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Land Rights, Ethno-Nationality and Sovereignty in History

Author(s):Engerma, Stanley L.
Metzer, Jacob
Reviewer(s):Wishart, David M.

Published by EH.NET (February 2005)


Stanley L. Engerman and Jacob Metzer, editors, Land Rights, Ethno-Nationality and Sovereignty in History. London: Routledge, 2004. xii + 403 pp. $100 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-415-32126-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David M. Wishart, Department of Economics, Wittenberg University.

Engerman (University of Rochester) and Metzer (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) have compiled fifteen papers as chapters in their edited volume, including their introductory essay, in order to examine how rights to land have factored into “the formation of territorially linked collective identities and ethno-national consciousness” (p. 1). The papers are loosely organized under four headings that necessarily overlap. These include sections labeled “Nations, Land Regime, and Territorial Sovereignty in Old and New States,” “Religion, Ethno-Nationality, and Economics in Land Struggles,” “Indigenous Peoples, Colonial Settlers, and Migrating Laborers: Ethnic Rivalries and Rights to Land, Past and Present,” and “Natural Resources and the Livelihood of Native Populations: Economy and Environment in Tradition and Modernity.” The editors acknowledge in their introduction the ubiquitous nature of land disputes. Indeed, an interesting exercise would be to find locations where ethno-national land disputes have never occurred.

In the introductory chapter titled “Some Considerations of Ethno-Nationality (and other distinctions), Property Rights in Land, and Territorial Sovereignty,” Engerman and Metzer construct a general framework in which to place the specific cases presented in the following chapters. They begin with a section describing the global extension of European conceptualizations and systems of property rights and sovereignty. A principal-agent relationship is posited between citizens and the state as their agent that allows the state to enforce property rights and establish sovereignty. Engerman and Metzer argue that analysis of agency relationships is useful to better understand the nature of sovereignty and to distinguish sovereignty from land ownership, be it private or public. However, “the mechanisms by which individual and/or collective property rights in land and their exclusionary attributes have been linked to the identity of the relevant people” are better revealed from a historical perspective (p. 9). Curiously absent from their presentation is any mention of the extensive literature, much of it from a property rights/law and economics perspective, by scholars such as Harold Demsetz, Vernon Smith, and Terry Anderson, regarding conflicts over land rights that involve indigenous people and settlers.

Construction of their analytical framework continues in a second section devoted to economic aspects of ethno-nationality and land rights. Engerman and Metzer identify material gain as the primary motive driving settlers in disputes over sovereignty and land rights. That material gain is a prime motivator for settlers is indisputable. However, the editors then advance an argument suggesting that because the indigenes adhered to “custom-based systems of land rights,” which often did not include “any notion of ownership,” the “cost of dispossession” was reduced (p. 17). Their contention is simply incorrect for many cases of land disputes between settlers and indigenous people highlighting a central problem with Engerman and Metzer’s analytical approach. They give no attention to the responses of indigenous people to challenges posed to their sovereignty and land rights by settlers. Military, political, social, and economic institutions existed among indigenes prior to contact with settlers and these institutions responded and adapted to their arrival. In many instances, indigenes fiercely resisted encroachment by settlers over long time periods, sometimes with considerable success. Precious little more is added to the analytical framework in the remaining pages of the editors’ introductory chapter. The reader is informed that European settlers labeled indigenes “as others” in order to make it easier to utilize them as a “controlled labor force” or to remove them from the land altogether (p. 17). By casting indigenes as others, settlers might accomplish a reduction in the psychic costs (to themselves) of discriminatory and xenophobic policies. Settlers gain symbolic utility by constructing an ethno-national identity separate from that of the indigenes, thus indulging a “taste for nationalism” (p. 22). Other economic aspects of ethno-nationality and land rights noted by Engerman and Metzer include instances of common-pool resource depletion, resource misallocation arising from administered land prices, restrictions on participation in land markets, the persistence of collective rights to land, and the redistribution of rents arising from the dispossession of indigenes.

A somewhat more sophisticated analytical framework would help to better organize the diverse collection of land disputes covered in the following 14 chapters. Focusing first on settlers who are primarily motivated by material gain, it is possible to conceive of at least three sets of circumstances under which settlers could evaluate their opportunities for gain depending on geography and the characteristics of the indigenous population that they encounter. First, settlers might encounter a relatively densely settled indigenous population that underutilizes the land area they occupy from the settlers’ perspective. Thus, settlers must first either remove indigenes from the land or at least relieve them of their property rights. With the land area under new management, productivity increases, so settlers play a role similar to that of take-over artists. Three papers included in this volume fit the classification of settlers as take-over artists. One is Leonard Carlson’s paper dealing with the removal of Indians from the southeastern United States. Carlson’s paper is a careful overview of the process of Indian removal from the southeast that followed passage of the Indian Removal Act by Congress in 1830. Carlson maintains that given the choices available to federal policy makers (annihilation, maintenance of the Indians in place, or assimilation), removal was the best option. The federal government was simply too weak to enforce Native American property rights in the face of a rapidly expanding cotton economy based around plantation slavery. Prussians play the role of take-over artists who ultimately fail in Scott M. Eddie’s examination of Prussian purchases of Polish land from 1886 to 1918. Eddie’s paper uses excellent data to show the futility of a concerted effort to Germanize Polish regions of West Prussia and Poznania by purchasing large estates from Polish nobles and distributing them to German family farmers. Zionists and later, the State of Israel, are the take-over artists in Jacob Metzer’s consideration of the Zionist land regime in Mandatory Palestine and Israel from 1897 to 1967. Metzer first examines purchases of land by Jews and Zionist organizations during the early years of the Zionist enterprise through the period of Mandatory Palestine. Antagonism developed between Jews and Palestinian Arabs during the mandate period, although Jews owned “no more than 7 percent of the entire area of Palestine” by 1948 (p. 94). Israel was created as a fact on the ground as a result of military action. Although Israel has incorporated land abandoned by Palestinian refugees and has restricted access to land markets by Israeli Arabs, Metzer suggests in a postscript that Arab Israelis may gain greater access to land markets in coming years as a result of a landmark ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court in March 2000, which determined that “the State of Israel was not permitted, by law, to allocate State land to the Jewish Agency … on the basis of discrimination between Jews and non-Jews” (p.106).

A second situation in which settlers are able to more easily evaluate their opportunities for material gain occurs where they encounter a low-density indigenous population. It is unnecessary to remove the indigenes under these circumstances — they need only be held at bay. Settlers are akin to an invasive species in this context. They find an unexploited niche and expand relatively unabated. But what happens in the aftermath of this process when the indigenes have not disappeared? Two papers focus on what to do in the face of persistent indigenes. Tony Smith’s paper focuses on problems associated with indigenous accumulation of property in the Kimberly region of Western Australia in the second half of the twentieth century. Robert Ross takes up the complex issue of restitution of land rights to indigenes in his paper, “Ethnic Competition and Claims to Land in South Africa: The Kat River Valley, Eastern Cape.” A third paper in this category by Jukka Nyyss?nen considers potentially incompatible land use patterns in northern Finland pitting forestry activities by Finnish settlers against reindeer herding by the indigenous Sami in a fragile ecosystem.

A third situation where the evaluation by settlers of their opportunities for material gain is likely to be more complex exists when they are invited by indigenes to move into a territory. On first blush, this seems highly counterintuitive. However, if a ruling indigenous group is having difficulty paying its bills, selling land to settlers is a painless way to settle the debts in the short run. Perhaps a new management team consisting of colonial administrators is better able to cope with internal conflicts than the indigenous rulers. Or, the entrance of settlers from a more powerful nation or group of nations might lessen the threat of a hostile takeover. Settlers and/or colonists take on the role of a white knight under these circumstances. Sumner J. La Croix juxtaposes different approaches to land rights in a paper that contrasts the impact of invited colonial administrators in Fiji with the legalization of land sales to foreigners in Hawai’i in the nineteenth century. Fijian chiefs, beset by internal strife, invited the British to annex Fiji in 1874, the British obliged, and in order to make life easier for themselves, the colonial rulers prohibited foreign purchases of land. By contrast, Hawai’i was annexed by the United States in 1898 after Hawaiian kings had permitted foreign purchases of land since 1850 in order to pay debts they had incurred. Both Pacific island groups specialized in sugar production on plantations worked by tens of thousands of foreign indentured laborers, yet the outcomes have been dramatically different regarding land tenure over time as Fijians own most of their land at present while Hawaiians have lost much of theirs. Another example of settlers as white knights is presented in Rawi Abdelal’s paper that examines post-Soviet Lithuania’s property law, which permits ownership by EU, NATO, and OECD citizens, but not by persons from the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Migrating laborers are motivated by material gain and their entrance into a territory can lead to ethno-national disputes. V. Nithi Nithiyanandam and Rukmani Gounder focus on contemporary problems of economic development in Fiji and Sri Lanka. In both cases Indian indentured laborers entered under British colonial rule setting the stage for ethnic conflict that continues to be a serious problem for Sri Lanka and could emerge as a problem in Fiji.

Not all settlers are motivated by material gain. Some are simply fleeing in an attempt to minimize losses or to avoid being exterminated. Y?cel Terzibasoglu examines the situation faced by millions of predominantly Muslim refugees from provinces in the Balkans lost by the Ottomans to Russia between 1877 and 1912 and the Ottoman response to the refugees’ plight. Increasing population density led to disputes over land arising from uncertain title, conflicts between nomads and farmers, and disputes arising from ethnic and religious differences.

And not all land disputes are the result of settler activity. Gareth Austin recounts the transition from land abundance in Sub-Saharan Africa to land scarcity as a result of population growth during the twentieth century. Increasing land scarcity is cited as a source of increasing inter-ethnic conflict in the region. Population decline has the opposite effect, mitigating conflict among indigenes in the Hudson Bay region. Ann Carlos and Frank Lewis combine a property rights analysis with simulations of predator-prey populations to suggest that the low population density of sub-Arctic Native Americans may be the result of a shift away from hunting large game to the fur trade after significant population declines in the aftermath of epidemics.

Questions regarding the productivity of Irish Catholic dairy farmers relative to Protestants and Danes are considered by Cormac ? Gr?da. ? Gr?da’s focus is on the relationships between religion, ethno-nationality, and economic performance in the aftermath of land disputes rather than settlement.

Only one paper in this collection, which focuses on land disputes in a remote region of Argentina, is of limited interest to economic historians. The authors adopt an ethnographic approach to examine attitudes of the Mbya-Guarani toward land rights. Interviews with tribal members would have been easier to follow if the transcripts had been placed in the text rather than as notes at the chapter’s end.

The studies in this volume shed considerable light on the challenges faced by indigenous groups and ethnic minorities in the context of ethno-national disputes over land. What the volume lacks in focus or a directed analytical approach it makes up for with variety. More sessions on settler economies are scheduled for this summer and the summer of 2006 that will perhaps result in a more systematic examination of the important issues raised thus far.

David M. Wishart is a Professor of Economics at Wittenberg University. He contributed an entry titled “Indigenous North American Economy” to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History and is currently engaged in a study of Georgia’s use of land lotteries to distribute land ceded by the Creek and Cherokee Indians in the early nineteenth century.


Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII