Land ownership: The key to equality in the 21st century?

Efforts by the Federation of Southern Co-ops to stop the loss of inherited land; and safe communities based on co-operative economics

Covid-19 and climate change are dominating the agenda, but inequality remains a persistent and growing challenge in the 21st century; campaigners in many countries have identified land ownership as a key factor in dealing with it

In the southern states of the USA the question of land ownership has a powerful racial aspect; over the past 100 years there has been a sharp decline in black ownership of farm land – partly due to the heirs property system.

This system deals with the ownership of land left without a will – which often happened among black land owners in the Deep South who had a deep distrust of the legal system, or did not have access to a lawyer. Under heirs property, the descendants inherit an interest in the land, similar to holding stock in a company. But this leaves them at risk from laws and loopholes that allow speculators and developers to obtain the property, forcing them into a sale against their will. 

It’s a serious problem for racial equity in terms of land ownership, with heirs property taking up an estimated third of black-owned land in the southern states – 3.5 million acres, worth more than $28bn. It is estimated that African Americans lost about 90% of their farmland between 1910 and 1997.

Co-operation — based around principles of equality and democratic ownership – is ideally placed to attempt a reversal of this situation, and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC),  a non-profit association of black farmers, landowners and co-ops, is doing just that.

Soul Fire Farm is an Afro-Indigenous centred community farm committed to uprooting racism (Photo:

The FSC has used outreach tools, education, and technical assistance to support black land ownership. It has worked to resolve heirs property issues, help with estate planning, and develop alternative ownership models such as corporations, co-operatives, trusts, limited liability companies and intra-family buy-outs. Its Regional Heirs Property and Mediation Center, with offices in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, works with 600 heirs every year.

Related: Jessica Gordon-Nembhard on past lessons for economic empowerment

This week it hosts Forward 2021: National Heirs Property Conference, to discuss the issues. This will offer “an intense, two-day boot camp style experience for heirs property owners to kick start their efforts to resolve their heirs property issues and unlock their land’s wealth-building potential”.

​​It will include master classes taught by heirs property experts and one-on-one meetings with resource professionals including attorneys, USDA agency representatives, lenders, genealogy experts, community development professionals, foresters, mediators, and business development professionals from the hemp, solar, gas, and oil industries,

​Technical support will be offered to heirs property owners for up to a year. 

There are other land ownership initiatives putting co-op ideas into play in the southern states. The Freedom Georgia Initiative has seen 19 families buy nearly 97 acres of land in Georgia. The site, near Macon in Wilkinson County, follows a vision “to create a community that is thriving, that is safe, that has agriculture and commercial businesses that are supporting one another and that dollars circulating in our community”.

The families were inspired to create a safe haven in the wake of the unrest that tore through the USA this year after a series of deaths of black people in police custody. 

“The Freedom Georgia Initiative was established out of an extreme sense of urgency to create a thriving safe haven for black families in the midst of racial trauma, a global pandemic, and economic instabilities across the United States of America brought on by Covid-19,” say organisers. “We wanted to do our part to do what we can to create safe spaces for black faces and their allies. Out of our desire to create generational wealth for our families, we wanted to provide a place for restoration, recreation, and reformation for families during this time.”

Such projects aren’t confined to the south of the USA. In New York state, Soul Fire Farm “is an Afro-Indigenous centred community farm committed to uprooting racism and seeding sovereignty in the food system”. It is “training the next generation of activist-farmers and strengthening the movements for food sovereignty and community self-determination”.

Soul Fire projects – which involve 10,000 people a year – include farmer training for black growers, reparations and land return initiatives for northeast farmers, food justice workshops for urban youth, home gardens for city-dwellers in food deserts, doorstep harvest delivery for food insecure households, and systems and policy education for public decision-makers.

The farm itself was founded in 2010 on a 72-acre site in Petersburg by Leah Penniman and Jonah Vitale-Wolff. Committed to natural land stewardship, they have sequestered 50,000 tons of carbon, and have mounted a sustainable operation: all buildings are made from wood sourced within a 20 mile radius; the site uses natural hay bale insulation and solar power, with land use encouraging biodiversity. 

It has similar ambitions on food solidarity and follows the Ujamaa model of co-operative economics – based on the socialist policies of Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere which set out to use communal ideas to build a national infrastructure.