By Olivia Hanks

It is at the heart of our housing crisis, provides our food, and is still the principal determiner of wealth in the UK. Yet most of us in England do not spend very much time thinking about land. So it was an exciting and stimulating experience to attend a panel discussion at the recent Global Greens congress in Liverpool about land rights and how they form a vital part of the green movement worldwide.

The discussion, which featured speakers from Scotland, Indonesia, Rwanda and Nepal, as well as contributions from an international audience, highlighted the problems created when land is not managed by and in the interests of local people. This, of course, looks different in different parts of the world. In Scotland, it means a lack of accountability (land ownership records remain opaque), a continuing alienation of people from the land, and terrain still scarred by the clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries and now kept as grouse moors, reserved for the rich and often poorly managed.

In Indonesia, those ‘clearances’ are happening right now. Corporate land-grabs for palm oil plantations are destroying the ecosystems that people depend on and have pushed numerous species to the brink of extinction – including the Sumatran rhino and the Sumatran orangutan, which live nowhere else on earth. Since 1990, 40% of the country’s lowland rainforest has been destroyed, said Ade Zuchri, general secretary of the Indonesia Green Union.

As well as describing the extraordinary variety of species found in Indonesia, Zuchri emphasised the human cost of land grabbing, with women often worst affected. “Women are being forced off our land, out of the villages and into the city where they often end up in the sex trade. Where will we live, what can we do if we do not have our land?”

BK Dalit of the Nepali Greens explained that in Nepal, a country of small farmers, 12% of farmers have less than 100 square metres of land on which to grow food, and many of the population have no land at all. Attempts to solve the problem have been frequent but apparently token – 13 commissions have been set up since 1990 to address the issue, but the number of landless people is rising.

In the UK, 0.6% of people own 69% of the land

It may seem strange to British people that not owning land is such a problem – after all, hardly any of us here own any. Of course, in the UK, 0.6% of people own 69% of the land, so we’ve got our own problems. But we are used to being tenants. We expect to be able to live on land without owning it; and most of us don’t work the land for a living. But in a country where subsistence farming and small-scale ownership is the norm, to be landless is often to be condemned to poverty.

In Rwanda, even those who have land are finding they can no longer grow their own food on it. Kofi Annan’s ‘African Green Revolution’, has encouraged African countries to promote consolidation of land and growing of monocultures, as well as pushing use of chemical fertilisers and GM seeds, in an attempt to increase productivity and fight hunger. The programme has been criticised for the involvement of Monsanto and for encouraging dependence on multinationals. African governments, eager to claim the funding on offer, forced farmers to participate, leaving them in the painfully illogical situation of selling their corn crop to a multinational company for an international market, then taking the money to the local market to buy corn.

Everyone at the panel event was in agreement that this state of affairs was unjust and untenable. So who should own the land? And does ownership solve people’s problems?

For Frank Habineza, the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda’s candidate in their upcoming presidential election, land should belong to local people, and their rights to their ancestral lands must be respected. In response to this, an audience member suggested that ownership by farmers sometimes exacerbates the concentration of land in the hands of a few, since poor people in hard times are forced to resort to selling it, and are left with no rights at all. Someone else expressed the view that we should be moving away from the idea that it is even possible to own land. This might seem, on the face of it, logical – land isn’t a possession, it just is. However, as was immediately pointed out, the reality of this in a world of inequality is far from ideal: without any form of land ownership, ‘might is right’ can all too easily prevail.


Frank Habineza at Global Green Congress. Image rights: James Wright

The road to change is long, and the journey is different everywhere. Indonesian activists won a major victory in January this year when President Joko Widodo began to fulfil his promise to return lands to indigenous people, handing back 13,000 hectares to nine groups in Sumatra. The handover followed a Constitutional Court ruling in 2013 that indigenous groups have the right to manage the forests where they live. Although only a tiny fraction of the indigenous land that had been claimed as state forest has been returned, the government has promised more is to follow. Meanwhile, indigenous activists continue the battle against palm oil producers to save their homelands, and many are on trial for doing so.

Scotland, too, is making legislative progress: the Land Reform Act passed last year gives more rights to tenant farmers and will see a register of land ownership drawn up, and was hailed by the government as a “new dawn”. Campaigners, however, were left somewhat disappointed. Andy Wightman, the land reform activist and Green MSP, who was on the panel at the Global Greens discussion, wants reform to go much further. His Green colleagues tried to amend the 2016 legislation to ban land being owned by companies registered in tax havens and enable local authorities to tax vacant or derelict land. Wightman has already said he hopes to see a further land reform bill brought to the Scottish Parliament in the next few years, to cover what was missing from the 2016 legislation.

Elsewhere at the Congress, I talked to Papa Meissa Dieng, General Secretary of the African Greens Federation, about how land use is at the heart of the Green Party’s campaigning in his native Senegal.

“Development of Africa can come only from a return to the land, to the countryside,” he says. At the moment, “people are forced into the urban areas, they suffer, they live in poverty and exclusion. But if they have their own community, living with members of their family – to survive, they will use land. So we are encouraging the development of sustainable villages, ecovillages. And in this way we think that they can save the land.”

people are forced into the urban areas, they suffer, they live in poverty and exclusion. But if they have their own community, living with members of their family – to survive, they will use land

Across much of Africa, too, ecosystems and livelihoods are under threat from corporate land-grabs. Aside from the nefarious palm oil plantations, food crops are also farmed intensively, damaging the land. “The soil is already poor, and this kind of intensive agriculture prevents communities from developing ecological subsistence agriculture,” says Dieng. “On these intensive farms, they are not the owners of their crops. They are only employees, and we see the deficit of income that generates. So we think that by going back to the land, taking back ownership, they can have family agriculture and this can help them survive.”

Senegal’s ecovillage movement is part of a global network, GEN, which held its first summit in Dakar in 2014. The country is recognised as one of the pioneers of the concept: several years ago, its government pledged to create 14,000 ecovillages, although some have been critical of its top-down methods compared to the more bottom-up GEN approach.

From such diverse experiences across the globe, it cannot be easy to draw universal conclusions. The very nature of land rights campaigning is that it must be bottom-up – grassroots in the most literal sense of the word – if its gains are to be maintained.

But all grassroots movements can learn from and stand in solidarity with one another. At the Liverpool meeting, the whistlestop world tour of land rights activism left the audience moved, exhilarated, full of a sense of urgency and possibility. Participants exchanged details, promised to keep in touch. We had the feeling that a truly global movement is just beginning.

Header image via Museum of Australia


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