Interview conducted by Larry Aaronspere, June 1973, Philadelphia, PA
Bob Swann is not well known, has no college degrees and can’t be fitted into a neat little box and tagged with a tidy professional label. He is, however, an accomplished master of two very basic skills: 1. Swann is a home designer-carpenter-builder and 2. Bob has an almost uncanny ability to explain complex economic concepts in everyday language that ordinary people can understand.
Bob Swann was born near Cleveland and—after finishing high school—began an apprenticeship in carpentry in Yellow Springs, Ohio. There he met Arthur Morgan, whose social criticism and spirited advocacy of economic alternatives during the depression had won him a Roosevelt appointment as head of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Morgan was to have a strong influence on Swann’s life.
It was while sitting out World War II in Federal prison as a conscientious objector that Bob received much of his formal education. He studied college economics and other subjects by mail during that period, and also arranged for a correspondence course in communitarian economics (based on the idea that the small community—rather than sprawling cities—is the firmest and most satisfying foundation for modern society) from Arthur Morgan.
After his release from prison in 1945, Swann married Marjorie—the girl he’d left outside—and began serious training as a builder. He worked on the construction of a number of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed houses in the Kalamazoo, Michigan area and steadily advanced to a position as overall supervisor of building on the Wright homes. Then, from 1952 to 1956, Bob directed the construction of innovative dwellings conceived by his architect brother. This lengthy and in-depth exposure to unusual and highly creative housing design—as might be expected—rubbed off on Swann. The experience taught him how to develop and apply original structural ideas of his own and people who have visited the Swann home at Voluntown, Connecticut generally feel that it’s one of the best owner-built houses in the country.
In 1956, Bob moved to Philadelphia and—combining his social concerns with his shelter skills—worked on the first integrated housing project in the United States. Swann then helped construct 40 “new design” homes in Princeton, New Jersey and, in 1960, founded the New England Committee for Nonviolent Action on a farm in Voluntown, Connecticut. There, as a member of the CNVA staff, he lent both his hand and head skills to the building of the Voluntown community… one of the modern movement’s pioneer rural communes.
Finally, just last year, Bob and Marjorie moved once more… from the CNVA’s Voluntown farm to their present home in Ashby, Massachusetts. There, Swann now helps direct the work of the International Independence Institute, an organization that promotes study and experiments in decentralized economic alternatives.
The HI was founded by Ralph Borsodi, another early advocate of rural revival and small land-oriented communities. Borsodi (who also started the School of Living) is a friend and associate of Arthur Morgan and—just like Morgan—has had a large influence on Bob Swann’s life. It was Borsodi’s writing that first interested Bob in the concept of the land trust… an idea that is at the heart of the Ill’s current program. (The III helped launch New Communities, the Georgia operation that holds 5, 700 acres in trust for people living in the area.)
When asked what he’s currently trying to do, Bob Swann says, “I only want to link land and the landless. The landless, you know, are no longer just the people at the bottom. Almost everyone in America today is landless. Most of us are tenants… and with economic conditions as they are, the ones who want out of this bind are going to be finding themselves more and more locked in as prices continue up.”
Bob Swann’s life, then, might well be viewed as a bridge across the span of community experiments from Arthur Morgan’s early efforts to the flowering of the movement from the late 60’s on. Swann’s vision has certainly been one of the factors that have kept the growing force vigorous in good times and bad.
On April 14th and 15th, the first large general conference dealing with land trusts ever staged in the East was held in Philadelphia and Bob Swann was one of the resource people at the gathering. Larry Aaronspere attended the two-day affair too and, the day after the meeting ended, interviewed Swann—appropriately enough—in The City of Brotherly Love.
LIFESTYLE: Bob, what makes you spend so much time promoting land trusts?
SWANN: I guess it’s partly a desire to see people get back to the land… and be able to stay there if they want to. I’ve “homesteaded” myself. I know some of the problems of small-scale farming and of getting acreage. And now I see those problems building up toward an impasse. American land is in crisis. It’s in danger… and the threat our land is facing is the same complex of problems that makes it hard for an average citizen to obtain acreage and to make a living on the land in a direct and personal way.
LIFESTYLE: I know a little about that situation because I’ve looked for land in several areas myself… and it seems that inexpensive acreage is extremely scarce. Still, the little farmer appears to be leaving the countryside and moving to town at a fantastic rate… so the price of rural property is not being pushed up because too many people want to preserve the small family farm.
SWANN: No, certainly not. It seems to me that land prices are going up as rapidly as they are mainly because there are so many people speculating in acreage. Individuals and corporations—especially corporations—are buying up really large amounts of land in rural areas. Sometimes they use it to some extent and sometimes not… but their major reason for purchasing the property is the potential they see for selling it later “when the price is right” for the second home or recreational developments or whatever that they anticipate. The speculators who increasingly control such acreage call it an “inventory” or a “bank inventory” of land. And, of course, the farmers can’t really compete—economically—with that kind of thing. And so the little farmers are increasingly squeezed out and we wind up with the situation in, say, Maine… where 80% of all the land in the state is currently held by outside corporations.
LIFESTYLE: Yes, and the Department of Agriculture and other people in authority seem to do everything in their power to encourage the trend. They want the small “marginal”—as they say—farmer to quit and get out of the way so that the big “more efficient” operators can take over the business of feeding us. How do you view this trend toward agribusiness?
SWANN: Well, I’ll admit that it is true that industrial farms are more efficient than small operations in some ways. We have to be really careful, though, when we talk about efficiency.
The big mechanized farms are more efficient in terms of the amount of food they can produce from a given acreage with a given input of labor… but only up to a certain point. Then the situation changes and even some of the studies made by the USDA show this. The trade-off point differs for different crops, of course, but it’s there nevertheless. I happen to be familiar with orchards, though, so let’s take that one: Anything above 300 acres of orchard in one operation becomes inefficient and gets more so as the size of the venture increases. Three hundred acres is the optimum … and yet the assumption persists that an orchard of thousands and thousands of acres is somehow more efficient. It just ain’t so.
LIFESTYLE: Who says that sheer efficiency is where it’s at anyway?
SWANN: Exactly. When we discuss food we must consider another factor altogether and that’s quality. You can calculate the optimum acreage at which a crop can be raised most efficiently, but unless you account for the quality of the harvest, you’ve left out a whole dimension. I don’t know of any studies that will give you a guide to efficiently produced food that is really nutritious and whole but, obviously, such a study would be a far different thing than our commonly accepted method of judging a crop’s value strictly by the gross weight of a harvest. I do know that best quality food always requires a fairly high level of man-hour input, of care and plain hand-labor. You can’t avoid this. You can’t substitute machines totally for all aspects of fieldwork and expect to get a harvest of fine-quality food.
LIFESTYLE: What about the argument that we simply must convert to mechanized farming on a grand scale to maintain and raise our standard of living?
SWANN: “Standard of living” is another term that we have to take apart and examine. All too often we fall into the trap of expressing living standards in nothing but cash values: you make so much money, therefore you have such-and-such a standard of living. The only trouble with reasoning of that nature is that it simply isn’t true. The fact of the matter is that real standard of living has a great deal to do with many other factors… factors that you can’t translate into cash.
Take the farmers we work with in southwest Georgia. They produce much of what they consume in their own gardens and they get a lot of the rest by hunting and fishing. If a family like that has a cash income of $3,000, its standard of living is really a great deal higher than that of a city family which makes much more money but has to buy virtually everything it needs.
I could cite case after case of people down there who have gone up to the cities and landed jobs that paid seven or eight thousand dollars a year… but who, after a while, have gone back to rural Georgia. The big money in town melts away for rent and the other heavier costs of city life. It just doesn’t go as far as the little money back on the farm. Lots of times, in fact, these people—who take the urban jobs to save a nest egg—wind up in debt despite the attractive pay.
LIFESTYLE: Yes, that’s the very reason so many people who’ve lived in town all their lives are now trying so hard to get out.
SWANN: Of course. If you look at the distribution of population on this continent, with most people landless or nearly so and living in a city where everything carries a big price tag, you realize that the individuals who are moving out to the land— those who are now helping to repopulate rural areas—are pointing the way to a much higher real standard of living. One that doesn’t require the desperate chasing after higher and higher sums of money as we are increasingly forced to do. Again, there’s a quality factor in the standard of living that just can’t be figured by the amount of cash that passes through your hands.
LIFESTYLE: But where does that leave us, by and large? It leaves great numbers of us trapped in the cities, desperately unhappy and just as desperately chasing the dollar so that—we hope—we can someday buy a little place in the country where we’ll finally be self-sufficient enough to turn our backs on the money merry-go-round.
SWANN: Yes. Well, to be quite honest, it’s almost impossible to make that drastic a change—to drop out so completely— these days. Even the “homesteading” concept—which is what a lot of the younger people now dream about—of near self-sufficiency on a subsistence farm requires at least a little cash nowadays. You need money to pay taxes, say, and you need some form of transportation and so on. Even Scott Nearing has a cash income and his place is pretty damn self-sufficient. Besides, as you’ve pointed out, you still need the cash to buy the farm in the first place… unless, of course, you’re affiliated with a land trust of some kind.
LIFESTYLE: Now we’re getting down to what this interview is all about. Please explain the land trust concept to me.
SWANN: A land trust is essentially a way of holding property that creates a sense of trusteeship—or call it stewardship— about the land. I often talk in terms of the community land trust: This is a practical way of setting up such a stewardship, through a non-profit organization or some other mechanism, for the common good.
LIFESTYLE: Is this something like communism or state collectives?
SWANN: Definitely not. I want to make it very clear that a land trust is not the same as common ownership or state ownership. It is not ownership at all, by anyone. It’s an alternative to ownership of land.
LIFESTYLE: OK. Let me get this a little bit at a time. You’ve just said that a land trust, as you define it, allows the holding of a piece of property for the common good—l assume you mean the common good of those who live there—without anyone owning the land at all. Is that right?
SWANN: That’s basically correct, except that the “common good” I speak of extends much further than you’ve just indicated. I know the idea is puzzling at first, so let me give it to you in smaller bites.
We’re trying to create an alternative to owning land because, the way we see it, owning acreage is both economically harmful and morally wrong. This is not an attack on all ownership. Let me make that point. For myself, anyway, I see nothing wrong with the ownership of man-made goods.
Land, however, is not like goods. It’s not man-made and it should not be owned like a commodity can be owned for this very reason. Land is a basic natural resource, something given to us all by the Creator. In that respect, it’s just like air and water… and, like them, it’s something we all depend on for life.
LIFESTYLE: That sounds very much like the Native American concept of land.
SWANN: Yes, we even quote Tecumseh in our literature. Once when a group of whites asked him to sell part of his people’s lands he, in turn, asked something like, “You want me to sell the land? Why not ask me to sell the ocean or the sky or the rivers. How can I sell you what I don’t own?”
LIFESTYLE: The idea of buying and selling land—of dealing in real estate, as we now say—must have originated in Europe, then, and come to this continent with the white man.
SWANN: I’m not sure about the first land ownership laws—I think they go back to Babylonia—but the Romans, more than any other major civilization, incorporated the notion of owning land into their legal system. And, as you know, we got our legal system largely from the Romans, by way of English Common Law.
I really think there’s a lot to what Borsodi says about the history of land ownership being a history of organized or legalized violence by the haves against the have-nots. The drive to own land seems to flourish in periods of Empire, when one power is conquering the world or trying to. For the Romans, it was a basic way of stabilizing conquests. And the English, you know, didn’t have such ownership until the Enclosure Acts in the Middle Ages. This was after the Norman Conquest, when the king told the nobles they could own any land they could fence… and that’s how counties were first delineated in the British Isles. As might be expected, the nobles who did gain the absolute discretion of ownership rights this way were able to do so because they had a monopoly of force. They had the power, in other words, to make the peasants provide the materials and labor—without compensation—for the required fencing.
LIFESTYLE: Well, whatever its roots, the private ownership of land is now considered an inviolate right by the people in our society who can afford to gain title to such property.
SWANN: Yes, and that’s sometimes unfortunate. All too often, this feeling of “it’s mine and I’II do what I want with it” leads landowners to hurt or destroy the land and other basic resources. When ownership or “mineral rights” are given to companies that engage in strip mining, for example, they go in and just devastate the land without any thought for its future or ours. They permanently destroy—literally kill—huge areas. This is certainly a form of exploitation of the earth which is terrible but which is permitted because we think of land as a commodity. It should not be permitted. No one should have the right to destroy the earth any more than they have the right to murder somebody.
LIFESTYLE: Agreed, but does the land trust concept offer any way out of this predicament?
SWANN: Yes. In a trust, land may be held—not just for the good of the people who use it—but for the good of the earth itself.
LIFESTYLE: How can you possibly do that?
SWANN: Most simply, by creating an atmosphere in which people learn to care… about each other and about the land on which they live. The idea is to foster real community, cooperation, mutual concern and—if you will—trust among all the people in a particular area who want to have a voice in caring for the land that is there. The very organization of a land trust encourages individuals to become co-stewards of the earth.
LIFESTYLE: That sounds nice but it seems to put an awful lot of faith in good will and moral suasion. What if one of the people involved in a land trust goes along and goes along for years and then suddenly decides to start strip mining some of the land that’s being held?
SWANN: It wouldn’t be that easy in a properly organized setup… one with duly elected trustees who have the power to step in, if necessary, to protect the piece of property in question from being ruined ecologically. This is all spelled out in the beginning in an agreement between the trustees and individual users of the land so that everyone knows exactly who controls what and why. If someone has a user’s lease on acreage that’s intended for homes and gardens, they certainly wouldn’t be able to put a refinery there… but that’s no different from any of the various forms of zoning restrictions that you find in many areas. As a matter of fact, it forms a firm foundation for that moral suasion and trust we just mentioned. It’s easier to have faith in your neighbors when you all know the ground rules right from the start.
LIFESTYLE: Exactly how much authority do these trustees—these directors—have?
SWANN: That depends on how a particular trust is set up. In general, the ones I know about work something like this:
The basic operation is set up in the first place to 1. care for the earth and 2. provide access to the land. The original and continuing membership of a trust can—and does—include both individuals who actually live on the property in question and people who do not. Everyone has a voice when it comes to deciding the overall policy of the organization. Everyone votes for the trustees and, of course, each individual is eligible to be elected or to volunteer as a trustee. However the trust works—democratically or, maybe, by consensus—the underlying aim, at all times, is to build the feeling of community and stewardship that I’ve mentioned.
Now, the people who actually live on the land which is held in trust—the direct users of that land—are very important. In a way, the whole thing depends on them and their work. If the idea is going to succeed and catch on, it will largely be because of these individuals. So they’re central figures in the trust… but they aren’t the only group it tries to represent. As a matter of fact, since they’re already on the land and in a better position to do for themselves and since one of the primary aims of a trust is to provide access to land, it’s the business of the trustees to represent the interests of the landless people just as much—and maybe even a little more—than they represent the interests of those who are already on the land held by the trust.
LIFESTYLE: Just how much does this limit the freedom of action of the folks who are already out there … the people who put their land in trust or live on a farm that is so held?
SWANN: An individual land user is limited only to the extent that the trustees are obligated to look out for the best interests of the whole community and, as I’ve said, this is all spelled out in advance so that no one has any unpleasant surprises along the way. Since a trust is supposed to make land available for use, these directors do have the power to keep an individual from just sitting on the land for long periods without doing anything with it. The trustees can also step in as stewards if they become convinced that a user is doing environmental damage in some way: they might ask you not to bulldoze your whole wood lot down, for instance, and suggest selected cutting instead.
The trustees arc not, however, in a position to tell the individual what he should grow, the kind of house he should have or how to make any other basic, personal decisions. They might offer suggestions, say, or help in marketing a crop cooperatively with others… but they could not force anyone to take part in that marketing. This, at least, is the way the trust we’ve set up—and all the others I know about—works.
LIFESTYLE: The trustees, then, do not act as dictatorial landlords?
SWANN: If you think of the trustees as landlords out to use you, you’re bringing the psychology of the old system—the landowning system—into the new situation, where it does not apply if the trust is working the way it’s meant to work. A land user who really enters a trust in good spirit and gets to know his neighbors as friends and co-stewards of the earth should never find himself in a situation where he wants to do one thing with the land he occupies while his trustees want him to do something else. Please understand that I’m not trying to minimize the difficulty of this problem of “who controls?”… sometimes it’ll be a hard question to answer, but only in the same way that friendship is sometimes hard.
LIFESTYLE: Well that doesn’t sound very restrictive at all . . . but let’s explore this a bit further. Many of the people I’ve met who have land, or want it, really seem to be locked into the idea of having their own piece of the earth. They want their land to reflect them. They want to get personally identified with a little farm. Isn’t it just natural, if you truly care about a chunk of acreage, to want to own it so you can control what happens to it?
SWANN: I hope this doesn’t sound presumptuous, but I think what most people really want is the use of land—the security that such use offers—and the user-ship rights in a land trust provide this. If individuals can feel secure in their rights to use the land, as they can with a trust’s users’ rights, the main excuse for owning land is no longer valid.
People who’ve never heard of the land trust concept know only one way to obtain security on the land… buy it. But a trust is designed to provide exactly the same security without that necessary first step. The basic satisfaction remains the same, only the window dressing is somewhat different: Since you receive access to the land at no cost in the first place, you naturally cannot sell it and you do have the obligation to work the land as long as you hold access to it. It’s certain, though, that there is nothing in the trust concept that should keep people from feeling really close to the land they use.
LIFESTYLE: All right, what about the buildings and other man-made improvements that an individual might add to a piece of acreage while he occupies it? Are they made a part of the trust when and if he moves on or is he expected to take them with him or what?
SWANN: In the projects I’m involved with, all improvements are owned by the individuals—or companies or co-ops—that make them. Some trusts that have been set up do specify that all buildings and other additions become a part of the trust, or so I gather, but we feel that man-made things—the things we make with our hands and buy with the money we earn by working—are ours to own if we want. We can also choose not to own them, if we wish.
This has created one thorny problem, though. What happens, say, if a person on trust land builds a house and then wants to leave? Our tentative answer is that the individual has the right to sell the house, just as he’d sell it in a non-trust situation. The only stipulation is, that if the person he chooses to sell to is somehow not in tune with the basic principles of the trust or seems really deeply incompatible with the community or the land, then the trust might—and this is a difficult question—exercise a certain amount of control over that sale. This is about as far as we’ve gotten with the problem at this point.
LIFESTYLE: That raises another question: When you own a piece of land, you can pass it on to your heirs. What happens when you’re using trust land? Can you still do this?
SWANN: Yes, your lease arrangement says that you can. In fact, we have a 99-year lease which is both renewable and inheritable. We make only one restriction: we try to see that inheritance is limited to just one heir. Why? Because, when families pass on their land, it often gets divided among heirs and divided again from one generation to another… until the individual plots become so small that no one can make a living from them. This has gone to fantastic extremes in some of the poorer countries.
LIFESTYLE: If I may sum up what you’ve just told me, the kind of land trust you’ve described seems to offer a user nearly all the benefits of land ownership plus a few of its own. The main advantage, of course, is the fact that an individual doesn’t actually have to buy land to use it. This allows him to put whatever money he has into a house or developments and improvements for the land itself. As long as he satisfies certain very minimum requirements, he may live on the land he occupies for as long as he chooses and he can very nearly do as he pleases—within the bounds of good ecological judgment—while he’s there. The improvements he adds to the ground he occupies are his own property and one of his descendants can inherit both that property and his right to use the land. Does the land trust offer a user anything else?
SWANN: Yes, there’s one overriding benefit that we haven’t mentioned, and that’s the matter of defense. You don’t work land in a social or economic vacuum, you know, and I don’t think it’s safe in this day and age to ignore the forces that are sweeping the world or to try to leave them to the so-called “experts”.
It’s an unfortunate fact that the land in this country is in trouble and that concerned and dedicated individuals are needed to work with it and restore it to health. It’s doubly unfortunate that those same people must also be able to defend the land while they nurse it… they have to look to the health and direction of the human environment in which the land exists. There is no high ground—no safe island—in this society unless we make it that way… and that really comes down to caring about everything that affects the land and defending it against the forces that would destroy it and its stewards.
Now the small farmer, alone, really can’t do much defending. He hasn’t got the resources or the influence to do a whole lot if powerful forces threaten his property. But when a cooperative land trust—a whole area—pulls together, it has a great deal more diversity of resources to draw on than any small farmer or family farm could hope for. The small farmer working a few acres has very few options, but a number of small farms linked and working together to husband the land have many more options . . . and their chances of making it are much better.
LIFESTYLE: You have some impressive arguments for your land trust concept… but why do you have to change the ownership principle? The underlying idea of the trust seems to be transferring the use of land from those who don’t care to those who do. Couldn’t you accomplish the same end while still allowing individuals to actually own the acreage they use?
SWANN: No, that idea—which is usually called land reform—has a history of failure. Down through the ages, whenever land has been redistributed, the same thing always happens: no matter how fair that redistribution may be, the land always tends to revert back to the same old owners or to a new group of owners who “corner the market”. This puts you right back where you started… with most of the people living as tenants and the large interests abusing the earth for the sake of a business profit.
LIFESTYLE: OK. Let’s look at it another way. At this point, at least, you’re working with some people who are sensitive and open and you’re bravely trying to change the world. You—and others—even have a few scattered land trusts set up and operating. But how can just a handful of us make the changes that are necessary when, as you’ve said, a relatively few corporations own 80% of Maine? I don’t see those big landholders rushing to put your ideas into action and, if you can’t reach them, I don’t think you’re going to accomplish the commendable goals you’ve set for yourself.
SWANN: You’re right. Eventually we do have to involve the big owners and their land. But we have to start some place. We have to prove that our theories work.
What we’re doing at present is an experiment—a model—to show the feasibility of the idea. We’re trying to show that we can clear up economic ills—like inflation and ecological ills—like urban sprawl and “mining” the soil—by setting right a moral mistake that our society made a long time ago. What we’re up to now, even as far along as we are, is still largely educational . . . and we hope to educate, not only one another and the small farmers and homesteaders we’re currently trying to help, but the large landowners too. We want to make them see that what they’re doing isn’t right. I think that a lot of them just don’t realize what they’re doing and I believe they’ll change once their eyes are opened.
This may seem like a very long-term—even an impossible—goal . . . but I think that such doubt is far too cynical. I don’t know of any other way to make the necessary changes but to get together and make them. Short of armed revolution, that is, and I don’t happen to believe that a revolution will work. I believe more in reaching people and convincing them that they should help to make change.
I also believe in people doing what they advocate. We wouldn’t be very good prophets if we were preaching something that we hadn’t tried ourselves.
LIFESTYLE: Let’s say that you’ve convinced me… no, let’s say that I have some land and you’d like to convince me to put it in a trust. Why should I? What’s in it for me?
SWANN: Well, let me first say that this is not the main thrust of our work right now. We bought the nearly 6,000 acres we currently have in trust in Georgia. But OK… some trusts have accepted donated land, others even want to be based entirely on such acreage and—at least for now—we’d certainly accept gifts of land in Georgia or almost anywhere else. There are some good reasons for an owner to make such gifts.
There are farmers and heirs, for instance, who are living on more land than they can handle but who hate to sell off part of the property to a developer. They don’t want to sell because they know they’ll have no voice in what is done with the acreage after it’s sold and they’re afraid they’ll end up seeing it used and exploited in a way they don’t like. If they were to donate the property to a land trust, however even if they gave it all to the trust—they could still reserve as much as they needed strictly for their own use. They could live there and work the land, they’d have a say in what was done with the part that others used and they’d even be able to pick and choose to insure that those others were compatible with themselves. The original people, in other words, would step up from ownership rights to user-ship rights.
LIFESTYLE: Is it difficult to make such a transfer of land? Are there problems involved in setting up a trust?
SWANN: Yes. I should note that the system of common law under which we live has no room as yet for this concept. The law automatically assumes that every piece of land has an owner. So, when a trust is set up, the law treats each trustee or the organization itself as an owner. The trustees—and the trust members—don’t see it this way, though. They think of themselves and their trust as stewards of the land.
LIFESTYLE: What are the actual mechanics of organizing one of these operations?
SWANN: If there’s an existing trust that you like in your local area, I’d advise turning the land—and the paperwork involved in making the transfer—over to it. If there is no such trust, you may have to find others who share your interests and aims and, together, set up a parent organization and then transfer the land to it.
The mechanics are actually pretty simple and I find that we need only two forms for this whole operation. One is a charter for a non-profit corporation and, if you have an understanding lawyer, the whole process of incorporating your trust will cost maybe $50.00. The second is a very simple paper that legally icons ownership of the laud over lo the corporation or the people who will act as trustees. There’s not much to it. In any case, you can start out simply with one small piece of acreage and eventually expand your non-profit corporation into a community—or even a regional—land trust.
LIFESTYLE: We’ve been talking mostly theory since we began. Maybe it’s time we quickly considered some of the trusts that are already set up and operating… or that soon will be.
SWANN: The one I’m most familiar with, of course, is New Communities. This is a project I helped set up on 5,700 acres in southwest Georgia for several hundred ex-sharecroppers in the area. Southern blacks, you know, have been losing their land since slavery ended. They often don’t understand their liabilities or legal rights when they’re forced to mortgage property and, frequently, they’ve been taken advantage of. The development of agricultural machinery has further complicated their lives by eliminating many jobs. So we find that blacks in the rural South now often have the dismal choice between poverty—as, at best, tenants—on the fringes of the farm economy… or poverty in the city ghettos.
We began New Communities with the idea that it could afford these small farmers and sharecroppers a kind of protection from the threat of being excluded from the land they need for a decent life. We hope that the wider community in the area can serve as a sort of protective shield. There are several hundred people using the trust’s land now and we anticipate that there will eventually be several thousand. They’ll be running small businesses and operating land-based enterprises in addition to farming and, in general, the trust will evolve into a whole and varied community.
LIFESTYLE: That’s extremely exciting. Has anyone else made such an impressive beginning?
SWANN: As far as I know, the other trusts in this country are smaller in terms of land… though not necessarily in terms of interest and active participation.
There are the Peacemakers, for instance. They operate much more loosely than we do. They just publish notices of the availability of land in their newsletter and, occasionally, in other publications. Then they arrange for people to go and look at the acreage and, finally, they have the individuals who are interested in a given parcel meet—on the land, if possible—thrash out by consensus what combination of them should get to use the property and for what. According to my understanding of the Peacemaker Trust, the group’s philosophy is pretty much one of “hands off” when it comes to what the people do with the land, although they do have a provision about resorting to non-violent action against a user who really endangers the land or the environment.
LIFESTYLE: Do you have to be a member of their organization or share their attitudes before you’re allowed to use their land?
SWANN: No. They say very definitely that the users need have no connection whatever with Peacemakers, except to keep in touch with the organization’s land trust committee. They have a total of 145 acres, I think, in West Virginia. You can get more information from them.
LIFESTYLE: Are there still other working trusts in this country?
SWANN: Yes, there’s the Sam Ely Land Trust in Maine. Ely was a Continental Army officer in 1 776 who was jailed shortly thereafter for saying that land should not be owned. The organization named after him was just given 30 acres and I might add that interest in the trust idea is running higher in Maine than that seemingly small start might indicate. The Maine Land Advocate, a monthly newspaper that is only up to its fourth issue, already has 800 subscribers—half in and half out of the state—and the first statewide conference on land trusts was just held up there.
Then there’s the New Hampshire Rural Land Trust… the one set up by the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence in California… and numerous smaller experiments in other parts of the country.
LIFESTYLE: Is this emerging movement a new one?
SWANN: The idea of people from a wider community helping to administer a land trust is a new development but the concept of the trust itself goes back a ways. There’s the Bryn Gweled community outside Philadelphia and the Fairhope, Alabama community—to cite two examples—of trusts that began applying Henry George’s “economic rent” ideas some time ago. Both these groups are still going strong and they work through land-use leases somewhat as we do… but they allow only the people living on the land in question to sit on the boards of trustees.
LIFESTYLE: Did this movement originate in the United States?
SWANN: No, we’ve borrowed a lot from trusts that are much more firmly established in other countries.
Our own New Communities development is based on a good many adaptations of the work done by the Jewish National Fund in Israel . . . one of the two largest trusts in the world. The Peacemakers, I believe, have received their major inspiration from India’s Gramdan Movement… which has several million acres held in trust.
LIFESTYLE: The concept seems to be catching on. But is it, in the final analysis, actually necessary?
SWANN: I think so and I call the land trust idea our “life raft” strategy for the future.
SWANN: I believe the society we live in is headed for some very, very rough economic conditions. I think the present rampant inflation and other unsettling facets of the monetary situation will develop into some real upheavals. Unemployment is increasing and will probably increase a great deal more soon. Opportunities for starting new businesses are severely limited. I suspect that the whole economic system is beginning to malfunction.
If my suspicion turns out to be true, then the establishment of land trusts may prove to be one of the life rafts that a certain number of people can cling to… life rafts which will prevent them from being as severely hurt as they might otherwise be by a disordered economic system that they can’t control or understand.
I’m not just talking about creating a way out for the people who now recognize the need for such planning, either. I’m speaking of options for a wider group which may suddenly find itself without any way to earn an income or produce its own food or otherwise survive. The life rafts we’re working on may well be the only way out of bad trouble for a lot of people.
LIFESTYLE: You say that land trusts are one of the life rafts. What are the others… and are they related in some way to the trusts?
SWANN: I believe that there are two other developments that must be encouraged right along with the nurturing of land trusts. They both seem to me to be part of the same do-it-yourself approach to building a survival system for the future.
First, we must increase the strength of our cooperative economic tools and methods. We must also put together what I call Community Development Corporations… which are nonprofit organizations for the overall, general development of stable communities. They’d work closely with trusts, of course, and we’ve already started one that operates in relation to New Communities in Georgia.
Second, I think we’re going to have to find some really basic ways to change our monetary system. We’ve got to create a decentralized method of handling our exchange so we can control money at the local level through a cooperative banking network. We’re doing a lot of research on this at III and Borsodi’s current work with the Constant—or non-inflationary— currency at Exeter, New Hampshire is pretty much the kind of thing I’m talking about.
LIFESTYLE: And you really see this three-pronged movement as something that may literally help us survive?
SWANN: Yes… and help the earth survive too.