The value of land
Location C
Date and Time 11th December, 2008 at 08:30


Judith Bovensiepen (University of Kent )
Almut Schneider
Hans Steinmuller (London School of Economics)
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

What are the different ways in which people attribute value to land? The panel will explore how people construct the value of land, how this value is appropriated and how claims to land ownership are made based on these divergent concepts.

Long Abstract

The panel will examine how people attribute value to land and how rights to land and land ownership are deduced as a result of this. There are different ways in which the value of land can be constructed: value may be seen as an intrinsic or "natural" characteristic of land; it may be a result of human activity and labour or of ancestral relations with the land; the value of land may derive from the connection between sites in the landscape and supernatural forces or it may be created through legal and economic evaluations by national governments or national and international companies. The aim is to investigate practices of appropriation and ownership through an analysis of different conceptualisations of the value of land. Under what conditions are land and people considered inseparable and hence land inalienable? And when is land perceived to be alienable and subject to commoditisation? The panel's main goal is to discuss local perceptions about the value of land, how and by whom value is created and appropriated, as well as how local claims to land interact with corporate and government interests. We aim at a discussion and evaluation of existing theories of property relations and land ownership on the basis of ethnographically informed contributions.

Discussant: James Leach and Christian Lund

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Transmission as a value

Author: David Gibeault (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales)

Short Abstract

This paper presents the pre-emption right of land in China. It is characterized by gradual limitations on land disposal once land has been transmitted among kin, as well as its replication of the adoption right. The value of both lies in the notion of transmission.


The general frame of this study lies in a dose of determinism. We can distinguish two situations: plenty of land, scarcity of men, or plenty of men, scarcity of land. The first case corresponds to avaluation of relations between men, while in the second case land is the focal point of structures of authority.China belongs to the second type. Indeed, since at least the Ming, land knows layers of rights in which the fundamental one, inalienable, is owned by the central authority. The land's surface rights are under a regime where value is the one given by economy: exchange and use. But between those two rights, and their corresponding value, stands a third type: the preemption right. It inscribes the disposal of land in gradual limits, and is defined by two aspects: 1) bought land, once transmitted from one generation to the other, becomes "ancestral land" and 2) "ancestral land", while transferred, must first be proposed to one's brother, then to the first degree cousins, then to the second degree cousins, etc., until the end of the descent group. It can then be sold to outsiders. This customary law is not particular to China. But what appears particular is that this preemption right repeats the exact dispositions of adoption right, suggesting a partial identity between men and land with regards to transmission - as adoption in China is made for that purpose. I intend to understand this value of transmission, and its specific place among the diverse categories of exchange (inalienability, gift, commodities).

Alternative Values: The meaning of land in Australian alternative spiritualities

Author: Stewart Muir

Short Abstract

Australian practitioners of alternative spiritualities often seek an alternative regime of land value; a value that arises from the recognition of places with spiritual and/or Aboriginal associations. However, knowledge of prior Aboriginal claims to land can also discomfort the non-indigenous enjoyment of spiritual value.


The Australian landscape has enormous significance for many Australian practitioners of alternative spiritualities. It is not only the conduit for recognition of an essential unity between human and non-human nature but also stands in for the perceived deep spirituality of Australia's indigenous peoples.

This significance is frequently represented, enacted, and understood by reference to sites with purported supernatural associations: places with particular energies, historical associations, or where spiritual beings have been encountered. Recognition and knowledge of such places - particularly those perceived to have an Aboriginal history - both celebrates and lays claim to the land. That is, the land can render up spiritual values that exist as an alternative to economic values and legal property rights whilst also justifying the non-indigenous presence in - and/or ownership of - the land.

However, although Aboriginal peoples serve as a synonym for the land itself, and thus are intrinsic to much of the land's spiritual value, their prior claims to the ownership of the land, and seemingly greater spiritual knowledge and connection to place, can sometimes also discomfort the consumption and enjoyment of spiritual value by non-Aboriginal practitioners of alternative spiritualities.

Landscapes of life and death

Author: Judith Bovensiepen (University of Kent )

Short Abstract

The paper explores the value of land in the central highlands of East Timor and argues that rather than placing the value of the land on agricultural production, the people of this region emphasise the spiritual and ancestral connections to the landscape.


Many of the people living in the central highlands of East Timor were forcibly re-settled during the Indonesian occupation of the country. Since independence, they have started to return to their ancestral lands, despite the fact that these areas are very remote, cut off from water, markets, schools and health facilities. The people say that they become ill if they don't live on their ancestral land. The paper explores the significance of ancestral connections to land and seeks to understand why people move back to places that are so remote and inaccessible. It will argue that the value of land in this region is expressed not in terms of subsistence and agricultural produce, but through the emphasis on the spiritual and ancestral connections to the land. On the one hand, people say that they can appropriate the spiritual energies of the land through ritual and turn them into productive and protective forces. On the other hand, the invisible imprints of death and war have turned places in the landscape into sites of danger. The papers will discuss the value of land as a source of life and death and it will juxtapose official and shared descriptions of particular places with personal and sometimes painful memories of loss and death that have been inscribed into the landscape throughout the past.

Mediating relations - making land work

Author: Almut Schneider

Short Abstract

The relationality of "ownership" or "value" of land has already been shown for some areas of PNG. This paper pays particular attention to activities that connect land and people and thus mediate between the land and its capacity to create relations. But that is not the only mediation to consider.


For the Gawigl of the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea, land is not valued separately from the people living and working there. Rather, a particular piece of land tells something about the people (and spirits) occupying and attending to it - it reflects the relational state of a person or a group. The backbone of relationships lies in exchange feasts where pigs (and money) are given, principally to affines and maternal kin. These prestations can be understood as another expression of land, if we see pigs as land in another form. They are the only "storehouse" people have to stock the continuous harvest of sweet potatoes coming out of the large gardens. Exchange feasts thus make land appear as a mediator for relations between residential groups. Affinal and maternal relationships, cared for by working the land and giving away pigs, were in turn crucial to the performance of a major ritual (at present abandoned). Once every generation, it put a halt to the atrophy affecting the land and reinstated fertility. Relationships with affines and maternal kin act here as mediators between land and people.

So, for the Gawigl land takes many forms: extracting crops from gardens, tending to pigs to be given away in exchange, organising feasts that fill up ceremonial grounds, performing rituals that regenerate the soil for the next generation. If land is nothing without these activities, how does one frame the question of entitlement and thus of property and ownership?

Leaving the farm

Author: Michael O'Kane (Native Title Services Victoria) MO'

Short Abstract

Few groups in modern society think more intensively about their relationship to the land they work than the modern dairy farmer. This paper seeks to illuminate the ways in which Australian dairy farmers contextualise land, value and identity through their relationship with the land they farm.


The appropriation of land for agriculture in modern post-colonial societies, such as Australia and New Zealand, is commonly motivated by the perception of economic benefit. This is often called 'opening up the land', 'clearing', or even 'settling'. Clearly, as this act of appropriation is reflexive, those who are engaged in this activity are also appropriated by the land to an extent that it becomes a part of their identity to varying degrees, depending on the type and intensity of their involvement with it. This paper tells the story of how a farmer in South-Eastern Australia left the dairy farm his family had held for three generations and presents a discussion of how the farm became a discursive arena in which competing perceptions of value were expressed.

As few modern land users have a more intensive relationship with the land they farm than those in the dairy industry, the decision by his family to leave the land impacted greatly on the farmer at many levels. Indeed, owing to the particular management practices utilised on the farm, family dynamics made this more than a simple economic decision. This paper seeks, through the telling of this story, to explore the reflexive nature of the relationships that form between farming families and their land. It is primarily informed by eighteen months of field work undertaken by the author with dairy farmers in Victoria, Australia, with a particular emphasis on the field work and interviews carried out on the farm in question.

Conflicts in Ownership and Appropriation over Communal Land and Resources

Author: Lee Godden (University of Melbourne)

Short Abstract

The denominators of value for land - sovereignty, property, and law are being overtaken by emphasis on economic modes. The paper explores how ownership and appropriation for indigenous peoples and local communities over communally-held land and resources are deflected to questions of individual title, ownership and formalization of tenure.


In a post colonial world, revisions to the understanding of the role of the State pose particular issues as the old denominators of sovereignty, property, and law are re-worked in the realm of a growing emphasis on globalization and economic modes of regulation. Given this emphasis, the paper explores the extent to which issues of ownership and appropriation for indigenous peoples and local communities over communally-held land and resources progressively are being deflected to questions of individual title, ownership and the formalization of tenure systems. The particular focus is upon tensions between the values of communal forms of governance related to the underpinning customary law and social norms; and the growing momentum to introduce more individualised forms of 'ownership' as a precursor to 'development'. Ownership and property values in this context are mediated through norm-based systems for the governance of land and resources that are open to challenge at a number of levels; including state based campaigns to replace them. The paper illustrates these themes by reference to case studies in Australia and comparative common law countries.

Appropriation of coastal space and community formation on a Philippine Island

Author: Magne Knudsen (Australian National University)

Short Abstract

On Negros Island in the Philippines, 'beachfront property' has become keenly sought after by urbanites with money. As a consequence, long-estalbished social relations in these coastal communities are being challenged.


Based on fieldwork at the outskirts of the provincial capital of Negros Oriental, Dumaguete City, Philippines, this paper traces the history of land tenure and use along an increasingly contested coastline. First settled by landless fisher-farmers and former sugarcane labourers, the beach has in recent decades become of interest to a rapidly growing number of Filipinos with urban-based careers and work experience abroad who maintain a connection with their island of origin through investment in beach housing. Linked to a broader cultural re-valuation of coastal space, 'beachfront properties' have become the most expensive real estate in the area. With escalating commodity value of land along the coastline and new state created entitlements to the foreshore, eviction cases have flourished.

In this context, relatively poor coastal dwellers without legal tenure claim the status of being the first settlers or natives of the place and distinguish themselves from more recent arrivals and migrant fishers. The changing significance of the indigenous/exogenous social distinction is brought out in negotiations over the status of land ownership claims and regulation of marine resources. Community brokers from long-term settled families play a key role in the politics of defining the appropriate use of space. At the same time, some well-off local residents who have separated themselves from the community of 'village regulars' and outsiders with money challenge the status of customary entitlements in court. The result of the current power-struggle is what I describe as an ostracising process of local community formation.

The Double Movement of Property Rights and Rental Regimes in Papua New Guinea

Author: Colin Filer (Australian National University)

Short Abstract

This paper shows how the small amount of 'alienated' land in Papua New Guinea can be subject to an ongoing process of encroachment by 'customary' landowners, even while the much larger area of 'customary' land is subject to a parallel process of encroachment by modern forms of property right.


People who write about customary land in PNG commonly make the observation that it accounts for 97% of the country's surface area. If they are right, then the 'bare facts' of land tenure have not changed since Independence in 1975. In fact they are wrong, but the appearance of a static division of space continually motivates a seemingly interminable debate about what (if anything) should be done about the 'mobilisation' of customary land to facilitate some process of 'rural development'. Once we drill down beneath the ideological trappings of this argument, we find a rather curious double movement: on the one hand, a substantial increase in the proportion of 'customary' land which is subject to specific forms of modern property right; and on the other hand, a simultaneous increase in the area of 'alienated' land which is subject to successful rental claims by customary landowners. In this paper, I shall investigate one case of this double movement on 'alienated' land claimed by the Kakat Baining people of East New Britain to illustrate some of the contradictions embedded in arguments about the relationship between 'land mobilisation' and 'rural development'.

The Value of Land and local State Formation in rural China

Author: Hans Steinmuller (London School of Economics)

Short Abstract

On the background of various historical state formations, this paper offers an ethnographic exploration into the ways land is measured, valorised, and appropriated in contemporary rural China.


In contemporary rural China, farmers are attributing relatively little spiritual or ancestral value to land, but instead land is valorised primarily in economic terms. Land is measured by rule of thumb, social agreement, and mutual control within local communities, and by mapping, census, and statistics within the state bureaucracy. Plots of land are valued according to different and partly contradictory frameworks, like the market, government ideology, and a sense of belonging to a family or a community. These different forms of measuring and valorising of land are fundamental building blocks of local political economies and cultural state formations.

In this paper, I give a historical overview of various state formations since the beginning of the 20th century in Western Hubei province, with a focus on the measuring, distribution, and ownership of land. On the background of this history, I deal with the examples of land disputes amongst neighbours and relatives, and of the appropriation of land by local government for development programmes in Xintang township of Western Hubei Province in 2007, to explore the different forms in which value is attributed to land in rural China.

Contesting the value of land in rural Kyrgyzstan

Author: Rebecca Reynolds (Glasgow University)

Short Abstract

This paper examines the attribution of value to arable land in rural Kyrgyzstan within the context of post socialist anthropological debates on property. It explores competing regimes of value clustered around ideas of kin and economic development which people employ to justify their claims to land.


This paper will explore the changing attribution of value to arable land as enacted in a rural Central Asian context. Based on anthropological fieldwork in a village in Kyrgyzstan, it will focus on the way value is attributed to land and the way these values facilitate villagers' claims to arable land. Specifically, it will address the attribution of values to arable land which are currently emerging following the post-socialist period of land privatisation. These values cluster around two main ideas: attachment to place through a male ancestor and productivity of the land.

This paper will look at the re-inscription of kinship and social status on place which has accompanied the allocation of arable land according to lineage affiliation and subsequent processes of village re-settlement. It will also address the role of soviet farming infrastructure and personal ability to productively farm the land in creating value. It will examine the strategies used by those seeking to increase their access to arable land following the break-up of the state farm and the subsequent growing economic significance of arable land for family livelihoods. It will explore the competing discourses of kin and economic development which people employ to justify their claims to land.

It will examine how changing social realities and identities both shape and are themselves shaped by competing regimes of value attributed to arable land in post-socialist Kyrgyzstan. It will situate these processes within the discussions of property and land privatisation emerging from post-socialist anthropology.

Redeveloping the Value of Land: a South African Case Study of How Land Reform Changes Local Valuations of Land

Author: Christopher De Wet (Rhodes University)

Short Abstract

This paper considers the impact of various land reform-cum-development projects over time on a (black) rural settlement in South Africa, looking at how these interventions have altered the local people's attitudes to, and evaluations of, land - as well as their political and economic behaviour in relation to that land


This paper considers the impact of various land reform -cum-development projects over time on a rural settlement in a former bantustan in South Africa. It looks at how these interventions have shaped and altered local people's attitudes to and evaluations of land - as well as at their political and economic behaviour in relation to it. The paper traces three major phases of the history of land relations in a settlement established under British colonial rule in the 1850s. It examines the use and evaluation of land under 'communal tenure'. It then considers the transformation of that system by a programme in the 1960s which led to the entire community being resettled, the land use system being fundamentally reorganised, and most people losing much of their arable land in the process. With the democratic government's land reform programme, members of the settlement were in 2000 awarded monetary compensation for the injustices suffered under the 1960s programme. Part of that restitution process has also been a new land use-cum development package. Using detailed case material gathered over three decades, the paper argues that each of these three government interventions has cumulatively constituted and shaped local attitudes to and evaluations to land, including claims to ownership and attempts to exercise control over it. The paper will appeal to literature on the theory of value to develop its argument.