Free land? Move to Russia. Or Iowa.

Want free land? The NYT reported this week on a new Russian land give-away program designed to boost human population in the country’s remote eastern provinces. The program, which is open to both foreigners and Russian citizens, promises each applicant a hectare of free land for personal or agricultural use. It’s part of an ongoing government effort to prevent Chinese influence in Siberia, but Vladimir Putin and his advisors have a lot of ground to cover. Literally. At 2.4 million square miles, with a population density of just 2.6 people/sq mi, Russia’s Far Eastern Federal District is 24 times larger than Wyoming, the least-populated state in the U.S. (2.4 people/sq mi).* Although parts of the region have developed a small industrial presence (sea cucumbers, anyone?), the boggy taiga and dense spruce forests have so far proved unappealing to potential settlers.

Russian ad
This illustration on the program’s website  advertises the opportunity to work one’s own land

Other world governments have tried their hands at free land projects before, with varying success. In the United States, the Homestead Acts encouraged cultivation of the American midwest from the 1850s to the 1930s. Anyone who has read Laura Ingalls Wilder or Willa Cather will know that homestead life was often a brutal enterprise; in My Ántonia (1918), Cather writes of “burning summers” and “blustery winters with little snow, when the whole country is stripped bare and gray as sheet-iron.” And let’s not forget the locust clouds that descend on the Ingalls family farm in On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937). Another devastating side effect of American homesteading was its contribution to the decline of indigenous peoples—a disturbing result of many 19th-century land programs, including Canada’s 1872 Dominion Lands Act and Australia’s 1861 Crown Lands Acts.

But what about today? Does anyone—besides Putin—really think free land is still an appealing idea? Yes, as it turns out. In the United States, the Desert Land Act has encouraged the economic development of arid and semi-arid western lands since 1877. The program, which is still active, limits plots to 320 acres, and requires grantees to secure an adequate water supply for irrigation within four years of land receipt. Considering that water rights are a continuing headache for the west, this irrigation requirement strikes me as both expensive and unsustainable. Why not offer land to people willing to build solar farms? Just a thought.

Here are a few more places where you can receive free land in the U.S.:

For a more exotic setting, consider Pitcairn Island, the British Overseas Territory. This Pacific island settled by British mutineers from the HMS Bounty will give you land to build a house, garden, orchard, or pretty much anything. They just really need more people. http://www.immigration.pn/FAQ.php

pitcairn island
Promotional image from the Pitcairn Island immigration website

Finally, if the Russian Far East still seems enticing, I leave you with this travel website’s description of Vladivostok, one of the region’s anchor cities:

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*population data as of 2010 census

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