A Brief History of Land Grabbing

A historical process of expansion of private ownership of land

Agriculture and land appropriation go hand in hand

Since the Neolithic period, various modes of appropriation have been progressively applied to land insofar as it was, in one way or another, transformed by human labour. Indeed, appropriating land can be a way of securing the fruits of one's labour: building, enclosing, enriching with organic matter, sowing and weeding every year in family orchards, clearing land for cultivation, developing plots of land into permanent meadows, developing forests, etc., all represent investments in labour that can be used to improve the quality of life.

However, until the end of the Middle Ages in Europe, and later elsewhere in the world, appropriation took forms that were far removed from the absolute private ownership of land as we know it today. In each context, the areas allocated to agriculture, livestock or forestry (annually cultivated plots, perennial plantations, grazing land, managed forests) are associated with a combination of use rights (limited in time or permanent, attributed to individuals, families, groups of various kinds) and collective obligations. Depending on the case, it is the 'village chiefs', 'landowners' or 'feudal lords' (among others) who grant the former and ensure that the latter are respected. In addition, much of the land remains under a regime of communal access (for hunting, gathering, gleaning, grazing or collecting wood) where the coveted resources develop spontaneously without requiring any particular work.

However, the development of private ownership of land is recent.

It was only late in history, from the 16th century onwards, but especially from the 18th century onwards, in the context of the emergence of capitalist market economies, that private ownership of land developed and became established in Europe. How does private property differ from previous forms of appropriation? Whoever owns land privately has not only one or more rights to use the resources that the land supports, but also more generally the right to decide how the rights of use can be applied to it and the right to dispose of it freely, i.e. to alienate it (sell or rent it at a certain price, p