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After the flood, they mapped land ownership

Land ownership matters—and mapping it out is a powerful tool in the just transition toolbox

September 1, 2023

3-minute read

I remember the floods of 2019. Climate strikes, flooding the streets of London every Friday. Greta Thunberg, flooding my social media feeds every morning. Statistics about the climate and biodiversity crises, saturating my mind as an undergraduate student. The water was clear, but the horizon for just transition policy was nowhere in sight. I needed to find land.

Metaphors aside, I sort of did, because that same year I came across an investigation called Who Owns England. Unlike in Canada, land ownership data in England is behind a paywall, but this small team of independent researchers and citizens were mapping it, bit by bit.

Two years later, the Right to Roam campaign started to use this data to challenge land injustice, particularly the finding that just eight per cent of land in England and Wales is accessible to the public. The Labour Party has now committed to a Right to Roam Act to extend this right to access land and a national poll found 62 per cent of the public support this move.

Participatory data projects such as these offer more than just the data itself. They help unite people across ideological, socioeconomic, and strategic differences. They position campaigners as experts with unified and evolving narratives. Who owns land and, therefore, who governs surface and mineral rights matters in our efforts to create just transitions around the world.

As floods hit Kentucky in summer 2022, they also wracked the border of Kentucky and West Virginia in 1977. At the time, the federal government failed to provide temporary housing for thousands of displaced, and outraged citizens formed the Appalachian Alliance. They recognized that they had to map land ownership data to understand why the region was so unprepared for severe floods.

This team of 60 activists and academics examined tax records, registered deeds and leased books in each of the 13 Appalachian states to determine land ownership, location and property valuation.

They found that across 20 million acres, just one per cent of the population held control over 53 per cent of the total land surface while 40 per cent of surface land rights and 70 per cent of mineral rights were held by corporations.

It represented a clear inequality that had created the conditions for unstable ground, inappropriate planning policies, and the inevitable floods that would destroy homes.

When the regional commission refused to publish their results, this new Task Force on Appalachian Land Ownership worked with newspapers, independent publishers, academic presses and churches of multiple denominations to distribute the findings and policy recommendations to the public.

The task force is considered a model for participatory research, but, notably, it was a fertile foundation for environmental and economic justice campaigns across the region.

This offers a critical lesson for emergent just transition campaigns.

Between 2011 and 2017, 71 per cent of all U.S. coal mining jobs lost in the United States were in Appalachia—but the region is also home to 27 per cent of U.S. energy justice programs.

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth is the most active organization in a sea of interconnected, grassroots civil society groups working towards just transition and economic transformation. Born from the Task Force on Appalachian Land Ownership, at 45 years old it remains a bastion of hope for long-term just transition organizing.

Since the 1977 floods, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth has won campaigns at the federal, regional, and local level.

They helped abolish the broad-form mineral feed, which allowed mineral rights owners to establish strip mines without the consent of the surface land owner.

They offered powerful and strategic critiques of federal programs like POWER to fund energy transition activities in the region, taking it into their own hands to empower former coal workers with leadership development programs to lobby at the federal level.

In response to partisan stasis in the legislature over the EPA’s Clean Power Plan in 2017, it launched the Empower Kentucky initiative in 2017—a “people’s energy plan,” which plans to invest $400 million in a just transition, reduce average bills by 10 per cent and cut carbon dioxide pollution from Kentucky’s energy sector by 40 per cent.

In a sea of statistics communicating the biodiversity collapse and climate crisis, movements are beginning to ground their politics and organizational structures in a political economy of land. Who owns it, who works it, who uses it matters—not only in building a narrative of environmental injustice, but in how we move forward with a just transition.

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