In 1990, a group known as the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) sent a letter to the Big Ten, ten of the largest environmental conservation organizations in the world, including the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, and the Environmental Defense Fund. SWOP critiqued the Big Ten for their lack of accountability to Black and Indigenous communities, the lack of representation of BIPOC individuals in leadership roles, and the exclusive focus these organizations had on conserving wilderness while ignoring the impact of environmental degradation on poor communities.
As a land conservation organization, it is important for Agrarian Trust to grapple with the racist history of land conservation, and to imagine new models of land stewardship rooted in racial equity and active care for the land. The Agrarian Commons model is a clear step in this direction.
By advancing a robust model of land stewardship in which issues of social justice, environmental sustainability, and community well-being are seen as fundamentally intertwined, Agrarian Trust is charting a new path forward for the land conservation movement. The Agrarian Commons model prioritizes the work of BIPOC communities, while ensuring that agricultural land remains in active and ecologically responsible use.
When many of us imagine land conservation, we see sweeping vistas and green valleys untouched by human interference. Under this model of land stewardship, nature is something that needs to be carefully protected from human interference.
Yet, as scholars Kevin DeLuca and Anne Demo point out, the idea of land stewardship as conserving a pristine, uninhabited wilderness emerged out of a small set of upper-class, white conservationists, whose guiding vision was based on the violent displacement of Indigenous people from their land.
From the mid-1800s to the 1930s, national parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone were built on the displacement of local tribes, whose use of the land was seen as harmful to the environment, and threatening to potential tourists. Federal regulations which were purportedly set in place to protect the natural environment were leveraged to deprive Native tribes of their livelihoods and push them off their traditional hunting grounds. In Yellowstone, for example, the United States Cavalry—the military organization that had enabled the United State’s violent expansion to the west—was deployed to subject Indigenous populations to federal regulations. In just a few decades, land that had been lived on and carefully stewarded by Indigenous tribes for millennia was widely accepted by the American public as an uninhabited wilderness.
According to DeLuca and Demo, this creation of an American wilderness allowed white Americans to appropriate Indigenous land as part of their own cultural heritage. “Yosemite’s mountain cathedrals and majestic redwoods” they write, “offered cultural legitimacy to a nation seeking a heritage that could compete with the cathedrals and castles of Europe.”
The writing of early conservationists like John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, played a key role in this cultural white-washing. By using language traditionally associated with European religious values to describe Yosemite—Yosemite was a “temple lighted from above,” its famous waterfall a “sublime psalm”—Muir framed a previously uninviting wild as an key part of white America’s cultural heritage.
It is important to stress here that the idea of nature as existing apart from humans is highly specific, and serves a small number of white, predominantly upper-class individuals. Muir saw conserved land as the purview of well-educated tourists capable of appreciating the natural beauty of the conserved landscape. Everyone else, working-class and Indigenous folks who lived through the active use of land, or city dwellers who weren’t able to afford expensive trips to National Parks, was excluded.
If this all seems like distant history to you, think again. The letter sent by SWOP to the Big Ten outlined the continuing complicity of large environmental organizations in racist, exclusionary land practices. The idea of nature as a separate entity, and of land stewardship as exclusively concerned with protecting land from human interference, is a key part of this exclusionary legacy.
In claiming to preserve nature, conservation organizations deprived working-class and BIPOC communities from the economic benefits of active land use, and, in some instances, even laid direct claim to Indigenous land. Additionally, this claim allowed conservation organizations to overlook the effects of environmental degradation on land not considered to be a part of nature, much of which is inhabited by BIPOC and working-class communities.
The SWOP letter points to one instance in which the National Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy, and other major organizations unilaterally opposed the grazing of sheep by Chicano pastoralists on conserved land located in northern New Mexico, “one of the most economically depressed areas in the United States.” This was despite the fact that grazing practice is essential to the livelihoods of the Chicano pastoralists, ecologically beneficial, and hundreds of years old.
The letter makes its point in clear terms: “Your organizations continue to support and promote policies which emphasize the clean-up and preservation of the environment on the backs of working people in general and people of color in particular.”
What makes Agrarian Trust’s model of land stewardship different?
- The Agrarian Commons places control of the land in the hands of the communities that live on and benefit from it.
Instead of leaving decision-making to a land trust, each Agrarian Commons is run by a board composed of farmers and community members. This ensures that communities have the autonomy to tailor the Agrarian Commons to their specific needs and objectives, rather than the uniform regulations of a land trust or federal agency.
- The Agrarian Commons model is rooted in the conviction that humans and their environment are fundamentally interdependent.
As a consequence of this, Agrarian Trust sees issues of social justice and environmental renewal as closely related. By specifically listing the Rights of Nature in Agrarian Commons leases, Agrarian Trust defends both nature and the community’s right to a healthy, stable environment.
The Central Virginia Agrarian Commons, for example, is creating a BIPOC-led urban farm that will provide communities with access to fresh, healthy produce, in an area where food production was previously unthinkable. Meanwhile, in the West Virginia Agrarian Commons, board member Adam Hodges is imagining a future in which the Agrarian Commons model will be used to reclaim land devastated by coal mining for active agricultural use.
- The Agrarian Commons is founded on the active and responsible use of land.
Instead of simply conserving land, the Agrarian Commons ensures that the land continues to provide economic opportunities for its community, while ensuring lasting food security and climate resilience. In central Maine, Somali refugees formed the Little Jubba Agrarian Commons to provide economic opportunities and food security for members of the Maine refugee community.
In addition to providing economic support, Agrarian Commons farmers are proving that active use of land can increase its overall health through responsible, regenerative farming practices. Steve Normanton of New Hampshire Agrarian Commons, for example, is using rotational grazing practices to increase the soil health of the farm’s thirty plus acres of pasture. Through building soil, Steve Normanton is building climate resilience through sequestering carbon and ensuring lasting access to productive land.
- Agrarian Trust prioritizes the needs and objectives of BIPOC farmers and their communities.
Agrarian Trust acknowledges that BIPOC farmers are the hardest hit by increasing land prices, and the long history of land grabbing and exclusion that has led to BIPOC farmers owning less than 1 percent of U.S. farmland. For this reason, ensuring access to farmland for BIPOC farmers is Agrarian Trust’s top priority.
Nature can no longer be seen as a cathedral to be protected for the enjoyment of a small group of privileged individuals. Instead, Agrarian Trust’s approach to land stewardship is based on the understanding that the well-being of our environment is, and always has been, closely connected with the well-being of our communities. Protecting the environment means balancing the needs of the community with those of nature, and forming a relationship of responsibility that leads to mutually beneficial outcomes for both. The Agrarian Commons allows communities to cooperatively tailor their use of agricultural land to their specific objectives, while contributing to the overall health of our shared world.
Sources and Further Reading
DeLuca, Kevin, and Anne Demo. “Imagining Nature and Erasing Class and Race: Carleton Watkins, John Muir, and the Construction of Wilderness.” Environmental History 6, no. 4 (2001): 541–60. https://doi.org/10.2307/3985254.
Washington Post. “Liberal, Progressive — and Racist? The Sierra Club Faces Its White-Supremacist History.” Accessed June 14, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2020/07/22/liberal-progressive-racist-sierra-club-faces-its-white-supremacist-history/.
Spence, Mark. “Dispossesing the Wilderness: Yosemite Indians and the National Park Ideal, 1864-1930.” Pacific Historical Review 65, no. 1 (1996): 27–59. https://doi.org/10.2307/3640826.
Southwest Organizing Project, “Letter to the Big Ten.” (1990). https://www.ejnet.org/ej/swop.pdf