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What is Land Tenure?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 09 September 2016
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Land tenure can be defined as the right to hold property (and other property like homes on land). The way that tenure is determined may vary depending on the country and sometimes land tenure exclusively refers to the way that land was distributed in Medieval Europe under the feudal system. Of course, the word tenure must be taken into account too, and it can be defined as right to hold or conditions on which right to hold or possess are established. The conditions get complicated when determining how people might have land tenure today.

In the feudal system in Europe, much of the land was belonged to rulers, but these rulers gave land tenure to a variety of people, including the nobility. The upper nobility held the land, but with their tenure could distribute to others like knights, who might distribute it even more. Payment for this land was ultimately duty to the king, the noble, the knight, or whoever had allowed someone else to live on it or hold it. At the very basest level, serfs occupied small rights to their living spaces and paid for them through their work.

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Should whatever agreed upon terms of land tenure be ignored, the person who had conferred the land could take it away. Thus, there always existed the sense that terms to hold the land had to be kept, and this created loyalty from the bottom up, and often unity if wars needed to be fought. Of course, holding the land in this way made upward mobility in caste difficult; the average serf was never likely to possess more than a shabby stone or wood cottage, if that.

There are still discussions about land tenure, though gradually in Europe, most people came to define terms of holding in different ways, such as paying property taxes instead of granting allegiance to a particular crown. This issue was a major one in colonizing North and South America. Many of the North American Indians did not view owning property as possible, and thus they did not fight for ownership or necessarily recognize the claims of ownership of land that were staked by the colonists. In any culture where different ideas of land tenure come together, the results can be tragic and/or combustible. There are still countries especially with indigenous populations that have clashes on this issue or try to figure out how it is that people perceive right to property.

In many places today, the idea of land tenure is more modernly constructed. The right to hold is defined all the time, by mortgages, by rent or lease agreements, and by taxation laws. Most people know exactly what their tenure is and try to stay within whatever formal agreements they’ve made so they do not lose it.

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