The Riches of Nature v. Private Property: An Interview With Gerardo Cerdas


Gerardo Cerdas is coordinator of the Latin American- and Caribbean-wide social movement Grito de los Excluidos, Cry of the Excluded. He is also a sociologist and researcher. A native of Costa Rica, Cerdas lives in Brazil.

All the peoples of the world, without exception — except for modern culture — have always based their material culture on the concept that property is communally owned. Property — land, food, etc. — was always shared. This has been the case for tribal, nomadic societies and for other, more politically developed societies in different parts of the world. Private property, as something natural and inviolable, is a product of history, and as such can be stripped down to its roots, and more importantly, can be modified within a utopian vision integrated into our political practice. 

I’m not romanticizing history; I’m not saying that everything was better in the past. Obviously, there was violence. Obviously, the accumulation of wealth has always existed in different forms, especially since the agricultural revolution about 10,000 years back. This accumulation gave certain people, like kings, priests, and warriors, more power and privilege than other members of society.

But the notion of one person or a group of persons having exclusive, sovereign rights to property: this did not exist. Property was collectively held. And the excessive ownership of this property by a group of people brought about the collapse of a society.

The concept of private property is something relatively new in human history, no more than five or six centuries in gestation. It’s been affirmed progressively during the violent expropriation of communal rights to the land and its fruits, first in Europe and later in areas that fell under its colonial dominion, from the 16th century until today. The industrial revolution and the [French] revolution of the 18th century helped concretize the exclusive and inalienable concept.

Our society needs to move towards a new understanding that our way of creating and destroying wealth needs to be based on other principles. Collective wealth, as in the concept of the global commons, belongs to all of us, not just to those of us who are alive today, nor even those who will come after us in the future, nor just to human beings. We need to do what we can to have a sustainable life, to have a quality, dignified life that also allows all other living beings to have a quality, dignified life, now and in the future.

The dominant, hegemonic civilization that exists today is an anthropocentric civilization. In this civilization, human beings, “man,” take center stage. We act as if the natural world were nothing more than a series of reserves that are there for us to exploit and use indiscriminately and irrationally. But the riches of nature are there for all of us.

Perhaps a metaphor that I could use to illustrate this is sunlight. The light that the sun gives off doesn’t belong to anyone. It can’t be captured, sold or bought, even though it can be stored in solar cells. The same goes for the air, and for the plants, and so on. Nothing belongs to anyone specifically; everything belongs to us all. Ancestral indigenous communities always understood this very clearly. There is a great book that has helped me to understand this, called The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi. It makes very clear how the development of capitalism and the notion of private property were imposed over the concept of the communal ownership of the earth, of nature.

So when we talk about communal property, when we talk about nature as something communal, we’re talking about the fact that this is something that belongs to all of us, not just to human beings. When we see that the Bolivian Constitution and the Ecuadorian Constitution talk about the “rights of Mother Earth,” for instance, we realize that we need to transform our anthropocentric worldview. Human beings aren’t the only ones with rights. Nature has rights as well. The environment is a living thing as well. There are many living species on this planet. And if these species didn’t exist, if the millions of natural biological processes didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be able to exist, either.

True strength is not found in capitalist economic power. True strength is found in life, in nature. And that sort of strength cannot be destroyed. It can’t be bought or sold. It’s comes from realizing that we’re part of the natural world. This is why, in Latin America — at least in the case of those of us who are part of social movements — we continue to become more and more aware that we’re not just struggling to earn more money or have better salaries. Of course, we’d like to have better living conditions, but our struggle goes beyond that. It’s about the defense of life in all its forms.

The first morning of the last international gathering of Grito de los Excluidos, we had a ceremony that lasted almost four hours. We invoked our ancestors, our roots, our connection with nature, with each other, with other living beings. This connection applies to all humans, even to people in the United States — they’ve just been forgetting that fact. The economic system, the media, the ideological and political systems are very powerful, and they’ve made people forget their true essence, their true nature. But they’ve just forgotten; they haven’t lost it.

I remember a documentary I saw a long time ago that really struck me. It was about the production of coffee in Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro. The cultivation of coffee has had enormous environmental effects; it practically eliminated the forest coverage of the Rio de Janeiro area. Some areas became so thoroughly destroyed that, to this day, they can’t be used for anything; what exists there today is something we could essentially call “dead land.” In this documentary, they interviewed a man who lived alone with his brother on a coffee plantation that, 150 years ago, had been one of the largest coffee plantations in the region, with 1,100 slaves. And today, it’s a desert. They asked the owner of the land today, “What do you think of the future generations?” and he responded, “Screw them. I don’t care about them.”

The mentality of destroying the natural world and saying, “Screw the next generation,” can’t continue. We have to think of all this communal wealth as something that’s here for those of us who are alive today, for the future generations who will live here tomorrow, and for non-human beings as well. Many of us have sons and daughters, some of us have children who haven’t been born yet, and when we think about what sort of world we are creating for them, that’s when we reflect long and hard on this issue. Because nobody wants their children to go hungry, to be tortured or persecuted, to be poor. So this is how we need to think: “I’m going to imagine that all the children in the world are my own children.” We can look around and think this way: “Those people are my parents, my grandparents. Those are my sisters and brothers over there. And I don’t want them to suffer.”

I don’t believe that we are instinctually self-centered; I believe we are instinctually generous. And the generosity of humanity has been ever-present and visible. We’re just forgetting about it these days. We can’t let that happen. We have to protect the memory of who we are.

In Brazil, the motto of Grito de los Excluidos is “Life Comes First.” This has to be at the forefront of our minds. Every year, we come up with a new motto, but we always stick with this “Life Comes First” and then follow it up with that year’s motto. Every year, it’s like that, because that is truly what has to come first, every year. It can’t take second seat to anything else. Our struggle isn’t primarily about getting better wages, having a car, having a house. It’s to defend life. If we don’t have life, we don’t have anything else.

Read Part 1 of this interview here.

Many thanks to David Schmidt for translating Cerdas’ interview.

Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women’s Stories of Survival and Resistance and Fault Lines: Views across Haiti’s New Divide. She coordinates Other Worlds, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. You can access all of Other Worlds’ past articles regarding post-earthquake Haiti here.