Leiden Law Blog

Who owns the land?

Who owns the land?

The financial crisis can lead to drastic measures. Part of the government plans to raise money for the Treasury is selling some State-owned nature areas to private owners. These sales have to generate 100 million Euro before 2017. Although this plan was already part of the coalition agreement of 2011, it was only in March this year that the issue was picked up by the media.
The news items reporting it had a double message: besides covering the rising protest against this plan, they were also cheap advertising to reach as many potential buyers as possible. What I missed in the reports was an awareness or concern about the deeper consequences of these sales.

State ownership

Legally Staatsbosbeheer – the Dutch State organization concerned with these nature areas – owns these plots of land, so from a legal point of view there is no reason why they can’t sell them. Yet many people were amazed or even shocked to hear about this plan. I was one of those people.
I think this kind of ownership is of a very different quality than the plain legal qualification would suggest. Apparently the government hasn’t realized that the State doesn’t own these plots of lands for itself, but for all Dutch inhabitants, so that in fact they collectively possess these nature areas. In other words, State ownership really means nobody in particular owns them, comparable to the commons of old. The State only has to take care of them.

Private versus ‘Indian’ ownership

It’s a fact that Western society was built on the idea of private ownership. Because of this there is a deep conviction that everything – as long as it is considered an object – can be owned. When the Europeans colonized America, the Native Americans, however, expressed a very different view on this matter. They thought that the Western passion for ownership of land was a kind of madness.
Chief Seattle stated famously in 1854: ‘This we know – the earth doesn’t belong to man – man belongs to the earth’. Other Native Americans expressed similar views. They questioned whether we, being small entities, are able to really own large entities like plots of land. At the time these views were not taken very seriously, but over the years we gradually learned to understand their meaning. And I think they are relevant to the matter at hand here.

The need for ‘wild, untamed nature’

In the Netherlands we have the tendency to overrate our power to control the land. Generally speaking, there are two good reasons for this. First, the dense population makes our human presence felt nearly everywhere. And second, there is hardly any land that has not been reshaped into something else through human activity. But this doesn’t take away the fact that – to remain mentally healthy – we need to be confronted regularly with places where our influence is minimal or largely absent, with ‘wild, untamed nature’. By spending time in these sorts of places the Native American notion of the ownership comes alive in us and we feel part of a bigger whole. It’s a necessary antidote against too much private ownership.

Save the Dutch ‘commons’

Every now and then we move abroad to mountainous areas or other wild areas to fulfill this need in us. But closer to home, within our own country, there are also some sparse nature areas left which can be enjoyed and should be treasured. That’s one very important reason, I think, why the government shouldn’t have decided to sell these areas to private owners.

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