How is our relationship with the land tied to our relationships with one another, and the possibility for cultivating strong and nurturing communities? This Land Return toolkit, developed by the Sustainable Economies Law Center, offers a unique perspective on how each of us can realign these relationships while contributing to our communities.
Sustainable Economies Law Center created this Toolkit, inspired by work we’ve done with BIPOC-led land stewardship organizations like Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative, and others. We want to bring ease to the process of land return. Some resources here are quite different from conventional legal documents. In Janelle Orsi’s article Legal Tools for Land Return, you can learn more about the experiences and considerations that shaped the unique approach to this Toolkit.
We encourage anyone to adapt these resources to your own needs and aesthetics, with or without attribution.
Why land return?
People everywhere are recognizing our immense loss from having severed the roots of humans’ caring relationships with land, homes, and neighborhoods. Colonization has violently severed Indigenous land relationships, and capitalism has turned land into a commodity to be exploited and made most people landless as a way to exploit their labor. Now, people are seeing the healing that will come from returning land to the landless, to Indigenous people, and to itself. Land justice organizations are emerging, land trusts are forming, and private landowners are coming forth, moved by beautiful visions that are taking shape.
Seeds hold the genetic blueprint for plants. Plants take infinite shapes, depending on their context, conditions, and relationships. Similarly, return of land to community stewardship will take countless shapes. Because land return must fit into the standard blueprints of our legal system, certain legal tools will serve as seeds that form the basis for removing land from the speculative market and reweaving it into a web of relationships. The seeds we provide here are simple legal tools, not long complex legal instruments. They root relationships of land return, while leaving space for communities to shape what will grow.
Learning to Garden
Experienced gardeners can tell you: Gardening becomes intuitive over time. With attention, season after season, you become better able to sense what to plant and where, what will emerge naturally, what needs extra tending and nourishment, and so on. Tending a garden can feel creative, challenging, playful, joyful.
Meanwhile, our private property system is not intuitive. Humans have created painfully complex systems for dividing up land rights, regulating uses, and taxing property. Legal systems intimidate most people, and this fear and overwhelm can poison the soil of love and generosity that foster acts of land return. Legal documents can become so complex and cluttered that our human hearts cannot relate, so we dissociate and disengage from them.
The legal tools we share here are meant to keep our hearts and minds fully engaged. They are seeds meant to thrive in rich soil of love and generosity. We provide basic information and templates, and we’ve been careful to avoid the clutter and the kinds of legal terms that foster distrust or put people on the defensive. Reading through this Toolkit will teach you to sense which seeds are best to plant in your situation. From there, you can become an intuitive gardener, continue learning about your chosen seeds, and tend to them as they take shape. The slides sometimes link to resources that will teach you more about a topic, and the notes below some slides also provide additional information.
Which seeds might you plant?
Sharing the space: Land access agreements, leases, and easements allow you to share your land or home while you hold title.
Arranging for future title transfer: Purchase rights (rights of first refusal and purchase options), life estates, and estate gifts (bequests) arrange for title to transfer later.
Transferring title: You can gift land title, sell it at a reduced price, and/or transfer it (by gift or sale) while retaining a relationship to the land, like a right to live there, visit, or receive income from it.
See original toolkit, page 5, for full slides on each “packet.”
Preparing to plant your seeds
Now that you’re familiar with the above seeds, here are a few more things to consider:
- The soil is critical: The relationships and spirit of the land return arrangement matter as much – or arguably more than – than the legal tools. Before we had fancy legal documents enforced by court systems and police, we had relationships: People in communities found countless ways to come together to share and co-steward land. It’s all about relationships and the culture and spirit that act as the glue of such relationships. Without this healthy soil, the seeds of land return won’t thrive.
- Companion seeds: In many cases, people will use multiple seeds as companions. For example, you could have a land access agreement to share the land now, and combine it with a purchase right, so a group can buy the land when you are ready to sell. Later, at the time of purchase, you can carry out a simple sale. Another example: You can use a life estate and combine it with a will to leave the group money after you die to help pay down any mortgage or help pay for the stewardship of the land.
- Sprouting and growing: The seeds we provided above are simple legal documents, and you are encouraged to build on them and adapt them to your unique context. They don’t need to become long and wordy like so many legal documents are, but they do need to be refined to address the nuances of your vision.
- Professional support: Do you need lawyers and real estate agents? Honestly, many professionals can poison the spirit of trust and generosity in a land return project. Many are trained to help people protect wealth, not share it. But professionals may also have important tips, help you avoid pitfalls, or help you reduce taxes so you have more wealth to share. Our advice is to invite professional support if you can afford it, clearly communicate your goals, and ask lots of critical questions. Otherwise, it’s possible for you to DIY this, especially if you take time to read the notes below slides here and in the linked documents.
Common Requests from Land Stewards
We’ve heard the following expressed by land stewardship groups as requests of those who want to return land:
- Tell the land’s story: Share anything you know about the history, natural features, and structures on the land.
- Give money to support the land: Give or bequest money along with a land gift, so that the group can afford to steward the land, pay off debts secured by the land, or address other unforeseen problems.
- Clear up clouded title and disputes: Work to resolve any liens, encumbrances, neighbor disputes, or other problems that the group may inherit when the land transfers.
- Talk to your family: Help your family members understand what inspired you to return land, especially to ensure that a family member doesn’t later dispute it with the land stewardship group.
- Address the stuff: Make arrangements to remove belongings from a home you are giving or selling, and also invite the group to indicate if there are items in the home they would benefit from having.
- Learn about the group: Read everything you can about the group and from their website, so you understand more about their history, values, needs, and how they would like to be approached about land return.
- Be mindful of the oppressive patterns inherent in real estate transactions: Many people involved in land stewardship organizations are just beginning to learn the vocabulary and processes related to real estate, which are coded, complex, and based on values of individual wealth accumulation and commodification. All of this can be deeply disturbing to people who care deeply about life and the web of relationship around land, and to people who have trauma associated with financial insecurity, math, or housing insecurity.
With gratitude for your consideration and for the inspiration that brings you to plant the seeds of land return.
Read the full toolkit here.
This toolkit was originally published at www.theselc.org/seeds_of_land_return.
- 6 Native leaders on What it Would Look Like if the US Kept its Promises (Taylor)
- Legal Tools for Land Return (Orsi)
- How to Give the Land Back (Fernando)
- Helping the Rich Let Go (Collins)