The Importance of Developing a Sense of Territory

One of the defining aspects of indigenous cultures around their world is their connection to specific territories where they have lived for hundreds and thousands of years. Compared to modern-day western societies which are more defined by migrations and mobility, indigenous cultures have their lives and livelihoods demarcated by the specific conditions and context of their places.

While these sorts of territorial limitations may seem to us westerners as undesirable and adverse, indigenous peoples have developed a rich cultural heritage founded on connection to place. Learning how to live in territory and connected to the limitations and possibilities of place is one of our most urgent tasks.

Our Hyperactive Mobile Society

A 2008 study showed that close to 2/3 of American adults had moved at least once during their lifetimes. Between 2011 and 2012, 12 out of every 100 Americans moved to a different community. While the issue of migration has garnered lots of attention in the current political climate, very few of us consider the internal migration of Americans as the most prevalent type of migration. We cherish our sense of mobility as one of the most prized aspects of our civilization. As young people, we are almost expected to leave the places and the communities where we grew up. Over 90% of American youth move away from home by the time they are 27 years old.

Staying in place is often considered to be the sign of a lack of ambition. Those who end up in the same communities where they´ve lived their entire lives are often considered to be backwards while the “upwardly mobile” young people of our nation are those who are willing and able to follow the jobs to wherever they are. Most commonly, jobs are centered in the major urban areas of our country thus leading to a depopulation of rural, agrarian communities.

What Is Territory and Sense of Place?

Due to our mobile nature, very few Americans have any sort strong self-identification rooted in a particular place or territory. In our highly mobile society, the concept of freedom is tied to the ability to move and settle anywhere one chooses. This mobility implies a lack of an intimate and spiritual relationship with a specific land, community, and territory that is necessarily built through the patience and dedication of living and rooting one´s self in place.

This fluidity of movement is also reflected in how we speak of the land where we live. In most parts of the industrialized world, one does not hear talk of territory, but rather of property. Property is something that can be bought and sold and in is an outward and visible sign of an alienated mode of existence because land that can be sold, is often considered nothing more than another product that exists for our own uses and purposes.
Chief Seattle was an indigenous chief from the western part of what is now the United States. He is most famous for a letter that he wrote to the then President of the United States who was negotiating (forcing) his tribe to sell their land. He wrote, “the President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?”

To most Americans, the idea that land cannot be bought or sold is almost heretical. Land is considered to be a solid investment; something that gains value over time and helps us build equity. The concept of territory, however, fundamentally challenges this idea of land as an economic asset to be profited from. Territory implies a connection with the earth that is emotional, personal and extra-legal. It implies a closeness and an intimacy that is a product of experience, history and time It is not the result of land deeds, laws or other artifacts of a legal system. If someone has money, he or she can immediately own a property but the acquisition of territory requires that one live with and on earth. It demands that people develop an aesthetic sensibility that one gains only when he lives in one place for a long time.

Territory, then, is much more than property. It is history, it is identification, it is relationship, and it forms a fundamental part of who we are as a people. In the United States, the conceptualization of land almost exclusively as property is born of a nomadic mentality in the population. In the globalized consumer society that characterizes the United States, people are continually encouraged to be mobile, to belong to nowhere, and to not share a geographic place with anyone, and this obviously contradicts a more indigenous concept of belonging to the land.

Instead of seeing land from a utilitarian and economic perspective, the primary value of the earth from the perspective of territory is one of respect, reverence, and gratitude.

Aldo Leopold and Territory

Aldo Leopold was a renowned American ecologist who worked on developing an environmental ethic. Leopold was a major proponent of considering land as territory. According to Leopold, living ethically, in ecological terms, requires a limitation to freedom of action in the struggle for existence. Most indigenous and peasant cultures whose existence depends on the continued fertility of the soil, on community coherence, and other factors that discipline human behavior, understand these limitations to the freedom of action and thus order their lifestyles around these limitations and possibilities.

Leopold, seeing that the industrialized world refused to limit any sort freedom of action, had developed a relationship with land which was strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations. He saw the need to extend the scope of the ethical implications of our relationship with the land to include more than just the human population. Leopold found that in order to live within a territory, we need to broaden our ethical consideration to include soils, water, plants, and animals. His ethical standard was summed up in his celebrated phrase: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Development or progress, as defined by the globalized, modern-day world, has increasingly departed from this type of ethical standard. Although it is inevitable that humans have to alter their natural environment to survive, the degree of transformation depends greatly on the values and ethics that guide each society. Peasant and indigenous communities obviously alter the natural environment much less than their urban counterparts.
As we have mentioned, the proximity to a specific place that defines indigenous communities is very different from the Western system that seeks to free us from the supposed bonds of nature, concrete communities, and anything else that interposes in the path of infinite growth and progress. It is precisely this growth and progress, however, that increasingly distances us from the natural world and a sense of belonging to territory.

Living in relationship to the land as territory implies proximity with the natural world, its rhythms, and its boundaries. By being able to touch the earth daily, know the rhythms of the sun and rain, and being surrounded by the world of animals and plants, the land itself makes known what is possible. Living a lifestyle that sees land as territory, then, demands an attitude of responsibility and presumes concrete obligations to the land. Again, Aldo Leopold reminds us that “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

The Benefits of Living in a Territory

While many of us might frown upon the idea of having our lives and livelihoods limited by the conditions of local ecosystems and territories, there are also numerous benefits of living in place. On a psychological level, numerous studies have shown that people who are surrounded by green places and nature are significantly healthier and happier than their urban counterparts who are surrounded by nothing but concrete.

Furthermore, the idea of concept territory implies that you share that land with others and find ways to govern it collectively as a commons. Our isolated individualistic lives are far removed from any sort of true participation in the life of a community. By living in territory, you are simultaneously opening your life to participate in a wider group of people. And obviously, the stronger the sense of community, the happier and healthier we are.

On the level of environmental and ecological health, living on a piece of land that you consider to be territory implies learning to respect the limits that are necessary so that piece of land can continue to function in a holistic and healthy manner. Many of the crises that we collectively face such as global warming, a loss of biodiversity, and massive species extinction result from a lack of connection and belonging to place.
When we cannot see the direct effects of our consumption, it is easy to simply adopt the “out of sight and out of mind” mentality that so characterizes consumer culture. The carbon dioxide emissions from our cars contribute to the melting of the Arctic ice cover, but since we don´t live in the North Pole, it is easy to turn a blind eye. We can enjoy the juicy steak on our plate without ever having to know that the cow was pastured on degraded land that was once pristine forest cut down for the cattle industry.

Living in territory places us face to face with the direct effects of our actions and livelihoods. When we can see the effects of our lives, we can take more responsibility for living ethically.

The Need for Territory

One of the most urgent tasks that we face as a global community is learning how to reorient our lives and livelihoods so as to respect the natural limitations and boundaries of the natural world. Transforming our conception of land as property that we can manipulate for profit to land as territory that shelters us, provides for us, and also puts demands on how we ought to live will help our civilization confront the multiple crises that we face.

Tobias Roberts

After working in the development industry for over a decade, Tobias decided it was time to stop advising Central American farmers how to do things if he didn´t have a piece of land to live coherently with what he taught. Together with his family he runs a small agro-forestry farm, tourism cooperative, and natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador.

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