Land Sovereignty and the Decolonization of Food and Agriculture in the USA

This was an assignment for my environmental governance class, to reimagine current environmental policy in a new way. I felt particularly puzzled by the challenge of creating decolonization and sovereignty with only colonial governance tools, and this assignment was a helpful way to stretch my imagination in how we ought to perceive the role of government and its relationship to its people. Full paper below.





The current American food production system is one dominated by large agricultural corporations and industry, which overproduces goods, has little regard for local food systems or products, and is one of the leading emitters of methane gas and other environmental pollutants, such as nitrogen and phosphorus waste. It is a system rooted in stolen land and stolen labor, and historically, Black, Indigenous, and people of color have been excluded from ownership and authority over the land. This colonial earth ethic has not only led to extractivist and exploitative relationships to the environment, but it has also facilitated the displacement and mistreatment of BIPOC bodies and their connection to the land. An alternative approach to land management as it relates to food systems in the United States is one that people-oriented, rather than profit and product- oriented, and places Black and Indigenous people at the center of policy - to fail to do so would only continue to uphold the exploitative status quo. By supporting small local farmers, empowering Black and Indigenous communities to reclaim land that has been historically kept from them by US legislative efforts, and promoting the use of regenerative agriculture already present in many of these communities, a place-based relationship to the land may be re-established, and with it, a social opportunity and mandate for communities to engage in land management.

Food and land sovereignty is an issue at the forefront of intersectional environmentalism, and insists upon the right of the people to define their own food system and land management practices. It is a system in which a government trusts its people and empowers them with education and tools, as opposed to placing the majority of land and means of food production in the hands of large agricultural corporations. Such a transition poses many challenges, the greatest of which is a shift in social and cultural understanding not only of the role of government, but also of the relationships between Indigenous, settler, and BIPOC communities and the land. It must acknowledge the history of violence, dispossession, and theft of land, and center minority and underrepresented communities in its policy, as well as empower them to reclaim stolen land and resources.

The state of US food and land systems today is a clear result of such dispossession and theft, and systemic racism paired with colonial and extractist policies have historically stripped all except wealthy landowners of land sovereignty. 95% of all American farm owners and principle operators are white, white individuals own 98% of farmland, and receive the vast majority of agricultural financial assistance (Young Farmers’ Coalition). However, the majority of agricultural laborers are people of color, many of whom are undocumented. According to a 2017 National Young Farmer Survey, land access is the greatest challenge faced by young farmers and ranchers, a challenge rooted in a history of policies, laws, and violence that have dispossessed BIPOC of land, in spite of their ongoing (and often uncompensated) contribution to agricultural communities. The USDA has systematically denied and delayed loans to Black farmers for years, and the USDA itself confirmed in a 1994 report that its largest disaster payments and loans went to wealthy white farmers. The exact extent to which USDA subsidies favor white farmers is unknown, because congressional committees have kept the department from disclosing subsidy recipients.

Following emancipation, Black growers were promised a share of agricultural land, largely in the south. However, due to racist practices and pervasive white supremacy within the government, as well as the growing conservation movement in the US, much of this land was never acquired, and instead often converted to state or federal parks. As such, Black agriculturalists are entitled to land reclamation. By requiring the USDA to disclose subsidy recipients, the extent to which current agricultural subsidies reinforce discrimination may be known and subsequently addressed. Subsidy reforms may also be pursued, including the insistence that post-COVID-19 bailout funding be reconfigured to benefit small farmers, especially farmers of color.

The American Farm Bureau has expressed explicitly racist policies, including calling for English to be the nation’s official language and supporting barriers to voting including photo ID requirements. When racist ideology has unchecked control over our agricultural landscape, food and land sovereignty for small minority farmers will be difficult to achieve (Boyd and Faber). However, given that many communities of color are on the frontlines of climate change, they are also leaders in regenerative and resilient agricultural practices, and therefore should be centered in agricultural policy (Penniman). Practices such as silvopasture, a method integrating grasses and fruit and nut trees into livestock feed, and regenerative agriculture focused on minimal soil disturbance and the use of cover crops, have been kept by Black farmers for generations and are present in Black farming communities. Not only is land sovereignty the most ethical path of land management, but it is also an untapped resource in turning one of the most environmentally-intensive industries in America into a climate solution.

There are a plethora of examples of food and land sovereignty currently being pursued at both the local and national level. Both federal oversight and local efforts must be incorporated into a just land management system, as re-establishing community connections to the land is an essential part of establishing sustainability and a sense of responsibility for one’s own ecosystem. One such example introduced by Sen. Cory Booker in early December is the Justice for Black Farmers Act, which “would allow Black farmers to reclaim up to 160 acres each, at no charge, through a Department of Agriculture system of land grants.” (Moseley). This is merely one step in a long process of establishing pipelines for African American farmers to gain the resources, education, and support needed not only to manage a modern farm, but to maintain their land. The bill also directs funds to nonprofits such as the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust as well as agriculture-focused historically Black colleges and universities to “help new Black farmers get up and running, provide farmer training, and provide other assistance including support for development of farmer cooperatives” (Philpott). Additionally, it “substantially reforms and strengthens the Packers and Stockyards Act in order to stop abusive practices by big multinational meatpacking companies and protect all family farmers and ranchers” (Bill summary, Justice for Black Farmers Act). The bill also creates a Farm Conservation Corps focused on providing USDA-funded apprenticeships for socially disadvantaged young adults, of whom Black trainees will be given priority.

The Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust pairs a community land trust commons with a model for a conservation land trust, working to both conserve ecosystems as well as preserve farmland for BIPOC. By securing land tenure and developing farmer training in regenerative farming and agroforestry, they are working to reestablish a holistic and sustainable connection between the land and the people who are most impacted by it. Additionally, it must be noted that Black farmers have historically practiced regenerative and sustainable agricultural techniques, and the process of training farmers is indeed one of re-teaching forgotten knowledge. Food and land sovereignty requires state and federal government support of organizations and initiatives working to provide food security, regenerative agricultural solutions, and holistic land management practices to communities with a focus on communities of color. Additionally, it requires an interrogation of internalized racist practices within agricultural administrations in the government, and a recognition of the long-term consequences of such practices.

Another example of land back initiatives is the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, an urban Indigenous women-led trust in San Francisco, which “cultivates rematriation. Sogorea Te’ calls on us all to heal and transform the legacies of colonization, genocide, and patriarchy and to do the work our ancestors and future generations are calling us to do.” This process of rematriation includes not only caring for the land, but also cultural revitalization, public education, and community building projects. Among these projects are “Himmetkas'', or culturally-based emergency hubs, which consist of food and medicine gardens, water catchment systems, first aid, and seed libraries. Located in marginalized land in East Oakland, these hubs provide cultural resilience and survival support.

One may ask how the state and federal government stand to benefit from support of such initiatives, especially given the role of a powerful agricultural lobby -- a question which begs what government is for. In the case of decolonization - a word which cannot and must not be used metaphorically - a government’s role is to step back, to center trust and consent in its policy, and to lead from a place of empowering communities to make their own decisions. A government that does not trust its people to make choices regarding their land and their food, or that actively keeps them from doing so, is a government based on the consolidation and safeguarding of power and resources. The American government is currently one such government - that allows wealthy business control over the livelihoods of the many, while continuously making it more difficult for BIPOC to reclaim land and resources. Yet another example of this safeguarding is the recent development that California’s water futures are now a tradable commodity on Wall Street (Martin). A transformation away from such exploitation requires a rapid change in understanding of the role of the US government, and the interests it chooses to serve. In order to achieve such goals, social and cultural changes must be met both on a systemic and individualized scale. Policy attempting to increase land sovereignty will be built on the government fostering relationships with its people, and empowering them with the resources they need to take stewardship of the land.

One effort to decolonize land management and increase land sovereignty would be the establishment of a state land management council that includes Indigenous communities, assemblies of community members, and state governments, and integrates community voices into policy decisions. State governments are at the appropriate level to engage in this discourse because they have more knowledge of local biomes, established relationships between Indigenous groups in the area, and are poised in a position to both create and implement broad action. By incorporating local communities into land management decisions, a social understanding of responsibility for one’s landscape may ultimately emerge.

State governments often lead the way in land management practices. For example, the goal 30 by 30, which intends to protect 30% of land and water by 2030, has been taken up as a cause by Senator Tom Udal of New Mexico as well as Senator Michael Bennet and Governor Jared Polis of Colorado. The selection of which regions merit protecting, the mechanisms through which this will be achieved, and the result on the surrounding communities must all be considerations made not only by central governments, but also by community members with relevant knowledge of their land, as well as how management practices may affect their community or ecosystem.

Organizations such as the Young Farmers Coalition lobby the government to change policy to “eliminate inequities in land ownership and access, protect farmland for producers; facilitate appropriate, affordable, and secure land tenure; and support farm viability and transition.” By working to ensure the return of land and wealth to BIPOC communities and provide resources, accessibility, and affordability of farmland to all working farmers in the US, they are attempting to establish equity in a system of land ownership that is rooted in theft and hoarding of resources. By establishing a land council in which all stakeholders are represented, including organizations such as the Young Farmers Coalition, justice may be explicitly centered in policy of land ownership, through already existing initiatives.

In addition, local citizen assemblies may be formed regionally so as to promote community engagement in decision-making on land management practices, and to facilitate a social mandate between citizens and the state. Such a social mandate will be hard-won, and demands a great deal of trust in terms of both the citizens of their government and the government of its people. However, the intersecting crises of 2020 may provide an opportunity for such a mandate to emerge - in such a year in which individual actions have had direct community impacts on an unprecedented scale, be they wearing a mask and practicing distancing, engaging with anti-racist dialogue, or voting in the US presidential election, individuals may feel more compelled to engage with their government and larger community. However, it must be noted that in considering reparation and decolonization, trust and consent must be emphasized in these relationships. Civic trust is essential to good governance, and in the case of colonizer and colonized, oppressed and oppressor, there is certainly a lack of trust. This trust may begin to form only through a centering of marginalized communities in considering the impacts of policy decisions, reparation initiatives for the rematriation of stolen land (such as The Justice for Black Farmers Act and the Sogorea Té land trust), and an investment in the use and education of regenerative agriculture.

Trust may additionally be built between citizens and the government by incorporating their input into climate solutions, ensuring the public and those most impacted are on board with decisions, and allowing grassroots and Indigenous organizations a seat at the table. By empowering citizens to engage with local land management and valuing their experiences, a social mandate for action and engagement may be built, further facilitating a sense of responsibility and stewardship of the land.

The enforcement of a land tax to pay for to Indigenous stewardship of the land, as well as educational, cultural, and community centers is another tool by which Indigenous care of the land and community connection to the land may be reinforced. Land taxes are currently voluntary, as a way for non-Indigenous communities to support traditional landowners and help in community building. By making them more explicit, the need for reparations from colonial land theft is made a clear social obligation, and encourages individual engagement with decolonial work.

An example of one such tax is the Shuumi Land Tax, a voluntary annual contribution that non-Indigenous people make to support the work of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust and the work of the Ohlone community to repair the harm that has been done to their people and land. “The Shuumi Land Tax directly supports Sogorea Te’s work of rematriation, returning Indigenous land to Indigenous people, establishing a cemetery to reinter stolen Ohlone ancestral remains and building urban gardens, community centers, and ceremonial spaces so current and future generations of Indigenous people can thrive in the Bay Area. Shuumi means gift in the Ohlone language Chochenyo.” (sogoreate-landtrust.com/shuumi-land-tax/). Such a tax would recognize the need of settler communities to repair and rebuild disrupted Indigenous relationships to the land, and would foster community growth based on these principles.

Alongside empowering small farmers, large agricultural corporations must be held to higher ecological standards. Big Agriculture can be further regulated through application of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, especially in the field of nutrient pollution. By creating strong standards for nutrient pollution, including waste runoff into water supplies and respective NOx emissions, and enforcing legal consequences when these standards are not met, the process of corporate agriculture may become more sustainable. Such standards may include fertilizer technology that deposits directly into the soil to reduce excess use, EEFs and slow-release fertilizers, more efficient irrigation systems, and comprehensive waste management programs. By holding large agricultural corporations accountable for their sizable role in global climate change, as well as to ethical wage and labor standards, more space may be made in the agricultural sector for small farmers and farmers of color, while additionally facilitating the implementation of widespread sustainable practices. Of course, such regulation would require a government that is not compromised by a large corporate agricultural lobby. This stakeholder may be incentivized, therefore, through subsidies for the use of sustainable technology and practices, as well as high costs for excessive emissions. However, it must be noted that while there is corporate control over politicians and policy, many of these initiatives will be incredibly difficult to achieve.

Finally, increased food and land sovereignty will be achieved through continued legislative efforts such as the Justice For Black Farmers Bill, which is directly focused on empowering Black farmers whose land and resources have been systemically stolen from them. Additionally, government funds may be directed to support land trust initiatives such as The Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust and The Sogorea’ Te Land Trust, as opposed to subsidies and bailouts directed at large agricultural corporations. The question of land access is one of affordability, and during the 20th century, the price of farmland rose by a factor of 52. This steady rise in values, coupled with extensive legislative efforts to make it more difficult for Black farmers to buy land, can be combated through government subsidies and lending programs directly targeted to small farmers of color.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided an economic opportunity to empower those businesses and practices that are beneficial to community health and wellbeing, rather than those that are exploitative. Although initial bailout and aid funds went to large corporations, there is opportunity still to use government aid to support land acquisition for small, BIPOC-owned farmers, subsidize for them EEF fertilizer and other technology, and protect them against the invasive land-grabbing practices of Big Agribusiness.

In conclusion, land sovereignty in the United States is a goal that must actively work to combat a legacy of dispossession, resource exploitation and hoarding, theft, and systemic racism. In a system in which the vast majority of agricultural land is controlled by wealthy corporations, and the cost of land has been steadily increasing over the past century, people, especially lower-income people of color, have lost the right to make decisions regarding their own land and food. A shift away from this system requires a radical transformation in the relationship between a government and its people, and empowers individuals to engage in policy discourse. It recognizes the inherent need of reparations on part of a colonial government and the active rematriation of land, and the violence embedded in our current system of extraction, commodification, and the hoarding of resources. The colonial American government has uprooted traditional ecological and regenerative agricultural practices, and reconstituted the American landscape not as an entity with which communities engage and interact, but rather a commodity that can be traded, hoarded, and manipulated in the pursuit of power and the oppression of others.

This system may be repaired through the establishment of land councils on a federal and state level and local citizen assemblies between various stakeholders and community members, in which the voices of those most affected and those of Black, Indigenous, and people of color are centered and held in respect. In addition, the need for reparations between the colonial government and displaced stewards may be made explicit through the enforcement of a land tax, in which community members may support Indigenous-led creation of community centers, urban gardens, and ceremonial spaces intended to preserve local scientific and cultural knowledge. The democratization and localization of food systems will not be achieved from a top-down government mandate, but rather through the empowerment and support of existing organizations working to reclaim land, make it more accessible to farmers of color, and re-implement regenerative agricultural practices, such as the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust and the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust. Reparations must be made directly to farmers dispossessed of their land through historic and systemic racist governing, such as through the Justice for Black Farmers Act. Finally, the corporate agriculture industrial complex must be held to higher ecological and ethical standards, including the implementation of nitrogen-use efficient fertilizers, carbon emission caps, and the enforcement of ethical wage and labor standards. The question of land sovereignty in the United States is one that demands a large shift in cultural imagination. However, it promises a future of food justice, a reciprocal earth ethic, the reinforcement of place-based stewardship and community engagement, and a foundation of trust and consent between the government and the communities it has historically harmed and neglected.



Works Cited

Boyd, John, and Scott Faber. “Op-Ed: The Farm Bureau Says It Wants to Fight Racism. Here's Where to Start.” Civil Eats, 9 July 2020, civileats.com/2020/07/03/op-ed-the-farm-bureau-says-it-wants-to-fight-racism-heres-where-to-start/.

Howarth, C., Bryant, P., Corner, A. et al. Building a Social Mandate for Climate Action: Lessons from COVID-19. Environ Resource Econ 76, 1107–1115 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10640-020-00446-9

Kay, Sylvia, et al. “Public Policies for Food Sovereignty .” Food for Thought, vol. 1, Jan. 2018, www.tni.org/en.

Manly, Jessica. “Land Access for the Next Generation.” National Young Farmers Coalition, 2020, www.youngfarmers.org/landaccess/.

Martin, Nick. “Wall Street Vultures Are Ready to Get Rich From Water Scarcity.” The New Republic, 9 Dec. 2020, newrepublic.com/article/160484/wall-street-vultures-ready-get-rich-off-water-scarcity.

Moseley, Mariya. “Bill That Could Help Black Farmers Reclaim Millions of Acres 'a Step in the Right Direction'.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 29 Nov. 2020, abcnews.go.com/US/bill-black-farmers-reclaim-millions-acres-step-direction/story?id=74394647.

Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, nefoclandtrust.org/.

Philpott, Tom. “Black Farmers Have Been Robbed of Land. A New Bill Would Give Them a ‘Quantum Leap’ toward Justice.” Mother Jones, 19 Nov. 2020, www.motherjones.com/food/2020/11/black-farmers-have-been-robbed-of-land-a-new-bill-would-give-them-a-quantum-leap-toward-justice/.

Philpott, Tom. “White People Own 98 Percent of Rural Land. Young Black Farmers Want to Reclaim Their Share.” Mother Jones, 27 June 2020, www.motherjones.com/food/2020/06/black-farmers-soul-fire-farm-reparations-african-legacy-agriculture/.

“Shuumi Land Tax.” The Sogorea Te Land Trust, 4 Aug. 2020, sogoreate-landtrust.com/shuumi-land-tax/.

United States, Congress, The Justice For Black Farmers Act. 2020.

Young, Ayana. “CORRINA GOULD on Settler Responsibility and Reciprocity.” FOR THE WILD, FOR THE WILD, 11 Nov. 2020, forthewild.world/listen/corrina-gould-on-settler-responsibility-and-reciprocity-208.


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