Land Justice in Los Angeles

Grace Treffinger | 07.07.2017

Breanna Hawkins, Policy Director for the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, and Irene Pena, Director of Proyecto Jardin, co-facilitated a discussion of Land Justice: Re-imagining Land, Food, and the Commons in the United States at Eastside Cafe in Los Angeles on Thursday, June 15th.

There was a roundtable with authors from the book as well as community organizers and activists in Los Angeles. Hawkins explained that the event was dual-purposed: to uplift the book and the national work being done around land justice while grounding the conversation in what is going on in L.A. This localized format provided participants with tangible action steps to get work done in their community. Pena stated, “It was nice to have an opportunity for our local activists to convene — because normally we are in the trenches.”

Hawkins explained that this book highlights the historical trajectory of dispossession and land consolidation. What was clear at the roundtable was that concerns of land justice are not new, and these themes are rampant in urban and rural contexts. Monica White, professor and co-author of “Section 1: Black Agrarianism,” described what inspired her work and research was that the history of people of African descent in farming has been overlooked. White explained that there is a tendency for people of European descent to take ownership of knowledge and farming techniques rooted in cultures that are not their own.

White went on to highlight the importance of tracing agrarian roots back to their origins and telling that story, rather than one that is so commonly told about agriculture in the rural South, where enslaved people are described solely as labor, rather than as holders of knowledge and skill. Bringing to light these narratives and realities that have been buried may hopefully strengthen the land justice movement within the United States. Pena expressed how this translates into the urban environment of L.A. with forced displacement, gentrification, and cultural appropriation of textiles, food, and farming techniques.

Both Hawkins and Pena emphasized that policy is a means to make changes, but by no means did they view policy reform as the solution to land justice issues in L.A. Yxta Maya Murray, a panelist and law professor at Loyola Marymount University, is re-envisioning laws related to property; many of the laws used to seize or develop land are based on colonial regimes such as reaching property’s highest and best use. Community members at the event broke down who defines these laws and how they represent the European hegemonic model of property which has caused so much pain and displacement to diverse communities in rural and urban contexts, while Murray made clear that conditions determining displacement and how people’s land is taken away needs to be re-envisioned. There are many groups that do not identify with these definitions of property. Hawkins expressed hope in such a policy change, reminding us that laws get changed all of the time, but need constituent support.

One such policy change is the Urban Agricultural Incentive Zones Program (UAIZ), a policy passed in L.A. County on June 13th. It will allow for private property owners to get tax benefits if they lease their land for urban agricultural purposes for a minimum of 5 years. Panelists explained that this policy change is a start,but a goal of the L.A. Food Policy Council is to develop agreements so that community farmers’ sweat equity on the land is protected for years to come.

In the words of Pena, “Yes, we do support agricultural incentive zones and are very proud and thankful for the warriors who fought for that. That’s not enough. What we need is a paradigm shift. We need to take it further. We need permanent land.”