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How state bureaucracy encodes property paradigms


How state bureaucracy encodes property paradigms

What is real estate? An entry in a government register whose use is shaped by the technical, legal and organizational architecture of the data. These knowledge infrastructures are not neutral; ideas of desirable futures and legitimate social conditions are encoded in them. In the case of the land register, the classification system is older than our constitution. What does that mean for real estate in view of the challenges of the 21st century?

The connection between climate change and the further global social and environmental crises becomes particularly clear on agricultural soils. Currently, animal husbandry, agriculture and forestry are  not only driving climate change , but are also destroying the adaptability of ecosystems, e.g. by lowering the groundwater level due to high water requirements, extinction of species due to monocultures and the use of pesticides and soil degradation. As a result, soils and ecosystems  lose their ability to absorb CO 2 , erode, dry out or are at risk of fire. More integrated and coherent climate and biodiversity governance is needed, and not just to consider and curb the chain reaction of damaged ecosystems .

Many climate scenarios and measures are currently thought to be "bottomless": They are based on the idea that greenhouse gases can be offset anywhere. But the wind turbines, solar systems and energy crops as well as forests for compensation measures need space. And this is  difficult to compensate for . Some scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)  have been criticized because the underlying models assume a surface capacity for CO 2 sinks that far exceeds the existing surfaces. So far, the area requirements of the announced voluntary CO 2- Compensation measures not added up, apart from the fact that these are sometimes claimed by several actors at the same time. As long as the space requirements of compensation measures are not analyzed, it is to be feared that we will need another planet just for the climate neutrality promises of corporations.

With emissions trading, a new ownership (regime) was created “out of thin air”. Ownership of land, on the other hand, cannot be “created” anew and its distribution has a long history of conflicts over ownership and use. Both climate change and climate and biodiversity policies are likely to intensify these conflicts. In agriculture, climate and biodiversity protection must therefore also be considered together with social justice. Access to land and safe (self-)supply with food must be ensured, especially for poorer groups, in order to contain the worsening of hunger, conflict and displacement as social chain reactions of climate change.

I therefore do not want to target the role of land users and EU agricultural policy as usual, but rather emphasize the importance of land ownership for socio-ecological transformation. While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change particularly emphasizes the importance of secure land rights for effective climate governance, I argue that ownership regimes must also be transparent and negotiable.

The implicit “climate oversight” of land ownership

With increasing environmental disasters and conflicts, it becomes clear that many commons are connected (and interact) on a property, such as biodiversity, material cycles, CO 2 sinks and (ground) water. Currently, neither regulation nor market instruments are able to keep these vital commons away from the free disposal of property owners in order to prevent ecological tragedies. Exactly  too much  private property on land - understood as the core of free disposal - means that every new overuse of a good on this area would have to result in a chain reaction of new certificates and regulations to protect private owners (and society) from their own actions to protect.

»To register is not just to register something, but to perceive something: registers encode values ​​into the practices and perceptions of the state.«

In public perception, land and forest oscillate between common property and private property: if the forest burns and dries up, it is common property. When it comes to subsidy programs and CO 2 certificates, land or forest ownership is often seen as a “service” that owners want to be paid for. At the same time, they benefit from the ground rent without having to do anything themselves, without protecting the invisible reproductive work of the ecosystems. On the contrary, the further increase in lease and land prices is restricting the financial scope for sustainable land use even more - with the same low property tax A for the owners.

The extent to which land ownership should not only be associated with rights, but also with duties and responsibilities is far too rarely debated. So far, landowners have hardly used their property rights to bind sustainability requirements to land use. This has already led to criticism of the leasing practice of churches and public institutions, whose mandate for the common good should also include sustainable land allocation. For example, a  citizens' alliance  has successfully initiated land leasing based on socio-ecological criteria for the city of Greifswald.

What is land ownership?

New laws and administrative strategies, such as the allocation of space based on criteria, are taking shape in bureaucratic structures. We talk a lot about digitization, but we don't pay much attention to the importance of the information infrastructures that are supposed to transform it. Even land ownership is not the land itself, but the bureaucratic artefacts in a database, which are called up and changed according to certain mechanisms. They link normative ideas and political goals with concrete measures and addressees. To register is not just to register, but to perceive: registers encode values ​​into the practices and perceptions of the state.

Despite the social-democratic model of a "broad diversification of land" for a free social order and the constitutionally anchored legal concept of "healthy agricultural structures", we have practically no systematic, empirical knowledge about it. The current conflicts about the country - be it "We're fed up", "Save the bees" or about land grabbing and farm deaths - show that no solutions for the social and ecological problems can be developed on the basis of the existing representations of rural areas permit. For this reason, research projects have been initiated in the last two years, which survey land ownership and market power on the land markets for the first time in the Federal Republic.

Knowledge and communication infrastructures often only become visible when they fail. This also became very clear during the last flood disaster. The increased attention to ownership structures also shows that agricultural and land market policies are based on data infrastructures with regard to the ownership of farms and land, which cannot perceive this reality at all  Their categories and classification systems as a basis for the implementation of regulatory measures are not designed for complex corporate links and the recording of wealth concentrations.

At the moment, even with great financial, technical and organizational effort, it could only be insufficiently determined how much land is leased or cultivated by contractors, in which global corporate networks and financial control relationships agricultural businesses are embedded and who the ultimate owners of companies registered in the land  register  or societies are. At least we know from the first survey of land ownership by the Thünen Institute in 59 communities in Germany: Even in western Germany, most of the land belongs to  non-farmers , for example corporations, churches, foundations, scattered private individuals, former farmers, heirs (communities) , noble families and investors.

Due to an EU regulation, the affiliation of farms to company groups was included in the nationwide agricultural structure survey for the first time this year. Before that, only individual farms were counted - even if hundreds of them belonged to a single group. Since last month we have known that more than 1.7 million hectares of the 16 million total agricultural area in Germany are farmed by groups of companies with more than 500 hectares per company. According to Destatis, corporate groups  each farm more than 2,000 hectares on an area of ​​one million hectares  . In Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia, more than 30% are owned by corporate groups. Based on a case study by the  Thünen Institute From 2017, the proportion of national investors in farms in eastern Germany was 25%, 12% of which were non-agricultural.

The obscurity of land ownership structures

Even if you could probably paper the area of ​​the Federal Republic with the statistics printed out by the Federal Statistical Office, we know practically nothing about the ownership structures of land. Not because data on landowners is classified. It is the technical, legal and organizational orientation of the state data systems in which the notion of land ownership as a locally and family-embedded area owned by natural persons is inscribed. In this image echoes the promise of enlightenment of the freedom and privacy of the individual. This is older than our current awareness of ecological (and social) problems and also than the Basic Law, which obliges property and makes it valid within the framework of the law.

The land register is often referred to as a mirror of property rights. But it is above all the mirror of a "possessive individualistic" concept of property - the idea that turns global soil into an isolable thing: the privacy of a single individual. According to Section 12 of the Land Register Code, access to owner information is therefore restricted because the land register contains sensitive personal information. This was particularly demanded by the Prussian nobility in the 19th century. If the rule actually only applied to the natural persons who live or work on their property, but not to the corporations and investors, then one would probably have to be able to view most of the land register without any problems.

»The privacy of assets is far better protected in Germany than that of individual citizens.«

While this legal hurdle for accessing owner information on a single property can be overcome, the technically configured restrictions for the collection of property circumstances are far greater: Because the land assets of a person or a company are fragmented into isolated properties in the classification system of each individual land register in a district. Their owners are therefore not clearly identifiable and therefore cannot be combined. There is also no link (e.g. through identifiers) to the commercial register, in which personal information of company shareholders is published. Thus, the ultimate owners of a company registered in the land register cannot be clearly assigned. While the citizen ID is coming, the owner has no ID in the land register.

The (family-run) individual farm is also still the focus of agricultural and land market policy. This often does not lead to his protection, but to legal loopholes for large corporations. In such cases, real estate and business property are treated as economic and living space for private individuals, even if this primarily protects the privacy of scattered investors and shareholders in companies – i.e. more of “capital collectives” – in an increasing proportion of the areas.

Property is not a law of nature

We use and understand complex numbers in other economic areas, such as gross domestic product, inflation or the Gini coefficient. But especially in the agricultural structure survey by Destatis - which deals with spatial structures and area sizes that are easy to visualize - the breakdown figures in tables have been preserved. Their size classes are so limited that large companies are disappearing there. So we literally cannot "see" the concentration and interdependencies of ownership. We pay billions in agricultural subsidies - and all that informs taxpayers about the profiting corporate structures and the distribution of land in agriculture are a few spreadsheets. An effective agricultural policy that wants to understand undesirable policy effects, e.g. EU subsidies,

Up until now, agricultural real estate transactions have also been primarily aimed at ensuring that individual areas are not further fragmented and not sold to non-farmers. Overall, this served the common good and Article 14 of the Basic Law, as the Federal Constitutional Court confirmed again in 1967. Legislative initiatives in some federal states are now planning to regulate the concentration of assets and the indirect sale of land through the sale of shares in companies (share deals). The term "healthy agricultural structure" must now be specified and sharpened.

»In order to meet the challenges of the 21st century, rights and obligations on the ground must be negotiable.«

What is unwanted market power and concentration of wealth in the sense of the common good? The legislative initiatives then find various solutions. It is suggested, for example, that the area concentration of an owner within a  spatial grid should be used in the future or to measure within a region, to set an absolute maximum area ownership or to stop the 25% of the largest companies from growing any further. And only recently was it argued that socio-ecological initiatives are also in the interests of a healthy agricultural structure and should therefore also have a right of first refusal. In research and legislation, there are signs of a search that sharpens the vague legal concept of “healthy agricultural structures” for the first time in relation to the question of what socially and ecologically sustainable land ownership could look like. A new perspective in administration in turn creates new databases that advance empirical research.

The practice, legitimacy and our perception of property are socially shaped and the subject of political and social debate. At the moment, there is a struggle in many places for new models of healthy agricultural structures, although we know so little about the actual distribution of land. So we need a reality check first. Therefore, I see an important political task in aligning data infrastructures in such a way that questions of wealth concentration and its impact on the common good and the free democratic order can be researched empirically. The introduction of an asset register is currently being examined at EU level. The assets on the ground and its ecosystems should also be more transparent in Germany. Because to meet the challenges of the 21st century,


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