Scotland needs a radical grassroots movement for land justice again

Like many, we’ve lost hope in the new Land Reform Bill. Any dream we once had that the Bill might lead to meaningful land redistribution has been steadily eroded by the removal of any sort of public interest test, pointlessly low penalties for misuse of land, and the exemption of landholdings which are split across different areas. However, a look at global struggles, or even our own history, offers a reminder that land justice has never been gifted, it’s been fought for. 

In March this year we attended the land deals politics initiative (LDPI) international conference on global land grabbing in Bogotá, Colombia. It quickly became apparent, listening to presentations and conversing with activists, what Scotland shares with other global struggles and what sets it apart. 

Activists from many other countries with highly unequal and concentrated structures of land ownership also described unregulated land markets and off-market deals, struggles of small-scale farmers in an increasingly industrial agricultural economy, increasing financialisaton of land and nature, and top-down approaches to conservation, that are all familiar concerns to people working towards land reform in Scotland. 

Less familiar to us was their diversity of tactics culture of grassroots resistance and the repressive backlash they’ve encountered, but also their stories of successful large-scale land redistribution. 

Participants from Brazil discussed the Landless Workers Movement, Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST). Through the long-term occupation of latifundios (large landed estates), the movement has won land for more than 370,000 rural workers and their families who now use the land to produce sustainable food for their communities. We learned how, in the Philippines, decades of mobilisation from the peasant workers movement led to large-scale land redistribution in the late 20th century. In Indonesia, the peasant farmers’ union Serikat Petani Indonesia is building a strong movement for agrarian reform through mass actions to reclaim and occupy land, supported by extensive efforts to build political consciousness in local communities. 

Several sessions addressed the political context in Colombia, where the new left-wing government, supported by the peasant movement, has promised to give 3 million hectares of land to small-scale farmers and has committed $4.35 billion towards purchasing land for redistribution. This follows a peace treaty between the state and FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), the far-left guerilla army that fought for decades for land justice in Colombia. 

As part of the conference, we visited a large cattle ranch which was recently redistributed to a collective of 91 peasant and indigenous families after the Colombian government confiscated it from a narco-paramilitary organisation. These farmers had been displaced from a different region of the country and were in the process of building new homes and setting up a collective community. As their children played in the swimming pool that once belonged to a drug cartel, they showed us the land they had planted with diverse crops and shared their first harvest of tropical fruits with us. All of these farmers were former members of FARC who had spent their lives fighting for land redistribution. 

These stories may feel like they lack relevance to the story of land in Scotland, where the Scottish government progressive-sounding rhetoric positions their gentle government-led approach to land reform, as the sensible option. But we must remember that every worthwhile land and crofting reform in our recent history was the result of extensive community organising and immense public pressure. 

The Highland Land League adopted a mixed array of political strategies to resist excessive rent hikes and evictions through the 1880s to win more secure tenure and access to land for crofters. Inspired by resistance in Ireland, they united communities across Scotland, and organised rent strikes and targeted boycotts as well as more direct actions, including land raids and occupations. 

Despite significant progress in advancing crofting tenancy rights and land access, the unequal concentration of land ownership continues to centralise control and benefits. Large farms disproportionately reap the rewards from current subsidy schemes, facilitating monopolisation and hindering young people from entering farming, despite the industry’s rapidly ageing population. The carbon credit market provides larger estates with greater means to expand monoculture forestry plantations, profiting from and greenwashing high-polluting industries. And the proliferation of landowners setting land aside as play parks for billionaires, appears to be escalating, as the US firm Discovery Land Company’s unfold plans to turn 8000 acres by Loch Tay into a private members reserve. 

We have tools to quickly and effectively tackle this excessively unequal distribution of power over land. Introducing a presumed limit on the amount of land one person can own, bringing in a land-value tax, and subjecting all transfers of land to a thorough public interest test have all been suggested in recent discussions on land reform in Scotland. We are not short of ideas for how redistributing land might work. It is political will that is lacking, and the public pressure needed to make this change.  

We should push for a more ambitious Land Reform Bill, such as supporting Community Land Scotland and the Landworkers’ Alliance calls for the inclusion of compulsory sale orders for land that is being mismanaged. But if we want to see real change, we need a broader and more radical movement for land justice. A movement inspired by the possibilities of reorganizing our relationship with the land to foster a wellbeing economy, revive fragile languages and cultures, and invest in thriving social worlds

With the impending failure of the Land Reform Bill, it is perhaps time to remind ourselves, of the Highland Land League proverb –  Is treasa tuath na tighearna, (lit. “The people are mightier than a lord.”) This is a call to act on that might again, to scale up public pressure, to be inspired by the tactics and successes of both our ancestors and our allies, and organise again as a national network of resistance until we have land justice in Scotland. 


Comments (9)

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  1. Ann Morgan says:

    Yes !!! Galgael hosted a gathering with indigenous peoples from the Brazilian Amazon -massive issues with mining /land grabs … Galgael could host , alongside other’ grassroots’ groups meetings to progress-Alister McIntosh is a co founder and regular activist with Galgael.
    Daniel Cullen on Skye has a drama production on land misuse, a take on the late great John McGrath’s Cheviot… We would like to bring the play to Govan ( I am active here in Govan) -2025 is Mary Barbours 150 th anniversary! Maybe call the new bridge the Barbour bridge and launch a Red Green Clydeside Action on land -big issues on what may happen at the Graven Docks.Email below.

  2. Time, the Deer says:

    Land raids now!

  3. Robert says:

    A story loved by farmers that they are the custodians of the land is a myth. One should watch farming practices to see how unreal this is.

  4. Graeme McCormick says:

    Land is so fundamental and intrinsically connected to Independence that unless the SNP start charging a rent or tax on all land and property there will be drift to a new land party.

    Don’t believe that public interest is served by the current public sector. It owns 60% of dilapidated and vacant land in urban Scotland. A dreadful record of stewardship.

  5. Wul says:

    I think that Scotland’s lack of confidence in our ability to run our own country is rooted in our lack of land ownership. A landless people are easily controlled and frightened.

    When you own land, you own your own future. It brings confidence, security, resilience, prosperity, a sense of power, agency and place, a feeling that your kids will probably be OK. Land is everything.

    It is no coincidence that the first thing a colonising power does is to boot the people off the land. And no coincidence either that the powerful own nearly all the land (at the same time telling you “It doesn’t matter who owns land, it’s how it’s used that matters” Aye. Right)

  6. Hector says:

    Scotgov has a woeful record on land reform
    The 2003 act was destroyed in the court of session( of course) by the landed interest while scotgov sat on its hands.
    The 2016 act has only been partly implemented .
    Since then scotgov has funded evicting farm landlords on a massive scale

  7. SleepingDog says:

    In episode 4 of the very first Doctor Who story broadcast, 1963’s An Unearthly Child, the Doctor’s companion Ian Chesterton says (ep4 3:48): “Remember, Kal is not stronger than the whole tribe.” (Kal the would-be chief)
    If this was a knowing tribute to the Highland Land League’s proverb, it had escaped my connection until now.

  8. Dial says:

    The softly, softly approach after 25 years of devolution and gently talking about land reform so as not to frighten the large private, government, military, church and environmental charities estates has managed to convert 2.7% of Scotland’s land into the realm of community ownership. That’s approximately 212,342 hectares, of which the vast majority, 153,630 hectares are owned by the communities of Na h-Eileanan Siar.

    There are one or two sensible solutions the first is the perennial land tax, one that increases by the amount of acreage owned. Community Land Scotland propose a maximum holding of 500 hectares, as we know our politicians are too mealy mouthed to push for that, but a land tax is within their remit, tax that and insist that a decent proportion stays within the community who live on or beside the holding to increase community wealth building.

    The second is simple, there’s talk of any future land sales meeting a community impact criteria, this same diligence should be applied to those private estates which have converted to off shore charities, where they are solely operated by family trusts who then lease the un-taxable land back to family members for the nominal sum of £1 a year. Tougher regulation and investigation from OSCR is a start…

    Then there’s crofting. Time to end the right to buy. Pulls pin, walks away…

  9. John McLeod says:

    A “national network of resistance” sounds like a really good idea. Do you have any suggestions for how this could be developed?

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