It was an unusual choice – at least that was what many of my colleagues thought – to conduct a legal-science project in Mexico, and in Oaxaca at that, one of that country’s poorest federal states. Traditionally, our discipline tends to look for research posts in Europe or the USA. Although my research topic justifies the choice of location, it is the topic itself which irritates some people: the origin and history of private land ownership in Mexico. As an expert in comparative law I explore this issue with regard to international legal influences and by way of comparison to the European history of law. One of the questions I explore in this context is the extent to which private landownership in Mexico is the result of colonial law transfers and how this concept relates to indigenous forms of community land ownership. I chose Oaxaca as my main region of research because it is dominated by agriculture and numerous indigenous cultures have been preserved here. The institutions under whose auspices my research is conducted are the Universidad Autónoma Benito Juarez de Oaxaca in Oaxaca and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City.
Perhaps I could summarise the most important insights I have gained so far in this way: they all involve a profound change of perspective. It may sound banal when I say that the world and world history look differently from a European perspective than from a Caribbean, African or Latin American viewpoint. However, the significance and consequences of a colonial past and a peripheral position with all their contradictions and violence became obvious to me only during my stay in Mexico. It is a learning process that is tied, on the one hand, to my actual work on my research topic but also derives its momentum from conversations, experience, observations and studies of the culture of this country. In conjunction with this process I sense a heightened awareness of the continued impact of colonial structures and a process of reflection on the significance of my own global position and the concomitant ideas which I used to consider as “normal”, “natural” or “neutral”. Such an experience affects you in intellectual, political, cultural and emotional terms. It also has an impact on my research to the extent that it forces me to rethink my own legal concepts that used to feel so universally valid. At first I compared indigenous “community land” to “privately owned land” as we know it. It turned out, however, that this distinction was a bit rash and influenced too much by European law concepts. The point is that indigenous communities traditionally neither consider “their” land as their property, nor as belonging to the community nor as private property. In this sense it is “non-ownership”, which is totally contrary to the notion of owning land and being able to use it as one sees fit. There are even indigenous languages that have no words for notions that are very common in our European law systems, such as “property” or “ownership”. Particularly the notion of madre tierra (Mother Earth) has a spiritual and religious connotation. People are not owners of the land – it is they who belong to the land.
Understanding such legal subtleties requires an understanding of the respective political, historical, cultural and philosophical context. The very presence of this context in legal studies requires a fundamental mind shift from a practitioner of law in our system that is traditionally based on legal dogma and codified law. In addition, it forces one to re-contextualise notions that seem utterly self-evident such as “ownership” and put them into a completely new perspective.
My stay in Mexico was indispensable for me to realise these issues and to draw appropriate consequences in terms of the methods I used in my research. Apart from research in local libraries and archives, my stay enabled me to genuinely relate to this country and the new perspectives it had to offer. This, to my mind, is a necessary basis for my comparative law research: relating to the issue at hand, putting my own world in perspective, realising that I am a learner in this process and that I have to observe very carefully. The experience and insights resulting from such an attitude may be disconcerting or even frightening. But most of all they leave a profound impression and open up new worlds that affect and irritate me as a scientist and as a human being and thus continuously provoke a process of reflection. I consider myself therefore very lucky to be able to work and do research here in Oaxaca. I will try to make the best possible and most responsible use of this opportunity.