivated for generations – segments of old LTC documentaries will also be shown. The archival LTC footage, captured on Super 8 film in the 1960s, recounts trips to Central and South America by faculty studying agrarian land reform and land redistribution as control shifted from colonial powers.

The Grapes of Wrath film poster
The series, Sept. 10-Dec. 16, includes ten lectures and
five films, including The Grapes of Wrath. View schedule.

“A lot of the land was held on huge estates. Part of the strategy for providing a future for the people of the land was to redistribute it,” recounts Steve Ventura, a UW-Madison professor of environmental studies and soil science who directs the Land Tenure Center. “LTC provided guidance on equitable ways to do that, both from a technical, land administration perspective, and from a social and economic perspective that enhanced political stability and was fair to the people working the land.”

Today, LTC faculty affiliates from departments including agricultural and applied economics, geography, and urban and regional planning continue to pursue interdisciplinary approaches to equitable and sustainable land stewardship, particularly where biodiversity or local livelihoods are at risk. Land grabbing, a process currently happening across the world in which multinational corporations and national governments buy or in other ways acquire rights to large swaths of land for economic gain, often to the detriment of local people, motivates the work of several LTC researchers.

“That land is not being managed in a way that contributes to the sustainability or enhances the food security of the local communities where this is occurring,” Ventura says. “It's enhancing the profitability of the companies or the food security of the colonizing countries.”

Threats to land security is also a current area of study for the center, as are connections between land tenure and environmental conservation, such as payments for ecosystem services or incentivizing beneficial land management behavior.
Through the years, the center, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2012, has examined land management within the framework of private ownership, the prevailing form of tenure in developed countries, and across the many contexts of land tenure in developing nations – for example, property controlled through family lineages or maintained in common by a community.

“Part of what LTC has done is find some balance between top-down, Western-style private property rights, where the owner or controller of those rights can do with the land what he or she pleases, potentially to the detriment of the community around it, versus various forms of community rights that, while they are asserted to the community itself, don’t contribute to nation building or economic development in general,” Ventura explains.

“Land tenure, land management
and land administration issues
come up commonly in a wide
range of endeavors that our
colleagues are involved with.
I hope that recognition of those
points of intersection comes
out of this series.”

The center’s collection of publications, available through the university library system and on LTC’s website, is a resource valued across the globe for research and outreach. It includes approximately 250 cubic feet of documents on land tenure, agrarian reform and agrarian structure across a range of international locations, as well as LTC working papers, issue briefs and extensive information on agricultural economics and rural development.

Through the film and lecture series, Ventura is eager to foster additional dialogue and future collaborations with the Land Tenure Center across campus and beyond.

“Land tenure, land management and land administration issues come up commonly in a wide range of endeavors that our colleagues are involved with,” he says. “I hope that recognition of those points of intersection, and the strength in numbers that we might provide, comes out of this series.”

The series includes partnerships with the Nelson Institute’s Tales from Planet Earth film festival and Weston Roundtable series, and the UW-Madison Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies program. Cosponsors include the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems and the Departments of Community and Environmental Sociology, Soil Science, History, and African Studies.

For more information about the series, or to provide suggestions for the spring semester, contact Brad Paul or Steve Ventura.