by Bill Weinberg, Skunk Magazine

On Maple Street in the Brooklyn enclave of Prospect Lefferts Gardens there is a little plot of land filled with garden beds where local residents grow kale, garlic, beans, peppers and other such organic yummies. Aptly if not imaginatively named Maple Street Community Garden, this is, like many such gardens around New York City, reclaimed land. When local residents moved in and started turning it into a garden three years ago, it had for years before that been a blighted vacant lot, weeds growing amid dumped washing machines and car parts. "It was a total jungle," said Tom La Farge, one of the gardeners. He was shoveling compost when I dropped by the garden on a cold day in early March.

The garden has received some acknowledgement from pillars of the city's establishment. The Maple Street Block Association received a $1,000 grant from the Citizens' Committee of New York to clean up the lot. The garden is now part of the GreenBridge network, set up by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to promote urban greening with plant and seed donations.

But on September 22, 2014, the brothers Michael and Joseph Makhani—partners in a limited liability company claiming to own the plot—showed up at the garden, tore down the sign on the fence reading "Maple Street Community Garden," and told the gardeners to clear out. When they refused, the brothers retorted, "You'll leave when the back-hoes come," La Farge recalls.

The following day, a work-crew showed up in a truck. One of the garden beds was damaged before the police arrived. The cops sent the crew away. "They know us, not them," La Farge explained. But in November, a Notice of Eviction from the Makhanis was placed inside one of the garden beds. This was the beginning of a complicated legal battle that is still not resolved, and on which the fate of the garden hangs.

The entity demanding eviction of the garden is Housing Urban Development LLC of the Makhani brothers, who have a history of dubious doings—beginning with the company's name, obviously intended to sow confusion with the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). They are claiming the property on very murky grounds.

The Kafkaesque details provide a window on a growing trend in New York City—and around the planet. A house on the site had been abandoned after the elderly West Indian immigrant couple who had owned it died, and it burned to the ground in 1999. In 2003, the lot was sold to one Brooklyn LLC and then to HUD LLC—both entities of the Makhani brothers, in what La Farge calls a "shell game." It had supposedly been sold to Brooklyn LLC by heirs of the couple who owned the house. "We don’t think those heirs existed," La Farge flatly told me.

The gardeners hired an heir locator, who failed to turn up anyone. La Farge testified before the City Council in January on deed fraud—seeing the Maple Street example as a case study. The deed the LLC produced contained numerous weird anomalies—including the ludicrously low price of $5,000 and obvious spelling errors. (It was supposedly notarized in "Worchester, Massachusets"—with both the city and state spelled wrong!)

With eviction of the garden pending before city Housing Court, the LLC applied for the right to build a 17-unit condo development on site. They also went to state court, with a "motion to quiet title"—that is, establish their clear ownership of the lot.

The gardeners were barred from the site by court order from June 25 to July 28, 2015. Then an appeals court overturned the restraining order, and the gardeners were let back in. The court appointed a guardian to oversee the property until that matter is settled. In December 2015 the guardian formally found that the gardeners could have continued access to the site. The Housing Court meanwhile barred the LLC from property. For the moment, the tables had turned.

By then the case was getting some media attention. Commentators recalled an earlier case involving the Makhani brothers that came to light thanks to the work of a trio of young film-makers who were producing a documentary entitled Subprimed about the mortgage crisis in 2008. The Makhani brothers had their lawyer send the film-makers a "cease and desist" letter to suppress the project, but this backfired, resulting in some unpleasant media coverage. The New York Times on Sept. 5, 2009 wrote that "both Makhani brothers pleaded guilty in federal court in 1999 to taking part in a scheme involving foreclosed properties in Queens; they were fined and sentenced to three months in prison."

The makers of Subprimed were looking into what the Times called the Makhani brothers' "shady mortgage practices" in Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood. This time they were doing business under the moniker Housing Preservation Development LLC—obviously intended to cause confusion with the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development! Asked by the film-makers whether the name was intended to mislead, Joseph Makhani actually said, "If the client is stupid, that’s not my problem. We're not going to have classes to teach people how to read."

The Makhanis' attorney, Andrew Lolli of the firm Robinson Brog, failed to return repeated phone calls from this reporter asking for a quote.

For now, the Maple Street Community Garden is still there. There is no lock on the gate, and by summer it should be bringing forth its fourth season of organic veggies. But the cases in Housing Court and state court are both pending. The gardeners are petitioning both the city and state to take the plot by eminent domain and formally turn it into parkland, with the garden protected in perpetuity.

Meanwhile, there are several such cases around Brooklyn and elsewhere in the city. The Eldert Street Garden in Bushwick and the Roger That Garden on Rogers Ave. in Crown Heights are waging similar battles against property-grabs by suspected fraudsters.


From Brooklyn to Mongolia
This seemingly small struggle in Brooklyn is paradigmatic of a terrifying global trend. According to the anti-poverty group Oxfam, over the past decade, more than 81 million acres of land worldwide—an area the size of Portugal—has been sold off to foreign investors. Many of these deals are what's known as "land grabs."

Kate Geary, Oxfam’s land rights policy expert, says "land-grabbing is defined by whether the communities that live on the lands have had free, prior and informed consent. Was there transparency? Have human rights been respected? It doesn't have to do with how big an acquisition is or whether it was bought or leased, but what was the process. If you did it in a way that abrogates the rights of the communities that depend on that land for their livelihood, it s a land grab."gar

The definition was formalized in a document called the Tirana Declaration in 2011, when the International Land Coalition—consisting of 116 organizations from community groups to aid agencies like Oxfam to the World Bank—met in the Albanian capital. I caught up with Geary by phone when she was at The Hague, in the Netherlands, to launch a "Global Call to Action on Indigenous and Community Land Rights." The Netherlands government was the first to sign on to the call.

Officiating at The Hague meeting was Joji Cariño, an activist from the Philippines, who organized against land-grabbing for hydro-electric projects in her country. In her comments at The Hague, she invoked Berta Cáceres, the indigenous leader in Honduras who similarly defended her people's lands from a mega-hydro scheme—and was assassinated when gunmen raided her home and shot her in her bed on the night of March 3. "We are all Berta," Cariño told the proceedings.

"We are calling for land controlled by indigenous peoples and community lands, or commons, to be doubled worldwide by 2020," explains Geary. "There are 3.5 billion people worldwide who depend on common lands for their livelihood, and they are very vulnerable to land-grabbing. The global rush for land is leaving people hungry."

And some of the companies involved are using tactics that will seem all too familiar to the gardeners of Brooklyn. According to Oxfam, between 2010 and 2012, Cargill—the largest agricultural commodity trader in the world—acquired 52,576 hectares (128,000 acres) of land in Colombia through 36 shell companies created for this purpose. Oxfam charges that Cargill is seeking to evade Colombia's legal restrictions on the size of hand-holdings "through a method of fragmented purchases."

Land-grabbing has "accelerated incredibly" since 2008, Geary told me. She blames two inter-related crises that hit that year: the food price spike and financial crash. "Investors wanted a place to put money. Land was seen as the new gold—a place to buy cheap and make a quick buck. And with the food price crisis, countries that need to import food started buying up farmlands overseas."

This was exacerbated by the "expanding appetite for commodities like palm oil and bio-fuels." The bio-fuel mandates in the European Union, ironically plugged as an ecological solution, "have driven a bio-fuel rush in Africa and Latin America."

The stories mount from across the planet—whether for food, bio-fuels, hydro power or mining. In the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, paramilitary groups last year assassinated peasant leaders defending their lands from mineral companies. Cambodia, where a lawless atmosphere still prevails after decades of war, has seen repeated angry protests by villagers who say foreign-owned sugar plantations are seizing their lands.

In Ethiopia, fighting left dozens dead last year when the government tried to round up traditional semi-nomadic pastoralists in the Lower Omo Valley in a "villagization" program to clear their lands for commercial plantations.

In Uganda last June, a group of peasant women stripped naked in front of soldiers and police—a traditional form of shaming and dishonoring in Africa—while chanting "Lobowa, lobowa!"—"our land" in the Luo language. The soldiers had come to officially "demarcate" the peasants' lands for new private investors—a government policy that exploits the fact that peasant communities often lack official title to their lands.

In the Uganda case, the lands had been sold off when the villagers were forcibly relocated to government camps (ostensibly for their protection) during the 18-year war with the Lord's Resistance Army. Now that they are returning, they find that the government had sold 827 square kilometers (over 200,000 acres) of their traditional lands as a "game reserve" to be leased to investors.

In Colombia too, new land empires have been consolidated where peasant communities have been terrorized from their lands over the past generation by right-wing paramilitary groups—officially illegal, but in fact tied to both the big landlords and the official armed forces.

Even in supposedly “communist” China, forced evictions are on the rise as local authorities seek to offset huge debts by seizing and then selling off land in suspect deals with property developers—resulting in numerous incidents of rural unrest over the past years.

In China's Inner Mongolia region, traditional herders have been imprisoned for protesting the seizure of local grazing lands by forestry and mining companies linked to corrupt local officials.

And bringing the story back to the United States, members of the San Carlos Apache tribe of Arizona last summer traveled to Washington DC to protest the proposed Resolution Copper Mine slated for lands that they hold sacred. The area, called Oak Flat, was a part of the Tonto National Forest before a sneaky provision of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act "swapped" the land to the copper company. A bill sponsored by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) aims to repeal that measure, but Resolution Copper hopes to start mining this year. Tribe member Standing Fox said at the protest outside the Capitol building, "I'll die for my land." If lobbying and legislation don't work, then in a "worst-case scenario, we will be out there blockading. We'll be stopping the whole process physically."

This global phenomenon "has massive implications for climate change," Geary says. “The land being grabbed is often forest land, and it is converted to plantations. Or pasture lands and rangelands where communities don't have formal title are being grabbed, and are growing crops that aren't so efficient at storing carbon. These lands are carbon sinks, and they are being lost. Indigenous peoples and communities are the best custodians of the land, and the best hope for stopping climate change."

As daunting as the problem is, Geary insists that we as consumers can have an impact. "Ask the companies you buy from to adopt a zero-tolerance for land-grabs policy." Oxfam currently has a campaign targeting Coca-Cola, Nestle and other food giants. "Throw your support behind the communities that need rights to their lands. This is a crisis where we need everyone’s help."

There is a principle deeply rooted in every pre-capitalist culture on the planet—including English Common Law—that unused lands return to the commons, to be worked by the local inhabitants. From Brooklyn to Uganda to Mongolia, the assault on this principle has implications for human race's very survival.


This story first appeared in the April/May 2016 edition of Skunk Magazine.

Top photo: Gambela, Ethiopia?. Credit: Schadomski/DW
Bottom photo: Maple Street Community Garden. Credit: The Villager

From our Daily Report:

African women protest at Mt. Kilimanjaro
CounterVortex, Oct. 16, 2016

Peasant strike rocks Colombia
CounterVortex, June 2, 2016

Next for Honduras: 'charter city' neocolonialism?
CounterVortex, June 9, 2012

Biofuels: not so groovy after all
CounterVortex, Oct. 25, 2009

See also:

by Anabela Lemos, Toward Freedom
CounterVortex, April 2016

by John Ahni Schertow, Intercontinental Cry
CounterVortex , December 2012

Peruvian Rainforest Dwellers Charge Privatization Scheme
by Bill Weinberg, Indian Country Today
CounterVortex, June 2012


Reprinted by CounterVortex, Jan. 13, 2017