Our right to the land

It brings power and wealth to whoever holds it, but land should be treated as a public good, argues Amy Hall.

The land is ours

We depend on it for food, shelter and work, it’s a cultural marker and a source of identity – but also a site of violence and anguish. It’s time for a reckoning, writes Amy Hall.

As we picked our way through the rubble that remained of the house, its owner, 58-year-old Rezeq Abu Nasser, ran through memories of the lush valley where it once stood. This land in Wadi Qana, in the West Bank, had been in his family for generations. It was where he first learned to swim – in that stream over there. As a child he was nearly struck by lightning here in a freak storm during the olive harvest and the wadi (Arabic for ‘valley’) kept him safe for two years as he hid from Israeli authorities in the late 1980s. He pointed to a tree he once climbed to narrowly avoid arrest.

Residents of the nearby village of Deir Istiya, like Abu Nasser’s family, use this part of Wadi Qana for small-scale farming. It’s also in Area C of the West Bank, where Israel retains control of the land and it’s almost impossible for Palestinians to get permits to do any type of building work. Abu Nasser explained that here in the wadi, Palestinians cannot even plant trees.

On 12 February 2018, Israeli soldiers arrived at 7.00am to demolish his house. Their justification? The family had put a tarpaulin on the roof, plugged some gaps in the wall with stones and laid some cement to try and level out the floor. Abu Nasser said he was given five minutes to collect whatever belongings he could carry – cigarettes, some flashlights, chargers, batteries, a few dishes.

On the day of my visit, a few months later, all is calm. Palestinian families and groups of tourists enjoy picnics, or relax on the banks of the stream. But looking up you could see the Israeli settlements, and unauthorized settler outposts, that overshadow the wadi – from which waste water pollutes the water supply, despite the area being declared a nature reserve by the Nature Reserves and National Parks Unit of the Israeli Civil Administration in 1983.

Claiming and maintaining power over land has been an important factor in oppression throughout history, and remains so. To control the land is to have control over the freedom and the life that depends on it. For Abu Nasser, Wadi Qana was a place to farm and enjoy nature – it was his land, and that of his neighbours. For the Israeli authorities, it is land to serve them, where they call the shots, and decide who is in and who is out.

Severing deep connections with the land is a well-used strategy. ‘When we’re talking about how we might have colonized peoples and lands, we’re talking about the way that the powerful have come to dominate the less powerful, and, in some ways, this is something that all of us as humans – in relationship to the land and to the other-than-humans – have to wrestle with,’ explains psychotherapist Srikanth Narayanan in the captivating podcast series ‘Landed’.

The people who challenge that domination, the land’s fiercest protectors, are frequently criminalized, oppressed and even murdered; the protection of private property and interests repeatedly put above the value of life. The human rights organization Global Witness’s yearly reports on the number of land and environmental defenders killed make for grim reading. In 2020, 227 people were slain – more than four every week – all for defending their homes, land and livelihoods.

Over one-third of the fatal attacks in 2020 targeted Indigenous people – who are often the most effective defenders of the land, but who are consistently shut out of conservation efforts or displaced in the name of protecting habitats or wildlife.

Transforming much of humanity’s relationship with the land is urgent – it’s a resource that is essential to life on earth, not least in it’s regulation of the climate as both a source and sink of greenhouse gases. Yet, like so much else that sustains us, we are trashing it. Human use directly affects more than 70 per cent of the global ‘ice-free land surface’. Even the soil we grow our food on is suffering. According to The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, soil nutrient loss is ‘among the most important problems at a global level for food security and sustainability all around the globe’.


Also in this issue...

Land back

Riley Yesno explores some of the ways the Indigenous-led movement is redistributing land and wealth in North America.

Unwanted attraction

As the Bangladesh government promotes tourism in the Chittagong Hill tracts, Indigenous Jumma people are being squeezed out. Hana Shams Ahmed reports.

For whose protection?

Amy Hall examines why a global target to expand protected areas for conservation has been dubbed ‘the biggest land grab in history' by Indigenous groups. 

Nice little earner

Maria Luísa Mendonça and Daniela Stefano explain how a teachers' pension fund has helped drive intensive agriculture and real estate speculation in Brazil.

Plus features about the clampdown on press freedom in Zimbabwe, asylum seekers in Lithuania caught in a political crossfire, and the Hall of Infamy verdict on Rwanda's Paul Kagame. Read more about Issue 540 here.

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Out of the box

Perhaps the disconnection of so many of us from nature and the land means it’s easier to ignore its plight. Naturalist, author and artist David Bangs is a big fan of the proverb ‘what the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve’, and is passionate that people should be able to access nature, in order to feel driven to protect it. Something of a local legend in my home city of Brighton, England, Bangs is a keen advocate of the ‘right to roam’ and the expansion of the Countryside & Rights of Way Act. Currently 92 per cent of land in England is off-limits.

‘The biggest problem is that capitalism creates the separation of the vast bulk of the population from nature,’ he says. ‘It very effectively separates people from what it wants to exploit, destroy or consume as private goods for the ruling class.’

Despite being a self-confessed city person – ‘I’ve never had country cottage fantasies’ – Bangs feels strongly about protecting nature and conservation with humans. ‘We think of nature as something in a box something you peer at,’ he says. ‘Some people think of nature as wallpaper, a backdrop, like a diorama you have on the side of a gym – Icelandic lakes and sandy beaches as you peddle away. I can’t see that any of that makes any sense really – you have to lose yourself in it. You have to dive into it and get muddy, cold, miserable, stung, bored and broken. That’s the only way.’

A government survey in England found that household income, level of educational qualifications, neighbourhood wealth levels and bad health were all factors that contributed to people being less likely to engage with the natural world. Eight per cent of people said they did not have access to any form of garden or outdoor spaces. Homes in the poorest areas have less than one-third of private garden space compared to those in the richest neighbourhoods.

Universal gentrification

Access to affordable, secure and high-quality housing can’t be separated from access to land, something that Andrea Verdecchia, an architect with Time to Access in Amsterdam, knows only too well. His mission is to develop ‘radical architecture’ and work with urban planners and activists to develop affordable co-operative housing for low-income people in the Netherlands’ most expensive city.

‘Access to land is the first step with whatever concerns housing,’ he says. ‘The co-ops can only exist if you manage to get land and for these groups it’s almost impossible to buy private land.’

Some people think of nature as wallpaper, a backdrop, like a diorama you have on the side of a gym - Icelandic lakes and sandy beaches as you peddle away. That doesn’t make any sense; you have to lose yourself in it. You have to dive into it and get muddy, cold, miserable, stung, bored and broken

Time to Access is taking advantage of a scheme which leases local authority land to co-operatives to develop social housing and, crucially, offers them low interest loans to bridge the gap between their co-operative held mortgage and the remaining costs of development.

Amsterdam, with its beautiful canals, vibrant arts scene and liberal marijuana laws, throngs with tourists. But, according to Verdecchia, holiday rentals play only one part in the city’s housing shortage. Along with speculation from huge investment funds, there has been an influx of residents able to pay more for their housing. ‘After Brexit many big companies moved to Amsterdam,’ he explains. ‘There are a lot of multinational companies that have headquarters in the city, or in the area around it, and many of their employees earn big money. They want to live in the city because there are services, culture – it’s a very international city, everybody speaks English. But they are squeezing out people who don’t have the money.’

It’s a similar story the world over. In most countries house prices continue to grow faster than incomes, and renters face a shortage of affordable properties. Back in Brighton, it’s increasingly common for people on lower incomes to be asked for 6 or 12 months in advance – in Nigeria, 12 months up front is reportedly the norm. A scheme to encourage landlords to take rent each month, instead of demanding a year’s worth at once, was announced for Lagos earlier this year with the state government acting as a guarantor. However, it was yet to get up and running nine months later.

Gentrification has a global reach. As feminist scholar Leslie Kern writes in her book Gentrification is Inevitable and Other Lies, this makes sense ‘within the context of globalization, global urbanization, and the spread of neoliberalism. The economic story, writ at a global scale, certainly seems to predict and explain, to a large extent, how gentrification fulfils the need of capital to accumulate profits at expanding rates and to extract maximum value from urban space.’1

The financialization of land and housing is an issue in both rural and urban areas as they are sold off to parasitic financial actors such as banks, pension funds and insurance companies. In 2019, the UN accused private equity firms like Blackstone, notorious for hoovering up real estate, of ‘wreaking havoc’ in communities and helping to fuel a worlwide housing crisis. Globally, residential real estate makes up $163 trillion of assets. Complex networks of intermediaries, brokers, tax-avoidance loopholes and off-shore schemes can mean big money for a small elite.

Tales of empire

Until her death in September, the world’s primary feudal landowner was Queen Elizabeth II, according to Kevin Cahill’s analysis for the New Statesman in 2017. She was the legal owner of around one-sixth of the Earth’s surface, largely due to her thoroughly modern role as monarch of multiple countries and head of the Commonwealth. Citizens in many of the Commonwealth’s member states – including the UK – technically do not have the legal right to own land in full.

This domination of global land is of course no happy accident, but the result of empire and imperialism. As British colonial control usurped land, millions of people were enslaved and resources relentlessly extracted from the Majority World to drive the industrial revolution, ‘quietly unleashing a process of climate change’, according to historian Priya Satia, writing for Time. ‘The more the world was understood as a resource, the more it lost meaning […] Everything, from land to plants to people, was commodified.’

The imperial colonists were reproducing – albeit in extreme form – the deeply unequal patterns of land ownership that were a feature of the ‘home’ country.

From the 1500s onwards common land was enclosed by the aristocracy and gentry – and turned into private property. As the industrial revolution began, people were forced off the land and into urban labour. In the Scottish Highlands and western Ireland people were forcibly evicted in the 18th and 19th centuries to make way for sheep farming. The Great Famine of the 1840s in Ireland (when it was still governed as part of the United Kingdom) led to the deaths of a million people and the emigration of two million more. Ireland at the time was dominated by a small landowning Anglo-Irish elite, while the peasantry – 98 per cent of the population – was not permitted to own land or have secure tenancies.2

Today, the wealth gained from colonization and enslavement can be seen in patterns of land ownership. Half of England is owned by less than one per cent of the population – with at least 30 per cent owned by the aristocracy and gentry, the way it has been for centuries. ‘There are so many people that are able to hoard land and convince the majority population that there’s not enough space,’ says Josina Calliste, co-founder of Land in Our Names (LION) which works to disrupt oppressive land dynamics relating to BPOC (Black people and people of colour) in Britain.

Take Tory MP Richard Grosvenor Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, for example. As well as a vast portfolio of land and property in England, in 2020 The Observer newspaper revealed how he now controls the Barbados plantation where his ancestors created the first slave-worked sugar plantation in the British Empire. The family continued to own plantations and enslaved people for generations.

In 2012, while speaking in support of repressive immigration measures, Drax said: ‘I believe, as do many of my constituents, that this country is full.’

Click for the full-sized fact spread.

Land justice, racial justice

Land is very much at the basis of many of the geographical inequalities faced by communities of colour in Britain, who are often concentrated in the urban areas. Calliste points to a lack of access to affordable, nutritious food and to disproportionate exposure to air pollution. ‘You can’t talk about reparations without colonialism and you can’t talk about racism without land. And it’s amazing that a lot of anti-racism initiatives bypass talking about land, farming and agriculture.’

However, in recent years Calliste has been buoyed by the renewed interest in racial justice and land rights, and access for BPOC into food growing including many more projects, led by people of colour, that have land justice and racial justice at their core.

Redistribution of land and wealth is vital to tackling inequality on a national and international scale, and reparations and returning of land is part of that, as is creating space to heal and repair

In the north London borough of Haringey, Black Rootz is building up its commercial operations as the ‘first multi-generational Black-led growing project in the UK’. Operating as part of the Ubele Initiative, an African Diaspora led social enterprise, Black Rootz also runs weekly volunteer sessions in which seasoned gardeners and newbies work side by side. They sell produce into local veg box schemes and run educational events in the community.

Urban growing projects such as this can be an essential source of nutritional fruit and vegetables. As William Washington Welch who worked on the development explains, Black Rootz stems from a range of needs. These include ‘food security, sustaining livelihoods and the importance of Black and marginalized communities having control of critical community spaces and issues surrounding who owns the land and who’s excluded or exploited by it’.

Stepping inside Back-a-Yard, one of the group’s greenhouses, you are met by a sea of green – palm leaves poke above chilli plants and sweetcorn. Elsewhere there are crops seldom seen growing in the UK, including sweet potato and callalo. Over 65 per cent of people living in Haringey are not white and this focus on ‘culturally appropriate’ foods is an important part of what Black Rootz does, explains Joanna Kamal, who works as a grower and business development officer.

‘A lot of the foods that we might eat in diaspora communities are imported and grown using pesticides and have lots of air miles,’ says Kamal. ‘The other reason for growing these foods is that when people are struggling to find food to eat and are getting it from a food bank, but they don’t know what that food means in the context of their own culture, that’s incredibly alienating and reproduces this idea that there are outsiders and insiders in this country. It’s really important that we grow food that is relevant to racialized communities because our food is worthy of being grown here and we need easier access to it.’

They describe Black Rootz as a safe space for BPOC to learn growing skills and gain this knowledge. Horticulture and agriculture in the UK are blindingly white. ‘A lot of BPOC growers in the UK find working in this industry isolating, alienating and traumatic. A lot of the time you’ll be the only BPOC person on a farm or the only BPOC person on a project and when you’re volunteering that brings in a whole different element of power dynamics: working on someone’s land – for free – who is white.’ Data from the Office for National Statistics showed that from 2016-2019 only around one per cent of British agricultural workers were BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic).

‘Black Rootz is trying to change the narrative of growing being some sort of apolitical activity that isn’t to do with land and colonialism, racialization, class, capitalism and all of these things.’

Heal and repair

Across the world, movements are demanding – and winning – rights to the land. Strong networks of small-scale farmers, Indigenous and landless people are resisting massive corporate, government and imperial power – sometimes against impossible odds.

Several communities in West and Central Africa have managed to stave off palm oil investors with community pressure, building power through cross-border campaigns. In southwest Cameroon communities fought off US-based Herakles Farms from taking over 70,000 hectares for a palm oil plantation, and in Liberia a small cluster of villages stopped UK company EPO in its tracks, despite violence by local police and company security forces.

In 2019, the city of Eureka, California, returned an island off its coast to the Wiyot people, nearly 160 years after the land was seized. A ruling by Panama’s Supreme Court of Justice in November 2020 led to the official creation of a 160,000 hectare comarca, or protected Indigenous territory, for the Naso Tjër Di people, thanks to evidence presented that Indigenous people play an important role in protecting the environment. In June 2022, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights delivered a ‘pioneering’ reparation judgment on the rights of the Ogiek Peoples to their ancestral land in the Mau Forest, Kenya. It also ordered that the Kenyan government pay around $490,000 in ‘material damages’ and around $8,482,000 in ‘moral damages’ into a Community Development Fund established within 12 months.

Redistribution of land and wealth is vital to tackling inequality on a national and international scale, and reparations and returning of land is part of that, as is creating space to heal and repair. In the US, the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust has set up a Reparations Map where the needs of Indigenous farmers and farmers of colour are mapped and people with resources to share contact them directly.

Calliste talks about her vision for Britain: big land owners with ties to colonial wealth turning over land for communal ownership: ‘A total reckoning of anyone who owns over a certain number of acres of land – I’m talking thousands. People are always thinking “they’re going to come after my back garden”. No. There are people that own 3,000, 5,000, 1,000 acres of land. I’m looking at the Crown, the Church of England.’

It’s clear we need to overhaul the economic system that makes it pay to hoard land and housing while destroying the planet – but in the meantime decent support for small-scale farmers, regenerative agriculture and public or community-managed housing wouldn’t go amiss.

‘I would do away with land ownership and any kind of borders or enclosures completely, if it was up to me,’ says Calliste. ‘I would love to bypass the whole question of ownership and start thinking, “Ok, all of us have got to eat, so we’ve all got to grow. So how are we going to do that and make sure everyone is supported?” You can do with thirty people in one day what it might take one person six months to do.’

Devlin Kuyek of GRAIN explains how community-held land can help protect against it being sold off for corporate gain. ‘If you’re poor and marginalized and you’re facing violence and all kinds of other harassment you become quite vulnerable to selling off your lands, whereas if its customary, or there are community ways of owning those lands, that’s a much stronger way for communities to maintain control and it makes it more difficult for corporations.’

This is why, around the world, people are coming together to set up land and housing co-operatives, as well as community land trusts – a model that can keep land accessible for future generations which emerged during the US civil rights movement to create long-term opportunities for economic and residential independence for Black people in the rural South. But these kinds of projects are not easy to set up, grow or keep going, or to do at scale – particularly against the strength of the capitalist economy.

There is also something deeper to consider, as Narayanan explains: ‘When we really experience a connection with the land, we can experience it in a way where we know that although it’s different from us there really is a kind of bond there, that in some ways nature is not something that’s outside of us.’

Kamal, whose family come from Iraq, reflects on the ‘green fingers’ of their father and grandmother and how that inspired their own lifelong interest in growing. ‘In my family, in my culture, in my history – colonialism disconnected us from land. So, to reconnect to it is to reinstill our sense of belonging, but a sense of belonging that’s beyond borders. Racialized people have been told that we don’t belong anywhere, so connection to land for racialized people feels even more pertinent as a way to create some belonging and healing and resistance.’

1 Leslie Kern, Gentrification is Inevitable and Other Lies, Verso, 2022.

Kevin Cahill, Who Owns the World, Mainstream Publishing, 2006.