Non-Western view on ownership

Ada Dolanay, Thalie Ngugen, Elina Baudier
Roeltje van Heijningen, Elina Baudier
Ongeveer 14 minuten

How do Non-Western Communities View Ownership?

In our current world of ‘capitalist realism’ dictated by notions of ownership and control, we have been placed in a profit-based political and economic system that seems to propose no other alternative. However, it is important to question our western values of possession, which may mistakenly be perceived as the only acceptable approach through our ethnocentric habits.
What does it mean to possess? Who gets to decide what can be possessed? How does it define our identity? Are there borders that we, as an essentialist society, have not yet been able to extend beyond? By broadening the restricted definition of what ownership means in a Western context and seeking values and lessons in non-Western communities, societies and groups of people, we can seek to improve and unite humanity as well as the land we live on. 
Through the analysis of examples from these non-Western communities that practice different methods of collectively and, perhaps more harmoniously, living with the land, instead of merely living on it, we can observe alternative perspectives on property management, land possession and spiritual value through the lens of ideologies and traditions from indigenous communities that are often dismissed. Many of these indigenous principles derive from a foundational connection and deep respect for nature. Through this research, we might be able to propose alternative concepts of ownership and expose a non-conformist vision of how to share land that benefits the masses. 

Western view of ownership
The modern western of notion of property and ownership is vastly different from indigenous traditions and values. It posits property as a material right and therefore as having material value. This is due to western thought originating from a materialistic theory of existence: Everything is reduced to material quantities in a utilitarian perspective, exchangeable through money, the economic measure of utility. In Western thought, as the human acts based on materialistic self-interest mainly, material value is extracted to the maximum for self-benefit, inclining humans to extract the most benefit from property, a material resource. The value of property is therefore determined by its highest and best possible material use, and not by how it can best serve a community. This is often translated into a property’s capacity of attracting rent. This western notion contrasts enormously to the most indigenous cultures and their view of property and ownership. They often do not see land as individual property but as a communal right resting on community relations. Their notion of property often originates from ethical and/or spiritual beliefs  that create obligations for them to share and care for the land as a community according to communal laws, customs and ideals. The western notion is often contentiously proposed as the better system due to economic superiority, however it can be debated when observing indigenous populations and their relation to land, that the western concept of ownership is not the ethically superior one.

Land is shared, not owned


The Sámi people are an indigenous people originating from the northernmost parts of Sweden, Finland, Norway and parts of Russia. The majority of their livelihood heavily depends on natural resources, and they are famously known for their reindeer herding. In these aforementioned regions, the land is legally reserved for Sámi people for traditional, environmental and cultural reasons. Although they are considered an urbanized demographic, they still maintain a deep regard and respect for animals, nature and even inanimate objects found in the environment.

Sámi people value slow processes of extraction for survival purposes, whereas the interest in oil exploitation from the land by authority to make fast money through these sacred resources portrays different values.

Their ideology differs from Scandinavian authority; Sámi people value slow processes of extraction for survival purposes, whereas the interest in oil exploitation from the land by authority to make fast money through these sacred resources portrays different values. The growth of mining, logging and other projects clashes with the demand of the Sámi people, where resources and minerals from the land remain reserved for traditional culture and livelihood.
Another way in which the Sami ideologies of ownership differ is the way in which they herd reindeer. Instead of assuming natural ownership of reindeer, the Sámi people are accustomed to following their natural migration patterns and adapting to the animals. This clashes with Western ideas of ownership which is characterized by a sense of entitlement to the land and its animals. Rather than adapting to the animals and respecting their autonomy and sentience, Western factory farming unethically fattens up livestock, only to slaughter them en masse. Any consideration of environmental or moral responsibility is discarded because, again, profit is paramount. Western ideology often promotes the retrieval of as much as possible, as fast as possible, discarding environmental consciousness altogether. Sámi culture is an educational portrayal of the possibility of a harmonious life on land without abusive and exploitative tactics, representing the importance they attribute to nature. Their respect for and cooperation with nature is deeply rooted in the way they live, as seen throughout various elements of their way of life. In contrast to ‘modern' views of land ownership that are characterized by exclusive, private and allotted geographical land, the Sámi view territory as still under nature’s control, representing a more flexible and harmonious moral basis free from the concept of ownership. 


Aboriginals from Australia
The aboriginals from Australia are an indigenous group often featured in media headlines due to the referendums proposed to recognize Indigenous people in the Australian constitution. Beyond recognition, the headlines also advocate for the creation of an Indigenous body that advises the government on policies affecting First Nations. Australia majoritarily voted “no” to the referendum, inciting public debate about Australia’s relationship with landownership and colonization.. It is important to highlight that Australia is made up of many different and distinct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups, each with their own culture, language, beliefs and practices. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are the first peoples of Australia, meaning they existed for thousands of years prior to colonization. The existence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on this continent is estimated to go back between 60,000 and 70,000 years. “It’s my father’s land, my grandfather’s land, my grandmother’s land. And I’m related to it, which also gives me my identity" declared Father Dave Passi, a First Nation activist. Land is heavily linked to the identity of the aboriginal groups from Australia and central to their way of life. The proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia was a mere 3.3% in 2016, whereas they encompassed the vast majority of the population when colonizers first arrived. Indigenous people in Australia are not a uniform group; however, they share the same political demands for recognition and representation. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples live in urban, regional, and remote areas and have been present in all communities ever since they were displaced by the colonizers who appropriated their land. As they were forced to adapt to modern society, they also followed where the economy was growing, as they could not sustain themselves with their land anymore. From the aboriginal perspective, First Nation land is not private property and cannot be purchased or sold. The land, and everything that lives on it, belong to the clan, and they are the ones responsible for taking care of it. As a community, they are responsible for all those who live on the land and the land itself. The clan is not a separate entity from life but instead a guide, and nature is primordial. British settlers mistakenly believed that the Indigenous peoples were nomadic and had no permanent home, but in reality, they would frequently spend their entire lives in one area. The Native Australians did travel between camps to get food when needed but they were mostly settled in the same area as their ancestors. Learning from your environment and exploiting it without overusing it is a vital skill. While different clans shared some regions, ceremonial acts and discussions were necessary to access another group's territory. It was also implied that the visiting party would have to give up access to their land and return the deed. Indigenous peoples would also have knowledge of events occurring in other countries due to trade connections, music, and dream tales they acquired from other communities. It was important for them to share knowledge and they used diplomacy to debate how to share the land. Ethical consideration regarding land attribution was paramount for Australian Aboriginals, again contrasting starkly with the dominant Western conception of land being perceived as simply a means to an end.  


They honor the land as a gift from God and consider it to be sacred, much like many other communities that rely on it for survival.

San people from Southern Africa
The San people are a tribe in southern Africa known for being one of the last surviving tribes of hunter gatherers in the area. Their culture is one of the oldest ones on earth and they still maintain it today, as shown through the use of the same language as their ancestors. Within a San tribe, some members may take up leadership roles in areas where they are particularly skilled, like hunting or healing ceremonies, but they are not allowed to rise to positions of general authority or influence. When trying to negotiate treaties with the San, white colonists found this to be highly confusing. The San Reserve leadership is for those who have been a part of the organization for an extended period of time, reached a respectable age, and demonstrated good moral character. For the most part, San people live with equality and share goods like meat and tobacco. Rights to land are typically inherited bilaterally and owned by a group. The San also maintain that everyone has the right to use the land and that no one individual should own it. They honor the land as a gift from God and consider it to be sacred, much like many other communities that rely on it for survival. Political models are fundamentally based on kinship ties, which are also linked to residency, which determines a group's membership. An individual remains a member of his group as long as he resides on group land. Hunting is permitted on non-group land, but authorization from the owners is required. There is cohabitation between the different groups if they manage to agree on sharing with parsimony the land they use. 
Instead of building permanent homes, San people created temporary shelters out of materials they could find in their environment, such as tall grass and thin branches. They use the same waterholes while traveling, but they never pitch up camp in the same area. Additionally, this guarantees that the land will not run out. By not exhausting the land, they can use it on a long-term basis and come back to this area a few years later because it has not dried up. The San people are also very aware of the advantages of energy conservation, particularly since obtaining food necessitates the output of energy, and since food is not guaranteed, they do not over-consume. Currently, the San people are suffering from land loss as the government has confiscated their land to give it to other tribes and settlers. The San people remain dependent on their land to survive, and it is integral to how they function as a hunter-gatherer society. When they were relocated by the Botswana government, they lost access to not only their livelihood but also their primary purpose in life, as they are hunter-gatherers first and foremost. 

Anarchist perception of ownership


Formally known as the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, now referred to as the Zapatistas, this radical far left political group has been located on a large part of the Chiapas territory in the state of Mexico since the 1990s. Although they are defined as a leftist, anarchist native rebel army, they themselves are opposed to the notion of labels. The Zapatistas are formed from the indigenous population that sought out a new democratic government in Mexico that supported indigenous people and respected the resources provided by the Chiapas land. In support of these rights, an uprising against the Mexican army occurred in 1994, resulting in around 300 deaths and multiple casualties. As a result, the Zapatistas moved from their village to the jungle in order to function as an independent government with autonomous municipalities disconnected from the Mexican government. They formed the IIE, short for Intercontinental Indigenous Encounter, an organization that creates a shared space for all natives around the world to unite. With this horizontal autonomy, the IIE provides mutual aid, equal rights, shared holding and ownership in a decentralized manner, meaning power and ownership are shared by a large number of people or organizations as opposed to being concentrated in the hands of one authority or group, differentiating itself from traditional governmental functions and ownership traits. A common slogan of the Zapatista community is "Here, the people command, and the government obeys". This self governance strays far from the Western custom of building a ladder of hierarchical power that designates ownership and often gives value to the more privileged. The lack of central governance enables the organization to be run by multiple assemblies that work in unison to abolish private property. Instead of land ownership, they prioritize continuous sharing. Their system encourages local agricultural production and ethical practices, and therefore the Zapatista areas are peaceful and prosperous. One interesting and noteworthy concept they introduce is their unique structure of education. Education in the Zapatista community is accessible to all its members and is taught by the locals in the community. Furthermore, there are no grades given to students to promote a healthy concept of learning and growth. One of the most common problems in western states with traditional forms of ownership is their lack of accessibility to education. Moreover, health care is free and is offered to members as well as non-members of the Zapatista community. There is an emphasis on eliminating racism from the healthcare system through awareness. Basic human rights are attainable by all and are not reserved for certain people; rather, they are a shared collective right promulgated by all members of the community.


Yanomami Amazonian tribe from South America
The Yanomami tribe, like most tribes on the continent, supposedly migrated across the Bering Straits between Asia and America some 15,000 years ago, making their way slowly down to South America. This makes them one of the most ancient tribes in the area. Today, their total population stands at around 38,000. The enormity of their land can be hard to visualize. At over 9.6 million hectares, the Yanomami territory in Brazil is twice the size of Switzerland. In Venezuela, the Yanomami live in the 8.2 million-hectare Alto Orinoco – Casiquiare Biosphere Reserve. Together, these areas form the largest forested Indigenous territory in the world. Because their tribe is spread across the borders of two countries, it has created issues in the past as both countries sought to claim sovereignty. Every Yanomamö village has its own independent government and can declare peace or war with other villages. Village coalitions play a crucial role, although they are typically brittle and transient. 
The Yanomami are known as hunters, fishermen, and horticulturists. The Yanomami can be classified as foraging horticulturalists, depending heavily on rainforest resources, growing bananas, gathering fruit, and hunting animals and fish. Crops compose up to 75% of the calories in the Yanomami diet. Protein is supplied by wild resources obtained through gathering, hunting, and fishing. They use slash-and-burn horticulture, where they burn the land after collecting its resources, then let it regenerate. Similar to the San people, when the soil becomes exhausted, the Yanomami frequently move to avoid areas that have become overused, a practice known as shifting cultivation. 
The tribe celebrates a good harvest with a big feast to which nearby villages are invited. The village members gather large amounts of food, which helps to maintain good relations with their neighbors. Land is not only used to sustain people but also to create bonds between different tribes and unite them. It explains why they keep fighting for their territory and want to make their voice heard not only by the Brazilian and Venezuelan governments but also by the world, as the Amazon is the green lung of the earth. 


The Tuareg people are a Saharan branch of the Berbers, who have lived in North Africa for several millennia and are mostly located in the Saharan Desert. The Tuareg of today are ostensibly Muslims, yet their ancestors fled to the Sahara Desert to avoid becoming Muslims and submitting to Arab rulers, which led to their nomadic lifestyle. The Tuaregs are centered around water. They relocate their tent every three to four days during the rainy season to find their animals in the greenest pastures. They travel about a lot in search of water during the dry season, but they like to stay close to their "home territory," which is land that has been passed down from one generation to the next. By adjusting their needs to what little the desert has to offer, the Tuareg people have managed to adapt and survive, thriving for generations in the desert. Because of this, they are able to live economically and with fewer resources. However, they are gradually giving up their nomadic lifestyle. This is partially because there are fewer pastures for the animals to graze on as a result of longer droughts and shorter rainy seasons brought on by climate change, which is largely to blame for this phenomenon.

Something we can learn from non-western conceptions of ownership is that decisions about resource allocation and use are often made collectively, with a focus on the well-being of the entire community.

By stepping outside of the conformist vision of Western definitions and practices of ownership, whether it be land, nature, or mere human rights, we can observe the multitude of existing systems functioning in conjunction with nature. The spiritual and environmentally conscious take on ownership allows for an alternative view of our ownership traditions. A general message we can take from this comparison is that we, as humans, have more than one way of being. We can “be” without harming, exploiting, and claiming resources to grow an industry that primarily benefits those who own the means of production. We need to once again place importance on communal ownership of resources, not only in a political way but also in a way of being more conscious of nature and the gift it is. In these examined cultures, land, water, and other natural resources are often seen as belonging to the community as a whole rather than to individuals. As a Western society, we are dependent on companies to provide us with sustenance, and rarely are the people that still grow their own food. Another point we can learn from non-western conceptions of ownership is that decisions about resource allocation and use are often made collectively, with a focus on the well-being of the entire community. Instead of having decisions made by the political elite, the population is way more involved in the process. This could be adapted by Western systems if we employ more variations of decentralized ownership. The concept of collective responsibility is at the heart of the non-Western view of ownership. Humans are supposed to be caretakers or custodians of the natural world, with a responsibility to protect and preserve it for future generations. We do not often think of property, land, or ownership in a cultural or spiritual sense but more in a purely economical way. Linking ownership to identity could help us grow as a society and be a fruitful alternative to the current capitalist view of ownership. After years of non-European societies having to adapt to Western views of ownership and sometimes failing to do so, we should in turn learn from these other indigenous cultures. This could aid in creating a more just and equal world reducing class systems, poverty, and homelessness as well as helping fix our behaviours that resulted in climate change and global warming.