The ground beneath our feet

Jake Bowers argues for the rights of travelling peoples to live and move through the landscapes they call home.

Dale Farm has become a famous site for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities – as well as for violent evictions at the hands of police. As part of the Drive2Survive campaign, this summer protesters visited the site to stand in opposition to the UK’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is set to place further criminal curbs on travelling people. Credit: HUW POWELL

When members of my community, the Romani Gypsy community of Britain, pull onto a piece of land they do not own, they are continuing a journey that started in the Indian sub-continent over a thousand years ago.

Romani people have moved through the landscapes of Europe, Asia and North Africa for centuries, bringing the goods and services of the commercial nomad with them. From metalsmithing, to horse dealing, entertainment and even fortune telling, we had a symbiotic relationship with the natural and human communities we passed through.

These days, when we put down the jacks on our caravans, we know it is only a matter of time before they come. Whether ‘they’ are the police, bailiffs or vigilantes, we know there will be no welcome extended. No matter how the question is phrased, the subtext is always the same: when are you leaving? The endless cycle of trespass and eviction begins once again.

The Romani way of life, which treads lightly on the Earth, can help us combat environmental destruction

But it doesn’t have to be this way. As the combined crises of climate change and biodiversity loss force the dominant culture to accept it should make space for nature, it can start to make space for social diversity too.

That’s because, if humanity is to survive beyond the next century, we must all see ourselves as part of nature – not separate to it. Part of this journey to reconnect with the natural world requires there to be places to which there is an unfettered and uncommercialized access. France, for example, provides both Aires de Gens de Voyage (Stopping places for ‘people of the road’) and Aires de Campings (stopping places for campervans). Those who use them pay for the services they use, and the state makes vast savings in enforcement.

In England, access to the land is limited to those who gain the permission of its so-called owners: under the law of trespass, we are excluded from 92 per cent of the land and 97 per cent of its waterways. But if public access to land was seen as a human, civil and legal right, we would be a step closer to the Romani view of the landscape: that it was given by divine providence for all.

Contrary to popular perception, Romani communities are responsible stewards of our environment; we know to never take any more than we need, and to always leave the land in a better state than we found it.

Our role as custodians is rooted in our traditions. In 1934, a 12-year-old Belgian boy Jan Yoors was allowed to join a Romani kumpania (extended family) of the Lovara tribe that travelled the length and breadth of Europe with their horses and wagons. His book The Gypsies, published in 1967, painted a vibrant portrait of an internationalist, self-policing and environmentally low-impact community. These people lived at the heart of Europe, before society’s already-uneasy accommodation with them was smashed to pieces, first by Nazi oppression, and then by communist autocracy.

Today just a small percentage of Romani communities in Western Europe still travel, and the UK’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill looks set to end even that last vestige of nomadic life in Britain early in 2022.

Much has already changed within my lifetime. The places where my family would frequently set up camp are now mostly inaccessible, as the commons, verges and drove roads that used to provide us with space are enclosed. And with each enclosure the legal noose has also tightened. In 1994 John Major’s Conservative government removed the statutory duty for councils to provide sites for Gypsies and Travellers, at the same time as dramatically increasing police powers.

This summer I travelled with a diverse group of people whose way of life is about to be outlawed – from Romani communities to Irish and Scottish Travellers, New Age Travellers and travelling show-people. It was apparent that the fear and loathing was much as it always was, but there is also a growing sheen of greenwash to this age-old discrimination.

There is a growing sheen of greenwash to age-old discrimination

It is increasingly argued that Gypsy caravans cause aesthetic and environmental damage to the places they stop; that we are alien to a landscape we have long been part of. It’s true that there are a minority of travellers who leave rubbish, and that this has a negative impact on the communities we travel through. But it is never acknowledged that Gypsies and Travellers reduce society’s environmental impact through the scrap metal trade, for example. Nor is any thought given to the much smaller carbon footprint of those who live in caravans.

Yet we know the greatest environmental crimes aren’t committed by those who litter or have caravans. From intensive farming to mining, the actions that cause the most – and the most far-reaching – damage are often entirely legally sanctioned. They are usually enacted on land technically owned by the very people that destroy it or allow its destruction.

It’s time we turn this idea on its head. Rather than use society’s new-found ecological concerns to reinforce age-old prejudices against some of Europe’s most persecuted minorities, we should recognize that the Romani way of life, which treads lightly on the Earth, can actually help us combat environmental destruction. And do battle instead with the environmental racism that sees Romani communities forced to live on polluted wastelands throughout Europe.

As we are chased away from the land, our insight and knowledge will simply be lost along with us. The recognition of a right to live not just on the land, but in symbiosis with it, would benefit not only Europe’s Roma communities facing forced evictions, but all of humanity and the planet as a whole.