Land as investment

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Take-away points

  • Remember to broaden frame of investment/wealth beyond cash assets
    • SRI and impact investing will tend to focus on cash.  Continuing to ignore other types of assets is colonial.
  • Investment in land seen as “safe.”
    • Doesn’t depreciate, doesn’t require maintenance, tangible asset
  • Investing in land is reliant on historical and continued genocide, forced assimilation, colonization.

Commodification of nature

Capitalism rooted in colonialism erases or downplays the importance of land and “natural resources” as foundational to growth.  One of the major ways to turn land into a natural resource is called commodification — or the process of turning something into a commodity by converting it from its original form to a value that can be measured in dollars.

Take a tree for example, a complex living being that can do many amazing things: turn what we breathe out into oxygen; produce a huge variety of delicious tasting fruits, nuts, syrup, and berries; provide a home for birds, mammals, and other animals; can induce a sense of awe in us if we pay attention (see: redwoods, live oaks in the south of the U.S., bristlecone pines that are 5,000 years old); I could go on.  In his book Cradle to Cradle, architect William McDonough illustrates this point too:

“Imagine this design assignment: design something that makes oxygen, sequesters carbon, fixes nitrogen, distills water, accrues solar energy as fuel, makes complex sugars and food, creates microclimates, changes colors with the seasons, and self-replicates.

Why don’t we knock that down and write on it?”

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that trees are – for a variety of reasons – magical.

Capitalism takes these magical beings and turns them into something that can be traded on a market – paper, lumber.  Occasionally, economics can understand “environmental services” – more of the things that McDonough was getting at – the valuing of sequestering carbon, and then complicate the tree’s value, as well as make a stronger economic argument to keep it alive and healthy.

By the way, this is all reliant on a lot of separations within nature.  Trees are separate from birds that live in them, separate from the soil and water and fungal networks that nourish them.  We are separate from them.

So…commodification turns parts of nature into things that can be traded on markets, and made money from the sale of, based on an agreed upon value.  “Raw materials.”

This relies on separating us from nature, from our other ways of relating, and the interrelatedness of its parts.

Other related ideas include water investment and privatization, carbon trading and treating land itself as property.

If you’re interested in any of these things, I highly recommend watch Tom B.K. Goldtooth’s video on Youtube:

History of the land under the United States

United States history is different than the history of the land that the U.S. currently occupies.  Who was here before the “start”?  How is their deep history erased by current narratives that start history at 1776?  How does our understanding of the U.S. as one nation erase the hundreds of other sovereign nations that also currently inhabit this land?

Here’s a quick timeline to illustrate the 1.5% of history since European settlement of the land as contrasted with a conservative under-estimate of total human habitation of the land, 20,000 years ago. It also includes what our current timeline calls “0.”

“Counter to the western stories that we’ve been here 12,000 years, we’ve been here over 60,000 years, likely over 100,000 years, and there is a great deal of evidence to support that,” says Paulette Steeves, director of the Native American Studies program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

A more complicated understanding of history that many of us did not receive in school is necessary to understand the depth of relationship that indigenous people have had and many continue to have with this land currently called the United States for thousands of years.  In contrast, the colonized period of this land is relatively small, a few percent of total peopled time.

Land as Investment

Investing isn’t just about money.  All capitalism relies on commodification of nature and land and the genocide required to do those things as well as direct investment in land.

Wealth redistribution tends to focus on dollars and donation of money.

International land grabs are kind of a big deal too.  The Oakland Institute has some great resources on that topic.

It’s imperative that our interpretation of investment be broadened to also encompass land.  Investment in land doesn’t have to look like owning a real estate property, there are lots of ways to invest.  And certainly all of capitalism happens on land anyway.

The process of commodification – turning trees into paper, into an abstract commodity that can be bought and sold – is the process of disconnecting ourselves from place, of literally uprooting ourselves and nature and abstracting it into something else.  In its very nature, this is colonial — it is void of a sense of place, a sense of context, history, and connection.

There’s a strong connection to present-day gentrification and displacement – these are not new concepts.  This is also super connected to the gentrification that’s happening around the country (and many parts of the world) as people move around.  The idea that people are movable, easily displaced, that a value connected to a place will drive people out of being able to live there — rooted in racialized colonialism.

Land Reparations

Land is not arbitrary.  Things like “equal redistribution of land” or “land as commons”  are colonial concepts that continue to erase deep relationships of indigenous people to *specific* places.

For a really basic idea of what I mean here, think about a place you call home.  About how it smells, about the plants that live there and how they change over the course of a year.  About all the people you are connected to in that place.  That place can’t be anywhere, it’s a specific place to you with many histories.  Multiply that by 20,000 years and then it might be similar to indigeneity.

One example of a land reparations project I’m familiar with locally is an indigenous women led project called the Sogorea Te Land Trust. It asks settlers on Chocheño Ohlone land to pay a “tax” to fund the purchase of land to be stewarded and used in ceremonial practices.  There are several other indigenous led land trusts around the country.

Finally on a related note, it can’t be left unsaid that this country’s histories of slavery and (forced) immigration complicates our relationship to land in the present.  (For more on this, see my summary of an academic paper called Decolonization is not a Metaphor.)


I’m going to leave you here with a few resources, some questions to consider, and let you know some of the questions we’re currently holding as Regenerative Finance.  Want to be in conversation with us?? Far out!  Drop us a line.

Some Resources

Questions to consider

  • Do you have investments in land? What does that look like? REITS, a home you live in, homes you don’t live in, relationships to real estate developers, buildings, infrastructure, …?
  • Do you have investments that are involved in the commodification of land?
  • Whose land are your investments on or in? What’s your relationship to those people? What’s your current relationship and ideal relationship?
  • What has your family’s historical relationship to land been?
  • All of our wealth was extracted from land, what were the steps in that process, and how does that feel? What are you going to do about it?

Questions we’re dealing with as Regen

  • How does land fit into regenerative investing?
  • If a project we work with is not indigenous-led, what would it need to do to be decolonized?
  • Given that so much wealth is accumulated through direct investment in land, what are we doing about that?
  • How do we take this message as settlers to other settlers?  How do we continue to bring this topic up in the impact investing scene?

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7 thoughts on “Land as investment

  1. I greatly enjoyed this, thank you for the writing and extensive resources! That is a massive list. Are y’all familiar with Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild?: (I haven’t looked at each link yet in the resource list, so I’m not sure if it’s included there)

    The book details research on Californian indigenous land management practices, which show that the “natural abundance” perceived by European colonists was in reality the result of partnership with the land over many generations.

    Here is another resource on the topic:

    There’s also this book/perspective, The Capitalocene, which argues that the ecological crisis is rooted in the age of capital:

    Essay on it here:

  2. Thank you Ari and Regenerative Finance! This is a topic near and dear to my heart.

    Have you come across Agrarian Trust? They’re having a gathering this November in Santa Fe covering some of these topics—OUR LAND 2: Tracing the Acequia Commons.

    Could you elaborate on your critique of commons? David Bollier’s definition: an asset, a community, and a common set of agreements [from “Think Like a Commoner”]. Native Americans managed land in a commons. Many people misunderstand the word commons and forget about the community and common set of agreements aspects. Like in the “Tragedy of the Commons,” which ironically describes what the Market.

    Also, could you speak more on what decolonization, and inversely, colonization, mean to Regenerative Finance? I could make a number of assumptions about what it means from the links you share here, but I’d like to know how you are using it as an organization. Do you have a post like this on the subject?

    I hear what you’re saying about place. I first got involved with land issues through farming and local food. I quickly realized that the biggest reason we don’t have local food is because we don’t have local people. Most present-day US Americans are placeless. I actually live in the community where I grew up, and I’ve realized what an asset [and a privilege] it is that I truly have a home, rather than just a place I live.

    What are your thoughts on re-indegenizing movements, such as Martin Prechtel’s Bolad’s Kitchen? Dark Mountain Project could also possibly be included under this umbrella. To me, your tone implies that as “colonizers,” we have no hope of aspiring to such things, but I may be misinterpreting.

    I’ve worked some with an organization, also in Santa Fe, called Regenesis. One of their core frameworks is something they call the Story of Place Process. It’s all about getting people in touch with the essence of their place through a thorough investigation of its geology, ecology, and history. Once this has been done, the community in that place can explore emergent possibilities that are uniquely suited to their place instead of being generic. So yes, connection with a specific place is vital [and often missing in our hi-tech/globalization-centric dialogues].

    There is a lot of other things we could get into on this thread, but I’ll leave my comments here for now.

    1. Hi Will,

      I appreciate your thoughtful comments! Here are a few responses:

      My critique of the commons is essentially based on the current and colonial use of commons. Like, “we’ll take this land an make it ours to share” – an idea employed by intentional communities, co-housing, cooperatives of many kinds – often lead by white and/or otherwise non-indigenous people. A colonized concept of the commons, though it may be more equitable, is still colonized.

      Re: what decolonization + colonization means to Regenerative Finance. That’s a great question. I think the short answer is that we are in praxis/continual learning about this as a collective. Personally, I’m strongly aligned with Tuck and Yang’s concept that decolonization isn’t a metaphor; land must be returned to indigenous communities. Collectively, it’s a work in progress.

      Re: Re-indigenizing movements. I’m not sure what that term means. However, I’m immensely skeptical that any setter colonizer could lead a project like this with integrity *without* serious guidance and leadership by people indigenous to whatever place it’s happening in. (For example, I googled the example you provided but found no information about the place or how the project is connected to or informed by the original peoples.) I’m not sure that it’s completely hopeless, but I would say that we need to follow leadership of indigenous people much more deeply than I see most colonizers currently doing, which generally looks like appropriation. Furthermore, if there is a sense of “hopelessness” this is probably as close as settlers can get to experiencing anything remotely close to colonization, and should be embraced wholeheartedly. What are these unsettling, hopeless feelings and what can they teach us?

      Some more food for thought.

  3. Just chiming in to say that I’m very grateful for this conversation, and the connections you offer up here. Going to keep connecting the dots/links and come back to reread again!

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