Framing Property Rights in a Global Context

Professor Katharina Pistor and other scholars debate core values for cross-border and multi-dimensional property transactions.

[NOTE: In reporting on this event, the Chatham House rules applied, in order to spark open discussion and the sharing of information. Thus speakers and their comments are not identified specifically.]

New York, December 17, 2012—As a preview to an upcoming conference on governing access to scarce, essential resources, the Columbia Law School Center on Global Legal Transformation organized a roundtable on property rights at the Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University. The panel was co-chaired by Katharina Pistor, the Michael I. Sovern Professor of Law and the director of the Center on Global Legal Transformation, and Olivier De Schutter, the James S. Carpentier Visiting Professor of Law from the University of Louvain in Belgium, who also serves as the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.
In a discussion that spanned several disciplines and the globe, five panelists addressed complications in property rights in the face of worldwide wheeling and dealing for resource-rich land and their distributional implications. The panelists’ views were shaped, in part, by research on varying geographic regions. They included two Law School visiting professors, Sudhir Krishnaswamy, the Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Visiting Professor of Indian Constitutional Law from Azim Premji University in Bangalore, and Hanoch Dagan, the Justin D'Atri Visiting Professor of Law, Business, and Society from Tel Aviv Law School in Israel, as well as Professor Paige West of Barnard College, Professor Terra Lawson-Remer of The New School, and Klaus Deninger, a lead economist at The World Bank.
Land grabs around the world present challenges that are a far cry from the texts of 18th century English jurist William Blackstone and the recitation of the fee simple estate, pillars of Western common law on property. But, with diverse property ownership systems around the world, some questioned whether a universal solution is possible, and more importantly, how to bring into congruence conflicting goals of property regimes: equity, efficiency and sustainability, where “economic efficiency” is meant to ensure the best uses of the land; “social equity” access for all to minimum level of key resources; and “environmental sustainability” the preservations of essential resources for future generations.
To call attention to the importance of these goals in relation to essential goods, the round table was entitled “Triangulating Property Rights.” Topics included practical issues, like how to allocate food and water as new pressures arise from the vast global consumption of resources, highly developed extraction technologies, and the influence of foreign corporate wealth.
The issue of local land control and international investors is erupting even now in Myanmar, noted one panelist. Local villagers and monks are protesting displacement from expanded copper mining by a Chinese-owned company that brokered an agreement with the former military junta. In focused analyses, panelists raised additional concerns.
For example, in the resource-rich Pacific Island nation of Papua New Guinea, the subject of one panelist’s research, 97 percent of the land is owned by indigenous people under “customary land tenure” and transactions are subject to social, traditional, and familial considerations. Under new lease-leaseback schemes arranged by the government, this customary ownership can be thwarted: one community of 20,000 woke up to discover that its entire island had been licensed to a foreign firm, the panelist said.
India is grappling, for the first time, with a system to allocate ground water, explained another panelist. The central debate is between industrial and nonindustrial uses. A new 2011 regulation used theories of a public land trust to create a structure for ground water usage, but how the plan will translate to local governance and community needs remains to be seen, the panelist said.
In closing, one of the moderators noted that there are more questions than answers.
The June conference, held by the Center on Global Legal Transformation, will explore alternative governance regimes for “essential goods”–i.e. goods on which humans depend for their survival. A call for research proposals has been launched and will remain open until January 15, 2013. The Center examines the impact of new forms of governance in the wake of globalization.