Land, and the army marching to claim it, in the UK and around the world
mail at vegburner.co.uk
Fri Dec 14 19:30:55 GMT 2012
with extensive links and comments
by Shaun Chamberlin on November 20th, 2012
The right to access land matters, in a fundamental way. It is a place to
live, a source for food, for water, for fuel, and for sustenance of
almost every kind. And land management also has profound impacts on our
ecosystems and environment, and thus on our well-being and our
collective future. So it matters deeply that while UK supermarkets and
housing estates find permission to build easy to come by, those who wish
to use land to explore truly sustainable living are blocked and
frustrated at every turn.
It is this sorry state of affairs that has given birth to the “Reclaim
the Fields” movement and activist groups like Grow Heathrow and the
Diggers 2012. Inspired by the example of Gerrard Winstanley’s 17th
Century Diggers, these peaceful, practical radicals have moved onto
disused UK land in order to cultivate it, build dwellings and live in
common “by the sweat of our brow”.
In other words, they have asserted their right to simply exist on
nature’s bounty, seeking neither permission from anyone nor dominion
over anyone; a right that they believe people should still share with
the other animals. A right, indeed, that was enshrined in UK law in the
1217 Charter of the Forest. More recently, however, the strange young
notion of owning exclusive rights to land has pushed back hard (as this
excellent article documents). Thus, as they fully expected – and as
happened to their forebears – the Diggers 2012′s crops have been torn up
and they themselves have been hassled, moved on and in some cases arrested.
It might seem, then, that the efforts of these determined folk are being
successfully repelled by ‘the system’, were it not for two crucial
considerations – that they have history on their side, and that there is
an enormous army surging at their backs.
As we look around the world, we see them, from the likes of the 1.5m
strong Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil and the vast international
peasant’s movement La Via Campesina, to the tens of thousands of Greek
families deserting the cities to return to any land they can access and
the immense – and successful – land rights march across India earlier
Meanwhile, closer to home, I see increasing numbers of my friends
disillusioned and marginalised from the mainstream economy – ripped off
by the banks, burdened with huge debts and struggling to find decent
employment. As the inherently unsustainable financial economy continues
to unravel, the people of England are not yet reaping the desperate
consequences to the extent that those of Greece or India are, but it is
growing even here, and it will come heavily home to this dark heart of
the financial empire soon enough. For many, ‘austerity’ is already
Naturally, in such circumstances, we seek alternatives. Yet while some
might wish to follow the example of those Greek families and earn a
simple, honest life “by the sweat of our brow”, rather than working
frantically to earn ‘a living’ while paying off the debts incurred by a
corrupt financial system, they are simply not being permitted to do so.
New laws are being passed absurdly criminalising the likes of squatting
and trespass (even against the wishes of the police forces), meaning
that the police are being forced to step in on behalf of landowners.
Meanwhile, planning policy reform makes it ever easier for corporations
– and harder for families – to control land, leaving the courts obliged
to prosecute those who wish to work to heal disused, neglected land
instead of relying on state handouts to survive the vagaries of the
employment market. The glaring injustice that has mobilised mass
movements in the likes of Brazil and India is becoming ever more
Thus I see the tide of history at the backs of the Diggers 2012, with
their direct action the vanguard of an inevitable UK movement to reclaim
the land under our feet from the 1% – or 0.06% – who would call it theirs.
Yet, as with all influential movements for change in society, the
activists cannot achieve much alone. Their direct action and willingness
to put their bodies on the line powerfully expresses and demonstrates
the ever-swelling public pressure, but if that pressure is to lead to a
better society, rather than simply widespread frustration and anger, we
also need positive lifestyle examples that law-abiding citizens can
follow, complemented by the slow work of developing alternative legal
and organisational forms that allow land to meet the pressing needs of
This is why this year I agreed to become a director of an organisation
called the Ecological Land Co-operative, which exists to overcome the
two great barriers to land for those wishing to establish ecological
businesses and smallholdings – soaring land prices and simple legal
We are now on the brink of making our first area of land available, and
my article in the latest edition of Permaculture Magazine (out now and
highly recommended) explains how that has been done, as well as
outlining the seven year journey to reach this point – with assistance
from some of the leading experts on land reform – and our plans for the
future. The photo at the top of this blog post shows that very piece of
land; twenty-two acres in South-West England.
Crowdfunding and community financing have also allowed us to work on a
pair of research reports. The first – Small Is Successful – examined
existing land-based businesses of 10 acres or less and evidenced the
economically viable and highly sustainable nature of the livelihoods
they provide, without any need for the subsidies on which large farms so
often rely. The Research Council UK showcased this as one of a hundred
pieces of UK research ‘that will have a profound effect on our future’,
and we have also presented our message at the House of Commons, to the
All Party Parliamentary Group for Agroecology.
Aboriginal Land Rights Protest
Our second research project has just begun; we are collaborating with
others to produce a resource establishing both the current state of
ecological farming in the UK – providing a single point of information
on who is doing what and where, what acreages, to what markets, etc –
and the current state of research into such agriculture.
I see this work as supporting and strengthening the wider movement to
reclaim land from the ecologically destructive, market-driven mainstream
of conventional land use. Or, if that sounds a little grand, perhaps I
can borrow from one who speaks more plainly? In the words of a U.S.
farmer quoted in Colin Tudge‘s So Shall We Reap:
“I just want to farm well. I don’t want to compete with anybody.”
In this world of frantic capitalism, there is a radical thought if ever
I heard one.
It is a thought that inspires me. I feel more and more that the people
the world needs most right now are not campaigners or activists, but
such people who simply wish to live in relationship with a piece of land
in a healing, productive and ecologically nurturing way. There is no
shortage of them, and we should be making it as easy as possible for
them to access land, without forcing them to launch political campaigns
or planning permission battles in order to do so.
Perhaps that vast and diverse movement – from La Via Campesina and the
Diggers 2012 to the Eco Land Co-op – in truth has but one simple aim. To
safeguard the quiet dignity of that farmer, and the billions like him.
More information about the Diggers350