Land ownership, a Western fiction

In the Volta region, land ownership does not exist; land is not the subject of market transactions but of sharing. Hence it is that, in our societies, we consider this right to appropriate part of the territory to be perfectly legitimate.?

Danouta Liberski-Bagnoud offers here a work of anthropology which intends to produce a general reflection on what we have become accustomed to calling in social sciences, whether in geography, general anthropology or sociology, live there, a notion which refers to the way in which societies relate to space and compose a world there. This notion makes it possible to avoid any form of overly precise characterization of the relationship between human beings and their place of life.

We quickly understand that what interests the author is to question the centrality and universality of private appropriation and market operations which have been imposed on the entire world from industrialized countries shaped by commercial practices. Although she relies on ethnological data collected in her field, the Volta region (river which crosses Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Benin, Ivory Coast and Togo), the author offers a broad reflection on the land ownership and, more generally, on the relationship that human societies have with the land.

The essence of his thesis consists of contesting both international institutions in their effort to impose the ownership of land in the name of a Western-centric conception of development, and those among anthropologists who have been able to seek forms of property in human communities where this concept has, in reality, no meaning. It thus invites us, through the comparison of practices, to reflect on our ethnocentric tendencies and to think about other types of relationship with the land than the owner relationship.

The devastating order of the market

The author shows that the prospects for economic development through the ownership and commodification of land as they have been promoted by international institutions such as the World Bank, far from leading to the desired prospects of improvement, have rather led to a form of dishabitation of the world:

The drilling of private property in African land (formerly in the footsteps of colonization, today in those of land grabbing, agro-business and speculation) carries with it all the violence of the deterritorialized relationship to the land that the very concept dictates. of private property. (pg. 144)

The roots of the ideology which justifies these policies can be traced back to the modern period in Europe with John Locke who developed a new concept of property, the Physiocrats who made the land the source of wealth and finally with the development of the capitalist economy which completes the formation of the earth into one simple merchandise (p. 49).

In this context, the thesis of the anthropologist Alain Testart is the subject of a long discussion. This intended to show, against the belief defended by Morgan, for example, in the existence of an original communism, that most traditional societies knew forms of private appropriation and alienation of land. The author shows, on the contrary, that the very concept of property is absent from the land which is hers and that to interpret the inhabitance of the populations of the Voltaic area under the prism of private property amounts to betraying and distorting the way in which they live and talk about their relationship to space. and the earth. In reality, there is no doubt that the relationship with the land of a village community (in this region) is based on the sharing (and gift) of the land and the prohibition of selling it. (p. 189). Also, facing the drilling of the modern concept of private property (p. 111), which is largely the result of a Western-Central approach, the author proposes to make the alternative voice of Voltacan societies heard.

The conflict of founding fictions

More generally, the author criticizes many anthropologists for having a tendency to project representations that belong to them onto the societies they study. Let us think of the notions of animism or perspectivism which are applied to non-European societies, even though these notions are not endogenous. Including anthropologists who discuss and relativize Western categories such as the nature-culture opposition continue to grant them a structuring role, when they seek, in non-European societies, the way in which they take shape in a completely different way.

On the contrary, a comparative approach which encompasses our representations conducted at the level of words and gestures, in the detail of ritual and ordinary practices () allows the epistemological decentering contrary to Western metaphysics (p. 94). It is a question of returning to the ways of living for what they are by comparing them to ours, but without ever confusing them, so as not to bias the analysis by the use of concepts which would be external to them and would make them see from founding fictions which are not theirs.

In this methodological framework, private land property rights arise, according to the author, from truly Western founding legal fictions which were imported into African countries with colonization. But those who see land as something that would be available for private appropriation are not aware that it is a fiction, very strange in reality, because obviously, land is not an object that circulates, but an unmovable space (p. 153). Such a fiction makes it possible to act as if it were possible to separate a section of territory from the whole to which it belongs, and to circulate it through commercial exchange. Gold the economic fiction of land as a commodity, a source of financial profits, as well as the legal fiction of land as a privatizable asset which has come to reinforce and relay it, are certainly a strange figure outside the symbolic matrix which generated them (p. 260).

The existence of founding legal fictions demonstrates the fact that in all societies reality succumbs to be reconstructed legally (p. 142). So ritual action shapes reality, it (re)constructs it in a legal way, in short, it establishes it (p. 142). The world of ritual, like the legal world does as if reality was the faithful copy of the representation we have of it, whereas it is only the projected shadow. However, as Polanyi has already shown, private ownership of land is a founding fiction of market societies, but in no way universal. conversely, the societies of the Voltaic area have their own fictions to determine their relationship with the earth; gold there are few studies on land that do not use models, theories and concepts forged in the sedimentary history of Western societies to analyze the practices of the South, detaching them from the systems of thought that permeate them. (p. 210).

The sovereignty of an inappropriable land

The author therefore criticizes many anthropologists who have worked on African societies for projecting representations made in the West onto the societies they studied and for international institutions to impose as a universal truth what is only a particular fabrication.

To counter these theoretical and political trends, the author focuses on the figure of guardians of the Earth who are dignitaries whose role is to demarcate and allocate land to families. Because of the power that is theirs, some have wanted to describe this institution within the framework of Euro-centric legal fictions by presenting them as modern sovereigns or eminent owners in the image of medieval lords. Faced with this, Danouta Liberski-Bagnoud shows that these guardians of the Earth are neither the owners nor the sovereigns, they are, in reality, guarantors of its inappropriability and, in doing so, are at the service of its own sovereignty:

In Voltaic societies (), men do not exercise any sovereignty on the Earth, but they are the subjects of the sovereignty that the Earth exercises over them. The Earth belongs to no one other than itself, no higher organ commands it, its sovereignty is neither delegated nor shared entirely. This fiction that rites and myths construct is the basis of the land sharing regime. A fleeting sharing, not inscribed in the duration of a balance of power, which lasts the duration of a human life, and thus responds to a principle of equity, because it prevents any enterprise which would aim at the accumulation of portions of land, to the detriment of the rest of the community. (p. 321)

However, we must be careful not to make the Earth a sovereign in the Western sense of a legal personality who could impose his will in the last instance, because he is not a person.

The Earth is neither a person nor a commodity (p. 285). In Voltaic societies, the Earth is the inexhaustible source of life in which all life must find its place, and it is in this sense that it exercises its power over men. The Earth appears as the instance which animates the relationship with the spaces it contains: the village, the bush, the sacred places, the delimitation of new spaces or culture are all places which can only exist with the agreement of the earth. The role of guardians of the Earth is then to ensure harmony between the order of the Earth and those who want to find a place there. The Earth, in this context, cannot be a good, it only belongs to herself and its inappropriability appears as the condition of a way of living in common (pp. 374-375).

This representation, far from the legal fiction of a land considered as a property separable from the territory to which it belongs, depends on the ritual fiction that constructs the earth as if she was the figure of the supreme authority, guarantor of the core of the fundamental prohibitions which allow societies to hold together (pp. 327-328). In this sense, the Earth, conceived as an instance, supports, orders and brings to life the common body of society and must be distinguished from the earth conceived as a simple fund.; the second is included, depends on and cannot be understood without the first. This distinction thus makes it possible to carry out a critical return on our civilization which has thus forgotten the concern for the Earth in fictions which on the contrary encourage processes which favor dishabitation.

The comparative theoretical gesture that Danouta Liberski-Bagnoud makes allows us to distance ourselves a little from our representations by showing us that there can be relationships with the land without private property. These other forms of living produce other ways of appropriating the land that are not captivating and open to the common. In doing so, the theoretical gesture made in the work makes it possible to reflect, from an anthropological angle, on the notion of legal fiction widely worked in law, by exhibiting what our institutions contain of artifices that are both factitious and productive of social reality. It thus highlights what Castoriadis had called the imaginary institution of societies. On this level the work, many of whose formulations are very evocative, is entirely relevant. It allows us to open up the horizons of another possible relationship with the Earth without suggesting that Voltaic societies would be more authentic or closer to nature. They only maintain another relationship with nature which does not need the myth of domination of the world and things and which does not reduce it to a set of useful resources to exploit. The great interest of the work lies in the speculative use which is made of the closely conducted comparison between the Western relationship to an increasingly disinhabited land with the forms of inhabiting of the peoples of the Volta. There is, of course, a risk of idealization, but, after reading, we say to ourselves that one of the speculative results that it allows us to obtain is worth pursuing.