The Moral Economies of Agricultural Production and the Role of Property Relations

This is part of our special feature on Food, Food Systems, and Agriculture.

The meaning and practice of property in rural Sardinia is the outcome of historical notions of land use, and of negotiations among different levels of power. In looking at how property systems and local moral economies impact agricultural production processes in two provinces, Gallura and Ogliastra, I borrowed from Joseph Singer’s property studies, and from his analysis of the political dimensions of property that looks at property as an expression of power relations and a mirror of the values that characterize a specific society (2000). He explains how property systems control access to material goods and, therefore, to land as well.” “Paradoxically,” Singer clarifies, “property is both an individual entitlement and a social system” (2000: 14), and as such, is always subject to negotiation. More specifically, property refers to a system of rights that are political and frequently re-negotiated, and the terms of those negotiations are widely diverse across time and space (Von Benda-Beckmann et al. 2006). The elements that define property are determined by political, economic, and cultural circumstances, at a specific historical time and geographical location. The Sardinian cases described here constitute another vivid example of the manner in which local rural communities, at different junctures of history, negotiate workable solutions to issues of property. And these solutions, as my field research highlights, can be very diverse, showing a multifunctional panorama of different “properties,” and of different local arrangements and institutional agreements. These issues are the focus of many of the current studies on property, and on its multiple dimensions and functions, and are addressed by scholar such as Geisler (2004), Peters (2006), Meijl (2006), Von Benda Beckman (2009), and Wiber (2006).

When looking at local moral economies, I borrow from Mitchell’s argument that informal arrangements are expanding, all around the world, possibly at a faster pace than formal market arrangements, based on private property rights (2014). These arrangements exist outside of the market and of the laws of property, but are not lawless. Borrowing from Agamben (2005), Mitchell uses the term “inclusive exclusion,” in order to describe the process of dispossession of the poorer people, which starts exactly with the transformation of their land and assets into private goods, soon to be traded in the market, from which they are excluded. His critique has been very important in my analysis of the forms of property, other than private, through which Sardinian communities are keeping their land outside of the market and, in this way, preserving access to this fundamental resource, both in the present and within an intergenerational perspective.


Questions and opportunities

How do diverse property systems work in order to ensure access to land and the management of local resource? What role do moral economies play beyond property? Von Benda-Beckmann and Wiber (2006) find these questions intriguing, and argue that property regimes cannot be expressed by any one-dimensional political, economic, or legal model: they are multi-dimensional and multi-functional. This is why scholars have used the concept of “jurisdictional pluralism” and rejected monistic and state-centered legal models to analyze the complexities of property systems. Geisler goes further, and reminds that while “property is embedded in social, political and economic organizations,” these organizations “…may or may not be working states” (2006: 51). He problematizes the idea, rooted in the Western world classical economics (Locke 1988), that states exist in order to protect property, and analyzes critically recent studies on traditional property systems (Scott 1998) that consider their apparent complexity as anachronistic, because of their illegibility to state administrators.

My ethnographic research represents an opportunity for trying to answer these questions and contributes to the debates in the literature on property, and to the analysis of its complexities. Although they do not represent all current property regimes in Sardinia, Gallura and Ogliastra  offer a better understanding of the diversity of property regimes within the same region. I focused on the stazzo in Gallura – a rural self-sufficient system of agricultural production-, while in Ogliastra I focused on the local system of community ownership and management of the land, called usi civici. The prevalence of private property in Gallura and of common property in Ogliastra   exemplifies the different patterns through which rural communities organize access to resources, and negotiate them with different types of governance. My observation, in both provinces, of local moral economics, reveals their impact in the communities’ livelihoods, and their role as a buffer against the uneven distribution of wealth and the uncertainties of the local and global economy. It became clear to me, early on in my research in Sardinia, that a moral framework governed much of the economic behavior that I observed in rural areas of Ogliastra and Gallura. Scott (1977) indicated that the concept is relevant primarily to subsistence-based peasant societies, where the margin of economic comfort or survival is relatively thin. Many theorists of the concept, however, such as Brown and Garver (2010) have broadened the reach of the moral economy concept, and have made clear it is not limited to peasant resistance to market-induced inequalities, or only applicable to subsistence economies in the Global South. Moreover, the diversity of rural Europe has been described by many researchers and policy analysts as one of its main strengths (Bryden 2002; Dormal-Marino 2010; Goodman 2004; Ray 2000). My contribution in the present work is to bring the particulars of the Sardinian cases forward for closer examination within the European range, and thereby expanding the understanding of European diversity in the area of local rural economies and land tenure systems.


The moral economies of access to resources: Historical roots and current practices

While talking with a family of a stazzo owner in Gallura about the management of the stazzo’s land, the family’s movements between the nearby town and the countryside, and the exchange of work with other owners, the property relationships through which land access and land tenure was organized emerged from the observation of the local practices. In Ogliastra, during my participation at the meetings in which land users and the mayors and other public officers discussed the issues at stake in the management of the land under usi civici, I could observe not only the different levels of governance involved in the management of the usi civici, but also how the collective work of this informal group of citizens influenced access to resources and, even more so, property. Therefore, when I talk about property, I am referring to a system of social relationships, in which the norms that govern use and access to resources are partially derived from rights, and they are more importantly embedded in moral economies. Today’s land use practices are drawn from historical notions of property use and social access, production, and reproduction. These observations constitute the main argument that I am making in this work, and that I will elaborate in the following section.

Examining the historical origins of the current land tenure system is especially important in order to understand the role played by central and local level governance and by local populations’ moral economies. In Sardinia, one of the main historical events that impacted the present land tenure system is the 1821 Enclosures Law, or Regio Decreto of King Vittorio Emanuele, who in that period governed the Kingdom of Piemonte and Sardegna and first mandated rural land privatization. The Enclosures Law, aimed also at the abolition of the usi civici, was fully implemented in 1836, and ensured the legal recognition of private property titles for local land users who could manage to enclose and claim land that had historically collectively belonged to each town’s population and had been managed through traditional common property rules and regulations.  The ubiquitous stone walls that divide the different plots of land across the Sardinian landscape, which visibly cross the rural land in Gallura and Ogliastra, still give silent testimony to the divisions that the Enclosures Law created in Sardinian rural society, and to the official ignorance and neglect of long-standing local regulation of resource access and use, something that characterized not only King Vittorio Emanuele government, but also many other island governments since.

However, in several Sardinian provinces, and particularly in Ogliastra, the institution of usi civici survived, as the Sardinian scholar Masia (1992) has stressed, despite all the assaults and attempts to undermine it from legislators, who had started in 1821 with the previously mentioned Enclosures Law. This land tenure system was therefore born out of the conflicts between Sardinian and Italian legislators, and the local communities. Since they are locally managed at the municipal level, the rules through which land access is regulated among the different users can vary from town to town, even within the same province. This diversity is considered by Sardinian and Italian scholars (Masia 1992; Nervi 2004; Nuvoli 1998) one of the most remarkable characteristics of the usi civici and the main cause for their successful implementation and resilience. Usi civici’s intrinsic flexibility allows the communities to preserve their land and to adapt its use to their needs, which can change according to the community’s composition and to the local and external circumstances. In the case of Ogliastra, the extended pastureland under usi civici addresses the needs of a prevalent number of shepherds, without neglecting farmers’ need for agricultural plots, and the need of the whole communities for basic services that can improve rural communities’ quality of life, such as roads, electricity, and irrigation systems.


Labor exchange and the moral economies of agricultural production

“We want to control our land.” This was the frequent statement that accompanied people’s explanation of how rural communities in Gallura and Ogliastra managed the rural areas where they worked and sometimes lived. It is true that land control means different things in different places but, with reference to Gallura and Ogliastra, it does have one common element: it is local. And, it is exerted by the members of the community, and aimed at protecting families’ livelihood, through local moral economics, and social control. As Powelson puts it, such social control is not imposed by governments, but organized by the communities involved in the management and distribution of local resources (Powelson 2000). Labor exchanges is a moral economy that has a long tradition in Sardinia, and became common among the transhumant shepherds that worked for the feudal lord in sixteenth century Gallura, and among shepherds and farmers of fifteenth century Ogliastra. In Ogliastra, the traditional labor exchange between shepherds and farmers occurs during harvesting and sheep-shearing, and can be organized as an exchange among households, or as a communitarian activity.

During harvesting, family members visit the household in need of help, and collaborate in all the activities that have to be carried out in the fields and in the homesteads. During sheep shearing, one or more shepherds arrive at dawn and have an early meal, with bread, cheese, and often dried sausage, given by the owner of the flock. During this mea,l they organize the work to be done, and then form pairs who work together on shearing. The best example of agricultural labor organized as a communitarian activity is the agliola, common among Gallura’s peasants used mainly among different stazzo owners. The agliola, whose literal translation from Gallurese language into Italian refers to the threshing process though which mature grain is separated from chaff, has acquired a peculiar meaning in Gallura. There, the term is used to indicate the gathering of different neighboring stazzi owners who, during the threshing period, joined together on one particular stazzo with enough space to accommodate everyone. The way in which the wheat was harvested and all the different phases of the threshing process were organized following a ritual that included specific distributions of labor within the agliola exchange, with celebratory meals at the end of work periods.

The moral economies included the non-written commitment among members of the rural communities to collectively compensate the shepherd or farmers for the livestock that they had lost during the previous year to theft, disease, or other reasons. They changed over the centuries, reflecting the political and social transformation of the two provinces, and the different ways in which access to land has been negotiated at a local level. However, the exchange of labor among members of the rural communities, and reciprocal support in case of financial challenges, such as the loss of livestock, both remain today as common practices in rural Sardinia. Sardinian shepherds offer the support needed in situations of livestock loss and subsequent financial constrain, due to unfortunate events, such as a wildfire or earthquake, as well as to rural communities outside of Sardinia. The most recent cases are, in 2009 the donation, from Sardinian shepherds of one thousand sheep to the shepherds of Abruzzo and, in 2017, the donation, of one thousand sheep to colleagues from Cascia, in the region of Umbria, following the earthquakes that devastated these regions, and where the local shepherds lost almost all their flocks. This donation is part of a local tradition that is currently practiced and is called “sa paradura,” which means “resist together.” Sardinian local governments have been very important in acknowledging local moral economies, and in crafting understandings that mediate between local needs and wider political and economic contexts. Not only shepherds and farmers, in other words, but also town officials, are fundamental participants in developing local solutions that can ensure communities’ livelihoods.

My conversations with rural communities opened up, little by little, the details of multiple property systems, and of a multilayered moral economy through which community members organize their work in town and on rural land. These details, that at times offered new “interpretative windows” and at other times contradicted each other, gave me a deep sense of the daily life arrangements, reproduction activities, and contentious relationships among the individual members of the community, and between them and the old and new levels of governance that they were dealing with.


The role of European Union policies

While municipal and regional governments are among the traditional institutions with which communities negotiate current property relationships, European Union policies have acquired a growing role in the organization of the current activities carried out in rural areas, with particular reference to the LEADER[1] Program and ENRD.[2] These programs aim at encouraging the preservation and enhancement of the diversified land use practices that characterize most production and reproduction activities in Europe’s rural land (EU Commission 2006). However, while the declared goal of European Union rural development policies is to help “rural stakeholders harness rural diversity as a driving force for a wide range of sustainable rural development activity” (Fisher Boel 2009: 13), there are inconsistencies in the way in which the programs are designed, especially the LEADER and ENRD programs.

The LEADER has been critical in fostering new uses for rural land, such as agritourism and organic farms, in Sardinia as well as all around Italy. However, the requirement of private ownership title to the land in order to access European Union funding, while revealing a commitment to the market economy, also discloses a profound contradiction between the declared intent of European Union policies and the way in which they can be applied on the ground. This factor represents a serious limitation, particularly in the context of rural Europe, historically characterized by a diverse land tenure system that seems completely ignored by European Union policies. Similarly, the ENRD still maintains land privatization as a requirement in order to access EU rural development funding. At the same time, it promotes the diversification of rural activities that are considered to be one the main strengths of the EU rural economy. However, such diversification should also be understood to include diversified land use practices that encompass all the land ownership forms that are found locally, including public, private, and common. This contentious issue reflects the internal contradictions in EU programs, and the problematic attempt to promote the market economy, while enhancing rural development practices and supporting social relationships that are based on both economic and non-economic values.

Such values are deeply rooted in the “traces” that historical events left in each province, and that are visible in the daily lives of local people—in their practices and in their social relations that define the meaning that land property has at the community level. From observation and analysis of these practices, land property emerges as a system of social relationships. Access to land is regulated by norms that reveal deep roots into these relationships through which legal rights have been created, accepted, or ignored. These norms are embedded in moral economies where they are negotiated, adapted to situated circumstances, and where new norms are produced. Norms are, therefore, permeated with the “traces” of historical notions of property use and social access, and with the production and reproduction practices that they regulate. “We are born of the earth; we live on the earth; we are inspired by the earth. The earth is our home,” wrote the Japanese human geographer Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1903: 25). In my walks though Gallura and Ogliastra, I kept remembering his inspiring words and realizing how deep and multilayered was the connection that each community had with their land, with their own home, which is also their common heritage.


Angela Cacciarru holds a PhD in human geography from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill with a focus on political ecology and sustainable land use and a Master in geography from the Universidade Nova, Lisbon (Portugal) with a focus on rural and urban planning. Her current research looks at access to land and moral economies of sustainable food production in cities. She examines how urban farms impact local land use practices and regulations and their contribution as a response to the challenges of restoring cities’ ecological integrity, redesigning systems of production and consumption, and promoting social and ecological justice through a re-thinking of urban citizenship She also has an extensive experience as academic instructor in Italy and the United States and currently teaches in South Florida.

Photo: Angela Cacciarru



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[1] LEADER stands for “rural development projects’ networking” (Liaisons Entre Actions de Développement de l’Economie Rurale). This program was launched in 1991 to fund rural development projects at the community level, such as small local businesses for the transformation and marketization of agricultural products, or for the artisanal production of local pottery or textiles. However, the broader goal was promoting networking among the communities where these activities were implemented.

[2] ENRD stands for European Network for Rural Development (ENRD), and it was launched by the European Union Commission on October 2008. The approach of the ENRD reflects the “Community Strategic Guidelines for Rural Development” approved by the European Union Commission in 2006.


Published on September 5, 2018.


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