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Issue 235
March/April 2006
From Ownership to Relationship

Welcome

FROM OWNERSHIP TO RELATIONSHIP
by
A classroom in Chimbiri school in the highlands of Ethiopia. Photograph: Chris De Bode/Panos

A classroom in Chimbiri school in the highlands of Ethiopia. Photograph: Chris De Bode/Panos

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FROM OWNERSHIP TO RELATIONSHIP

“In the days of the white settlement, the natives of North America found ownership of land an incomprehensible concept. And so they lost it when the Europeans made them sign pieces of paper that were equally incomprehensible to them. They felt they belonged to the land, but the land did not belong to them.” – Eckhart Tolle

In his article ‘Work, Gift and Theft’, Ian Hopton questions the legitimacy of ownership. Is there a relationship between people suffering from chronic poverty on the one hand and ownership of natural resources by the few on the other? The answer is: Yes, there is. The majority of urban slum-dwellers and the rural poor have no direct access to land, forests, or fishing. These natural resources are vested in a few private hands. Ownership of the means of livelihood has become more and more concentrated.

How can we own the land, forests, rivers and oceans? Like air and sunshine, food and water are the gifts of nature – and should be equally accessible to all.

According to biologists, there are about 300 million species upon this Earth. Apart from humans, all creatures – lions, elephants, monkeys, snakes, bees, worms, butterflies – have free food and water. They need no chequebook, credit card or cash to buy these things. Only human beings are deprived of free access to the basic necessities of survival. We have created a system of ownership which puts the human species below all others as far as access to food and water is concerned. Mountains of food may be rotting in warehouses, and crops of grain burnt to maintain the market value, but if humans have no money they can have neither food nor water.

We have built a system which turns food and water into commodities to be bought and sold with money which is controlled by moneylenders and banks. Money is supposed to be a medium of exchange, but in reality it has become the ruler of our lives. And as money is always kept in short supply, there is no way all human beings can have enough, and therefore no guaranteed provision of food and water for every human being on Earth.

So, poverty is not a natural phenomenon: it is a result of human design.

NOW, FIGHTING POVERTY has itself become big business. It has become a source of making money for those who already have plenty of it. For the past sixty years government after government of every country has spoken about reducing poverty. UN agencies, aid agencies, the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and charitable organisations have all been busy with the business of eliminating poverty. World leaders have been designing millennium goals with the best of intentions. The latest of these hyper activities we have seen in the form of G8 leaders making big pronouncements at their summit in Gleneagles and at Live 8 concerts in various European capitals. But in spite of all the rhetoric and media hype, and the slogans of ‘Making Poverty History’, the poverty of the poor continues to deepen as the wealth of the wealthy continues to rise. The net flow of wealth is constantly draining from the poor to the rich countries.

So the urgent challenge facing the world is not to give more to the poor, but to take less from the poor; the rich have to get off the backs of the poor and get out of their way so that they can look after themselves.

The beneficiaries of poverty-alleviation programmes have been contractors, engineers, planners, traders, government bureaucrats and aid officials. In the name of fighting poverty, big dams have been built, displacing communities and villages and forcing millions of people away from their homes and into city slums. In the name of increasing food production, agriculture has been industrialised and mechanised, making farm labourers redundant, family farms bankrupt, and small farms indebted and uneconomic. In the name of increasing employment, mass production of consumer goods has been introduced, making artisans and craftspeople jobless. To put it simply, all efforts to defeat poverty have succeeded in increasing it – benefiting the privileged and the powerful.

Poverty will never be eliminated unless we eliminate injustice. Free access to natural resources, to food and water, is the natural right of all living beings. Denial of that right is the cause of poverty. Poverty is not the problem: injustice is the problem. We need to make a fundamental shift, a paradigm shift, a shift from ownership to relationship. We do not own nature - we have a relationship with nature. Nature does not belong to us -we belong to nature. Nature is a gift to nourish all living beings. Ownership imprisons us in materialism. Relationship leads us to spiritual freedom as well as to freedom from hunger.

The end of private ownership does not mean establishment of state ownership or collective ownership. The problem is not whether nature is owned by private individuals or governments. The problem is with the concept of ownership itself. The fault lies in the idea that humans can own and possess nature. Ownership means control; relationship means participation. We cannot control nature, but we can participate in the process of nature. We humans are nature, too. Whatever is born is nature. Mothers take pre-natal and post-natal care; ‘natal’, ‘native’ and ‘nature’ come from the same root.

Poverty is not caused by lack of food: it is caused by lack of access to food. There is abundance in nature. One apple seed produces hundreds of apples, year after year, for many years. If millions of species can satisfy their hunger and thirst without money, why can’t humans do the same? “There is enough in the world for everybody’s need, but not enough for anybody’s greed,” said Mahatma Gandhi. So the problem is not poverty – poverty is the result of seizure of the gifts of the Earth by the few

Hopton suggests that we need to move from ownership to trusteeship. His suggestion is worthy of serious consideration.

SATISH KUMAR

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