Land and Freedom 1813 – 2013

1789044_d5efe76d1Oxfam has launched a major campaign on food security – Enough Food for Everyone.  It aims to reach 20 million people across the UK and to persuade the UK Government to deliver a better deal for the world’s poor during its presidency of the G8. As part of the campaign, Oxfam is highlighting the role that Scotland should play in tackling hunger and on 4 March it is hosting a conference in Helmsdale  to highlight the parallels between the Highland Clearances that took place 200 years ago in Sutherland and the land grabs that continue to deprive people of access to land in developing countries.

As first glance this might appear to be a rather extraneous parallel to draw – between events of 200 years ago in Scotland and events today across large parts of Africa and Asia. But both cases highlight the common issue of how power is derived, distributed and discharged. In 1813, landlords across Scotland had virtually unfettered power and their tenants little beyond short leases that were easily terminated. The landlords power derived from a legal framework of property rights that prompted Sir John Sinclair to write a year later that in “no country in Europe are the rights of proprietors so well defined and so carefully protected.” The corollary of this is of course how weak and insubstantial were the rights of the tenantry.

Much the same power dynamics characterises many of the instances of land-grabbing around the world today where land eight times the size of the UK has been sold or leased in the last decade land to global corporations and financial elites to grow food for export in countries where food security remains fragile. The communities who depend on this land are being driven off to be replaced by large-scale agribusiness. Unlike the Highland Clearances, these are clearances being enabled by Governments who assert state ownership rights and/or who fail to adequately recognise and protect indigenous rights.

So whilst the two processes are separated by 200 years of history and many thousands of miles, the essential elements of all land struggles endure – the contested nature of rights and power over land. Whilst the Oxfam campaign focusses on building food security for communities in developing countries, Scotland has certainly not dealt with the legacy of the clearances or of what was to follow over the past 200 years. The glens of Sutherland remain largely empty and land relations in Scotland remain skewed by a huge concentration of power in the hands of the very few. Ongoing debates over food security here revolve around the Common Agricultural Policy which remains a debate largely confined to producer elites in agriculture but which has the potential to deliver much wider community benefits if the political will exists.

But the seminar in Helmsdale is also an opportunity to reflect on the mixed messages that often emanate from countries such as the UK. In Oxfam’s Scottish manifesto, Scotland is asked to support, protect, inspire, learn and improve efforts to secure justice in land and food sovereignty. But so often in the past governments in the UK have preached one thing to countries through international aid programmes whilst refusing to act on these pearls of wisdom in their own backyard. So, whilst the UK has supported communities in Nepal and India to take on responsibilities for managing public forests, governments in the UK have been slow to reform the highly centralised and top-down regime run by the Forestry Commission. Whilst land reforms have been promoted by UK overseas aid programmes in countries across Africa, governments in the UK have done little to tackle land reform in England or Scotland.

In recent weeks a growing chorus of criticism has been leveled at Scottish Ministers for their decision to award a lease for shooting rights on public land on the Isle of Raasay to a business based in South Ayrshire.  Whilst hardly a landgrab on the scale of what is happening in Sudan, it shares many of the same characteristics. A government which is apparently committed to rural development, community empowerment and food security has removed from a fragile indigenous community one of the few rights they have – an enterprise which has been highly successful and is contributing to a more localised and sustainable food economy on Raasay.

The participants in the Helmsdale seminar do not need to look very far to see that the fundamental problem of power relations that characterise land grabbing in countries across the developing world are also very much present in Scotland today albeit in a very different context.

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  1. Stuart Vallis says:

    Thanks for the interesting article. The fundamental problem I see with the Raasay shooting rights debacle is not that the government got it wrong or right, but that they are responsible for the shooting rights in the first place. No government body can possibly micromanage what is best for the people on Raasay, the decision on shooting and fishing rights should be made locally. If the SNP did not know this before then it should be obvious to them now, they need to act on decentralisation of power. This is something that I see would anyways be helpful in the YES campaign, giving people power would surely be a boost to confidence. When I talk to fellow Scots I find them insecure about taking their own control. My most recent conversation a Scot said to me “the referendum is really irresponsible, no one has a plan for what to do after a YES vote”. This is an attitude that I find incomprehensible, the point surely is to get control from Westminister so that people can make decisions that are best for them. If it is true for Scotland and Westminister, then it is also true for people on Raasay compared to Holyrood. Giving people power – real power, I mean tax raising power similar to the Gemeinde local council in Switzerland would address this lack of confidence and promote local economic growth. I am really confused as to why the SNP are so quiet on the issue and not getting on and doing something. The time to do it is now, while they have the majority.
    I am a Scot who works a lot in African countries. My experience of working with small scale farmers in Africa is that they have an incredibly tough life, one harvest away from famine, no education for their children, health care terrible or non-existent. Women die in childbirth, children die from lack of vaccinations and poor quality of drinking water. The countries need to develop, they need to export. They need to be allowed to trade without EU trade barriers put up against food imports into the EU from Africa, on both things like fruit and veg and processed foods. They need to be able to fund education and health care. I am not so comfortable with the blanket negative publicity against agri business, in recent (rather limited) experience I was working in a refugee camp, we had a program to get access to land for refugees so that they could start agriculture, there was plenty unused land available locally. We had big problems both with getting started with work (land clearance and ploughing) and with pests and diseases. There was a foreign agri business concern locally and I found them very helpful with advice and even loan of equipment and personnel. Where I am now in the Africa there is a lot of land available, but it needs investment in irrigation and in technology to make it productive. I see that climate change is making life harder for traditional rain-reliant agriculture in some areas, especially Sahel where I work. But the investment required to provide irrigation is huge, both in capital investment and in maintenance/repair and training people who have a very limited academic standard to maintain the systems. Or how about the investment in finance, time and energy when you start to talk about reforestation programs or rainwater harvesting over large areas with different groups gaining and losing – governments, landowners, tenants and nomadic people. What is the solution? Probably a mix of both large agri business and small scale farmer, but those African nations have to be allowed themselves to make their decisions on what mix is best for them.

  2. Although this article identifies the disconnect in the reasoning between land reform as applied to one region versus another, there is a deeper disconnect regarding the rights of the individual within communities for land access on which to build shelter & grow some veggies.

    Whether you are a landless peasant in the third world or a wage slave in the first world, the fact is that the commodification of land is used to force us into the service of masters.

    In the 3rd world servitude lasts a shorter lifetime, and in the west it lasts for the 20 year life of a mortgage. Of course in the west, the servitude is easier in many ways, but by the time 20 years is up we are expert servants whose bodies & minds have long lost their ability to live with the land – they are servants for life if they are “lucky” enough to be needed, fattened into believing that their ability to consume to their limits is their fulfillment.

    What ever happened to my birthright to life that I must now serve an increasingly unsustainable function in an unsustainable system? If I do have a right to life, surely I have a right to the elements provided by nature for life – including free access to land for shelter? Was Leo Tolstoy right when he said that solving the land question means the solving of all social questions?

    Isn’t it time to come to grips with the evilness at the roots of the land “system”, rather than just tinker with it’s most obvious abuses?

    Chris Baulman

  3. Ray Bell says:

    Good stuff as always.

    I remember going to a meeting about Venezuela and it mentioned peasants in remote upland areas being turfed out, pre-Chavez. When I pointed out the similarity I was told, “oh but it’s different”. Yes, in some ways, no in others but there’s enough there for a valid comparison.

    By the way, is there a means by which I can contact you?

    1. Aye – sure. [email protected] Thanks for the interestign comments.

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