Empyrean Research is pleased to share its latest video interview in its ongoing series of profiles of global practitioners of participatory research. Empyrean Research director Felix Bivens interviews Dr. Shaunna Scott, the Director of Appalachian Studies at the University of Kentucky. Scott is part of the organizing team for a new Appalachian land ownership study. In the interview she discusses the original land ownership study, later published as Who Owns Appalachia in 1983, and the impact of that work. She argues for why the time is right for a new study of land ownership in the region. See the blogpost below for more information about the history, impact and contemporary significance of the land study.
Land and Taxes
Who Owns Appalachia, a large scale investigation into land ownership and taxation in southern Appalachia, is a landmark publication for several reasons. It was the first widespread application in the US of what would come to be known as participatory action research (PAR), in which academics and community members from across the region worked collaboratively to gather and analyze data for the study. Moreover, the study revealed massive inequalities in land ownership and taxation in the region, vis-à-vis corporate landholding companies and local citizens.
These findings refuted the longstanding “cultural deficit” argument that Appalachia’s poverty was driven by backwardness and cultural isolationism. Instead the study illuminated the structural factors which had generated the abject inequality of the region, a place where absentee corporations owned most of the land and paid very little back to these areas by way of taxes. The study set in motion campaigns which changed laws to address these issues. Further the network created in the process of completing the study long outlasted the research itself and laid the foundation for a new generation of organizations, researchers and activists in the region.
Scope of the Original Study
A series of floods in southern Appalachia in 1977 and a flawed federal response galvanized leaders from around the region to form the Appalachian Alliance. Although Appalachia is the only region in the US with its own specific federal agency, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), the flood brought a recognition from the ARC and Appalachian Alliance members that very little empirical data was available about the region, particularly about what lands were owned by communities and could be used for resettlement after the floods and what lands were owned by private, often absentee corporations.
The Alliance presented a funding proposal to the ARC in 1978 that outlined a widespread attempt to map and analyze landownership in southern Appalachia. The ARC provided $130,000 to fund the study, which took place in 80 counties across six states: Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Alabama. The study aimed to understand not just who owned the land on the surface, but also who owned the minerals rights underneath. This was particularly significant in places such as Kentucky where laws had long held that mineral rights owners had privilege over surface rights owners and so could access, utilize and even open cast mine areas that they did not own the surface rights to, but which they held the rights to the minerals beneath.
Findings of the Study
Thought leaders in Appalachian Studies, an interdisciplinary academic field which had grown out of earlier social justice movements in the region, had advanced a position that Appalachia was actually an internal American colony, from which raw natural resources were removed, and to which little to no compensation was given. Academic and activist Helen Lewis published an influential text called Colonialism in Modern America: The Appalachian Case (1978) which attempted to address the long-standing Appalachian paradox: how could an area so rich in mineral resources be home to a population so acutely cash poor. Lewis and others argued that Appalachia was poor for many of the same reasons that colonial Africa and India were poor—externalized governance, weak institutions for civic participation, lack of investment, and the absence of a tax base to build from. The land ownership study provided an opportunity to determine to what degree these assertions could be born out empirically across multiple counties and states.
Participants in the study discovered that the lack of information about landholdings and taxation in the region was not simply a matter of oversight or poor record keeping. Much information was intentionally hidden and obscured by powerful mining interests. Land transfers between corporations were rarely made public or registered at the county courthouses, which allowed companies to pay property taxes at an earlier, lower rate. This practice also disguised who owned what land. Further, information about the quantity of minerals under the surface was not disclosed by companies, so government had little way of knowing what was leaving the ground or what the assessable value of unmined minerals actually was.
Over the course of two years, however, the researchers from the land study were able to piece together information to create a more complete understanding of land ownership patterns in the southern Appalachian region. The results, when released as a comprehensive 1800 page report in 1981, confirmed the existence of extreme inequality on the region. In many of the counties studied, absentee mining corporations owned more than half of the land in the county. Further the corporations owned up to 70% of the mineral rights beneath the land in certain counties. While this reality had been long understood by citizens in their individual communities, the study showed that the problem was endemic and systemic. Surprisingly the study revealed that 25% of land was held by absentee corporations based outside of the United States, as was later explored by John Gaventa in his book Power and Powerlessness (1982).
The study’s findings on taxation were even more startling. In a pattern that was roughly similar across counties and across states, the major mining corporations owned between 50-70% of the land but paid only 4% of property taxes in those counties. Small holders who owned approximately 30% of the land paid the other 96% of the property taxes. And while laws had been in effect since 1971 that allowed for the taxation of mineral reserves in the ground, no effort had gone into enforcement and no recorded information of actual reserve sizes for taxation purposes existed.
In their analysis the researchers noted issues of control and access. Land ownership was not a quiet, secondary issue in these areas. By virtue of their size, the corporations controlled these areas, politically and financially. Access was a further ramification of corporate ownership. Communities could not access these corporate lands for recreation or building. This forced communities into small areas, often unsuited for development, prone to frequent flooding, as demonstrated by the widespread floods of 1977. The disproportionate corporate ownership of land impeded develop, on one hand because the companies were failing to pay taxes at an equitable level and on the other because there was no available land to open for further development, to grow the population and to increase the tax base.
The land study report offered many recommendations for transforming these patterns of inequality in the region. However, government response to the study was tepid, despite the fact that the report had been funded by a governmental body, the ARC. In the years between the beginning of the study and the publication of the report, Ronald Reagan had swept to power and drastically changed the tone and direction of governance in the US. Despite having funded the study, the ARC pushed back against the report’s findings and distanced themselves from the study altogether, for what appear to have been purely political reasons.
While government action at the federal level was muted, civil society actors became galvanized around the report, particularly in Kentucky. At the time of the study, Kentucky still used a long form deed which privileged mineral rights owners over the owners of surface rights. This spurred the formation of the Kentucky Fair Tax Coalition (KFTC), which fought successfully to have this provision removed from Kentucky’s legal code. As a result of KFTC’s advocacy, the state also began more aggressive taxation of coal as it left the county where it was mined and also collected information for more accurate taxation of mineral reserves still in the ground.
Although the short term impacts of the study were less transformative than had been hoped, the significance of the study should not be measured only by what resulted in 1981 and 1982. In 2012, Dr. Shaunna Scott published a paper on the long term impacts of the study. These longitudinal impacts were significant.
After its successful campaign, the Kentucky Fair Tax Coalition did not dissolve but instead took a permanent form and adopted a new name: Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. KFTC still exists today and has worked as a progressive force in the region for decades.
Likewise, the participants in the research have remained connected and have served as a core network of social change actors in the region. Some have gone on to lead important civil society organizations in region such as the Highlander Center, while others have become academics who now run university departments which study and support development in the region, while still others have roles in state government. Further, Appalachia became a bellwether for participatory action research (PAR) in the United States, with land ownership study researchers Helen Lewis and John Gaventa playing an active role in the mainstreaming of PAR in the US. As such, Scott argued that the study has continued to impact the region over the long haul and not just in the short term.
In the decades since the original study, the idea has periodically been raised as to whether another land ownership study as wide in scope as Who Own Appalachia should be repeated to assess how the situation in the region has evolved in the past three decades. Shaunna Scott and others at the University of Kentucky are making a major push to launch a new study in 2017. In September 2016, they organized a meeting to assess the interest in a such an undertaking and to discuss how it could be organized. Participation in the meeting exceed expectations and a larger hall was required to accommodate the 50+ participants. Turnout included academics and civil society leaders from across the region.
On the day before the meeting, I sat down with Shaunna Scott to learn more about why she and her colleagues believe now is the time for a follow-up study. Scott noted a variety of reasons, including advances in technology; GPS, drones and digital recordkeeping are tools which will facilitate rapid gathering and sharing data for the study. This will allow participants to learn iteratively about their own areas and to make ongoing comparisons with data from other counties and states. The ability to meet virtually will also accelerate the group’s ability to learn and disseminate new findings.
Scott noted as well that Appalachia is in the midst of a major economic realignment. There is consensus on all sides that the coal industry is ending, but what comes next is unclear. Scott and others at the meeting in September felt that a new study could play an important role in helping communities to understand how they can recreate their economies for a modern, post-coal era. As Scott articulated in her interview: “We need to put information into the hands of citizens, community organizations and local governments to make wise decisions about their futures."
Resonance with the Current Political Moment in America
The findings of Who Owns Appalachia and the importance of collaborative, community-driven research are even more significant today than in September 2016 because of the current moment in American politics. The country has just inaugurated an essentially corporate-led government, with business ties which are vast, shadowy and pose clear conflicts of interest. The popular logic that brought such a political outcome was a belief in unfettered business to bring about the best economic outcomes for the most people.
Who Owns Appalachia demonstrates that the opposite outcome is far more likely under such circumstances. Corporate hegemony that overrides government and civil society does not produce widely distributed wealth but instead acute inequality which drives poverty rather than contributing to general affluence. In Appalachia, corporations have long owned the majority of the resources and have extracted the vast majority of the wealth through mining efforts there. People and communities have not benefited from this power asymmetry but have been stifled and pushed down. As the land study verified repeatedly, in such situations, corporations easily find ways to avoid taxes and thus only extract from these communities rather than providing a balanced give and take. A new land study will help to make clear how much change has happed in the past thirty years and also help communities to reflect on where they go next, as mining becomes a thing of the past.
The current political context in the US also reinforces the need for communities and citizens to know how to analyze and assess their own situations through the collection and collaborative analysis of their own data. Knowledge and information are becoming rapidly politicized in the age of ‘post-truth’ politics. People must be able to generate and build their own empirical knowledge of their situations rather than trusting in information which may have been shaped by external agendas.
Participatory action research is a process which grounds people in the reality of their communities and combats efforts of intentional misinformation. People working together to understand and to transform their own communities from the grassroots is a powerful antidote of the messages of fear, confusion and helplessness which permeate both the news media and social media channels at this point in time.
Much inspiration can be drawn from the first Appalachian land study, and much hope and energy is gathering around the prospect of another such regional collaboration.
Many thanks to Michelle Mockbee for her invaluable research assistance and analysis of the Who Owns Appalachia report.
Special thanks to Shuanna Scott for her interview about the past and future land studies, and also to Ashlei Laing for her technical assistance with the filming of the interview.
Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force (1983) Who Owns Appalachia? Landownership and Its Impact. Appalachian Studies. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.
John Gaventa (1982) Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley. University of Illinois Press.
Helen Lewis, Linda Johnson & Donald Askins (1978) Colonialism in Modern America: The Appalachian Case. Appalachian Consortium Press.
Shaunna L. Scott. (2012) “What Difference Did It Make?: The Appalachian Land Ownership Study Twenty-Five Years Later.” Academics and Activists: Confronting Ecological and Community Crisis in Appalachia. Stephanie McSpirit, Lynne Faltraco and Conner Bailey, eds. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.