Land and Freedom 1813 – 2013

By Andy Wightman

Oxfam 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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