International Paper Supports Mississippi Initiative to Combat Leading Cause of Involuntary Land Loss Among Black Families
International Paper announced plans to support The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation™ as they work alongside the Mississippi Center for Justice to provide legal services, assistance and resources to help historically underserved Mississippians keep generational land and conserve working forests through The Mobile Basin Heirs’ Property Support Initiative. The Mobile Basin Heirs’ Property Support Initiative is a two-year program designed to help families in Mississippi protect and keep their forestland; build generational wealth; and promote productive, sustainably managed forests. Launched in October 2021, the initiative is a joint effort between the centers, with support from World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Kimberly-Clark.
Heirs’ property is land passed down informally from generation to generation, often because landowners die without a will. In the absence of a will, the land is considered jointly owned by all heirs, split between multiple family members regardless of whether they have set foot on the land, lived on the property or paid the taxes. This disproportionally affects Black families, and their fractured land is vulnerable to developers, natural resource exploitation, tax sales, and forced partition sales. Owners are faced with the decision to give up their land or go through the complex and costly legal process of resolving title issues. In Mississippi, this has led to an increased rate of forest loss, compromising the region’s important freshwater habitats and drinking water supply.
“Families and individual landowners with title issues clouded by undetermined heirs or absent heirs can result in loss of land held for generations through tax sales, court-ordered partition sales, or even a ‘taking’ of the land by adverse possession,” said Mississippi Center for Justice President and CEO Vangela M. Wade. “These harmful effects—which have persisted for decades—have been particularly acute for families of color and low-income families in Mississippi. It is currently estimated that heirs’ property accounts for 1.6 million acres valued at $6.6 billion across the southern Black Belt.”
This initiative is based on a successful model developed by the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation™ in South Carolina, which has helped families resolve more than 319 titles, building family and community wealth and ecological restoration in marginalized communities. The initiative will also provide landowners with forestry education and access to additional funding for forest conservation and responsible forest management. This support can help families make income from their lands while protecting wildlife habitat and water sources.
“Property matters to people. It’s far more than just a parcel of land, it can be a window to the past that tells the story of a family, a community, or a way of life,” said Dr. Jennie L. Stephens, CEO for the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation. “We believe that with our proven expertise, with the help of our friends at the Mississippi Center for Justice and Mississippi Associations of Cooperatives, and with the support from partners like International Paper, we can achieve help families in the Mobile Basin.”
“International Paper is honored to support this important work in the Mobile Basin, which is making a profound impact on families and sustaining communities and forests where IP employees live and work,” said Sophie Beckham, VP and Chief Sustainability Officer, International Paper. “These efforts are fundamental to support landowners, build climate resilience, and advance our Vision 2030 goals of creating a better future for people and planet.”
International Paper is focused on developing strategic collaborations with partners to ensure healthy and abundant forests and thriving people and communities in the Mobile Basin and other geographies in the Southeastern US.
About International Paper
International Paper is a leading global supplier of renewable fiber-based products. We produce corrugated packaging products that protect and promote goods, and enable worldwide commerce, and pulp for diapers, tissue and other personal care products that promote health and wellness. Headquartered in Memphis, Tenn., we employ approximately 38,000 colleagues globally. We serve customers worldwide, with manufacturing operations in North America, Latin America, North Africa and Europe. Net sales for 2021 were $19.4 billion.
About the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation™
The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation has been protecting heirs’ property through legal education and direct legal services since 2005. In 2013, the Center began promoting the sustainable use of land through forestry education and services to provide increased economic benefit to low-wealth family landowners. The Center provides legal services and forestry services in Allendale, Bamberg, Beaufort, Berkeley, Calhoun, Charleston, Clarendon, Colleton, Darlington, Dillon, Dorchester, Florence, Georgetown, Hampton, Horry, Jasper, Lee, Marion, Marlboro, Orangeburg, Sumter, and Williamsburg counties. To date, the Center has provided 4,961 persons with free, one-hour “Advice and Counsel” (A&C) with 11,425 clients receiving direct legal services to clear title. A total of 1,501 simple wills have been drafted at free, community Wills Clinics; more than 503 families (who collectively own in excess of 40,000 acres) have benefited from various levels of education and expert resources to develop and implement sustainable forestry management plans, and 319 titles have been cleared on family land with a total tax assessed value of $19.3 million.
About the Mississippi Center for Justice
Now in its 18th year, the Mississippi Center for Justice continues to be one of the most well-respected civil justice organizations in the South, known for the strategic nature of its advocacy and the high impact of its work. MCJ is a non-profit, public interest law firm committed to strengthening racial, social, and economic justice in Mississippi by dismantling the systems that strip opportunity away from historically disadvantaged Mississippians. MCJ does this through a potent combination of direct legal services, strategic policy advocacy, targeted community education, and media outreach. MCJ works to create a better future for Mississippi through dedicated legal campaigns centered around health and public benefits, fair housing, consumer protection, education, immigration, disaster recovery, and impact litigation. MCJ works across such a diverse array of issues because addressing the root causes of poverty and inequity are inherently intersectional. MCJ confronts a wide range of challenges facing low-income Mississippians and has an exceptional track record of making real and positive change. Learn more at www.mscenterforjustice.org.