Indigenous Land Use and the Agricultural Land Reserve

It’s actually the law of the land: indigenous rights precede all others. No matter that the rule has scarcely been applied since 1858, it’s still the law of the land, and it still makes sense. For instance, right now, negotiations are under way in my country, British Columbia, for ways in which to realign a land-use practice called the Agricultural Land Reserve, which intends to prevent the sale or use of agricultural land for any other purpose. Land like this:

The reserve has been in place for forty-five years, and was prompted by a desire to halt the infill of British Columbia’s scarce farmland with houses. Any land that was farmed, or that had once been farmed, was frozen in place overnight. Or so it seemed. Forty-five years later, vast regions of farmland are currently unharmed under this system, being dedicated instead to golf courses, on the one hand, private horse paddocks on another, and large private lawns on the other, while many others sport houses 10,000 square feet or larger: obviously more urban residences than viable farm houses. Some agricultural land owners (and not a few) have simply dumped rocky fill on their land until it could, reasonably, be declared unfit for agriculture, while others have used arguments that land is not economically viable as agricultural land and landowners deserve to get profit from their private holdings. Human cleverness being what it is, there is no end to the work-arounds. In a province which makes the bulk of its money from selling houses to foreigners or Canadians from east of the Rockies, the system is exacerbating tensions, hence the current call for reform. The Agricultural Land Reserve Commission is now taxed with finding a better balance between urban and farming land uses, presumably not subject to abuse. Land like this:

Land like this:

Fair enough, but all of this fiddling is beside the point. The argument is not whether land removed from agricultural use should create profit for its owner, or how it should be developed into housing or industry, but that the original removal of land from its indigenous owners, between 1858 and 1878, for the most part, has even the slightest shred of ethics behind it if the argument is accepted that it was needed to develop an economy, to support a government, to prevent a takeover by the United States (a publicly-advertised threat back in those days), regardless of how much that usage represented racial policy. What that means is that if urbanized agricultural land, like this …

… or like this, which escaped land reserve censure through an extensive green belt program..

… is ever to be removed from agricultural use for industrial or other development purposes, two processes must ethically precede that. First, the land must be returned to the productive health it was in before 1858, with the kind of natural-process, fire-regime indigenous farming practices local people built up over thousands of years, before any sale could be made (the resulting viability would prevent any argument that the land was not viable farmland, only that it was not viable in a racially-derived land-use system based on degrading natural values rather than improving them, and good riddance to that) and, second, any land alienated from the original claim should be returned to its original indigenous owners, with one exception, noted below. Even a compromise between the two systems is possible, with shared governmental authorities between the three claimants to this land: British Columbia, the peoples of this Pacific Slope, and the other people of this space, who deserve travel corridors through any built space, rather than being shot when they enter it, or denied any access at all.

A claim is often made in this country that the hills are dry and full of weeds, and that the country is hot, dry and unproductive. None are true, and can be countered with a wide dispersal of knowledge. After all, the reason the land appears dry has to do with destruction of its original vegetation, as well as the infilling of tens of thousands of acres of wetlands, for industry and housing. Water is natural here. Here’s a tiny remnant on the Commonage Land Claim, disputed since 1895. This creek is all that remains of a vast wetland filling the entire floor of the valley. It has an airport on one side and a sports field on the other, and low-cost housing developments throughout, all of which are the equivalent of dumping waste rock on agricultural land today to render it unviable.

It has to stop. It is unsustainable. What is not acceptable is to compound the original theft by now removing the land from any productive or natural capacity at all, and turning it into this:

That is, again, unsustainable, unless compensations are made for it to the original debt, and payable to indigenous peoples and indigenous environments, with the full participation of indigenous peoples. The thing about all of this is that it is easy, and less intrusive to society than the original land theft, or the reconfiguration of private land rights through the Agricultural Land Reserve Act. Sure, there would be difficulties, but any government that can invest $11,000,000,000 into an unwanted, unneeded, actively opposed dam project on Indigenous land, against the wishes of its rightful Indigenous owners, surely has the money to invest in supporting its farmland owners to make the transition from degrading environments to improving them. After all, it is already investing in agriculture — in industrial agriculture. There is a valid point to these millions of dollars of investment, in terms of protecting the ethical responsibility that adheres to the original privatization and racialization of land, but when the flip side happens and that ethical responsibility is squandered, then environmental and social ethics take precedence. Moving the land further away from its debt, into increased urban density without changing urbanity into an environmentally sound model on indigenous principles, is ethically, economically and morally bankrupt. Are there issues, between the needs of the federal state, Canada, and all its regional levels of government? Of course there are, but they can be worked out. Setting them aside is only going to compound them.

Sterilized Geese on the Dole. Okanagan Lake

People keep feeding them, despite governmental orders not to do so.


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