Land, Communities and the Ecological Crisis: Report on the seminar series

Introduction

The ongoing ecological crisis and pandemic pulls into sharp focus the interconnectedness of our modern world. However, these devastating issues are the result of a thousand local decisions affecting the use, ownership and management of the world’s resources through land. The encroachment of extractive and agribusiness industries into wild habitats is one of the main causes for the spread of dangerous diseases such as COVID-19 and Ebola. Continuing deforestation across the globe threatens to accelerate climate change and has already caused the loss of valuable biodiversity.

The UK is no exception, where almost 69% of its land area is dedicated to agriculture, with substantial industrial livestock farming being a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and loss of biodiversity. Deforestation and the loss of wild places also contributes to climate change and species loss. All of these issues arise from the way land, our essential resource, is currently owned and controlled. We can only hope to deal with these deep crises facing humanity through rethinking our relationship to land in a manner that prioritises principles of stewardship and the common good.

The People’s Land Policy is a forum for discussing real and deliverable alternatives to our current system of land ownership and management. We believe that through wide engagement and discussion, we can develop and promote clear, workable policies to promote land reform for the common good. This summer, we facilitated a seminar series that focused on the issues of land, communities and the ecological crisis as a way to help develop ideas and hear your views. These seminars explored an understanding of the national context of land use and management in the UK, as well as local Scottish case studies that demonstrate how rethinking land management can empower local communities and deliver climate justice. We also appreciate that the UK is embedded in an international context in respect to land, due to its history as a colonial power, and its role in driving international demand for extracted resources. A final seminar explored extractive mining internationally and the relationship of the UK to international land injustice, and how policy changes at home can help communities abroad.

Each seminar included a substantial question and answer session, as well as breakout rooms. This gave us an opportunity to hear the views of attendees and participants, on issues important to them and discussed in the seminar. Following these seminars, we have reviewed feedback and engagement and now present the following summary. These include suggestions that have come out of the seminars for contributions to our evolving development of a People’s Land Policy.

Seminar 1: Climate change and the ecological crisis: land use in the UK

This seminar was led by Paul de Zylva from Friends of the Earth, who addressed the question of what land use changes are necessary in the UK in order to deal with the threats to our environment. Paul is a Senior Nature Campaigner whose job involves conceiving and running environmental and community campaigns and advising on turning sustainable development policy into practice. One of the recent campaigns that Paul has been involved in aims to double tree cover in the UK (more information available at: https://friendsoftheearth.uk/trees).

Paul highlighted the problems created by the fragmentation and despoliation of urban, suburban and rural land, which have been fuelled by hyper-mobility, urbanisation and poor land use practices. Through a series of interesting data sources and case studies, Paul examined how harmful agricultural and forestry practices have contributed to the degradation of the environment.

Presentation and response to chair’s questions.

How we manage land matters. For example, Paul quoted Sir Robert Watson, Chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES):

“Land degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change are three different faces of the same central challenge: the increasingly dangerous impact of our choices on the health of our natural environment. We cannot afford to tackle any one of these three threats in isolation – they each deserve the highest policy priority and must be addressed together.”

Paul went on to identify some of the causes of our current environmental problem. As agriculture takes up 72% of total land use in the UK, intensive agriculture is one of the key areas of concern. Other problems include the way in which built up land is developed. Artificial surfaces have increased, now 8% of total land in the UK. Developments tend to take up more land than is needed, e.g. service areas, parking. Car parks are a particular problem because they accumulate oil and dust, and this runs off into the water systems. Also, infrastructure often dissects wild-life corridors.

Paul put forward a few solutions.

  • A key point is to think about the multi-functionality of land (all land, not just undeveloped land): soaking up carbon, enhancing biodiversity, growing crops, etc. We need to ask, for every acre of land, what is this land doing and is it benefitting us or causing damage? For example, is the way land is managed causing flooding downstream? Is it growing nutritious food we need, providing a home to wildlife? And if it isn’t, we need to ask why this is. We need data and good evidence to inform this decision making.
  • Natural Capital: How do we work out the true value or natural capital to help make better decisions?
  • Professions: what is their role is addressing these issues? They have a lot of knowledge and expertise that are not always brough to bear to current environmental issues.
  • Directly protect nature, through robust designation. No exceptions.
  • Address the subsidies and reform them. Follow the money to see how it encourages people to engage in poor environmental practices.

Questions from Chair: why are we moving in the wrong direction and what specific policies might help?

  • Land ownership is an obstacle, based on feudalism. We need to make sure that landowners are using the land in a good way. You have to address the issue of power but doesn’t mean that we have to strip owners of their land but instead to focus on making sure they use the land in such a way which is compatible with the national objectives.
  • We need a land use strategy/ a spatial strategy: an overview of land with constant monitoring- how can this land be better used? For example, looking at flooding, the impact of deforestation. We need better evidence in order to do this. Planning needs to be spatial, not just based on a development-by-development basis.

Questions from the floor

1. Opportunity for public consultation on land use are very limited. Often very late, with developers often undertaking tick box consultations. Communities need to insist on having more and better information throughout the process. More reliable data tends to be held centrally and not be based on what the developers provide. So, the baseline data needs then to be used to assess the development.

2. Land Value Tax

Friends of the Earth has looked at this and is broadly supportive of the idea. We need to be valuing agricultural land better. Natural capital approach though this has limits, to help people make better decisions, eg. uplands were not considered of value- not valued for its role in preventing flooding.

Break out Rooms: Summary

Land ownership

  • Need to address the social injustices, including the colonial legacy, around land use and ownership;
  • Public sector should take more of a role in owning land. This might be possible with a property crash;
  • Need to consider the root causes, eg. historical land ownership and exploitation for private benefit;
  • Land ownership and power is the main obstacle to change;
  • Greater punitive powers against landowners.

Planning

  • Different types of land require different approaches, eg. urban, rural. There is no one size fits all;
  • There needs to be transparency in land ownership and planning;
  • Increase availability of information to public on planning issues, like eco-consequences – give people less pressured lives so they can participate and use the info.  This helps build local narratives of understanding.

Rewilding

  • More initiatives to rewild and get rid of sporting estates;
  • More land rewilding. Rewilding waterways; 
  • Reducing perceived duality between people and the wild;
  • More sustainable public parks policy could also be cheaper – not just short grass mono-cultures;
  • More urban greening.

Other references mentioned

Issues to consider when developing the People’s Land Policy

  • Idea of a general land use strategy that would involve the wider public and local communities in deciding how the land should best be used;
  • An accessible database of evidence of how land is used now;
  • Centralised agreed evidence for planning applications so that the application has to prove that it is meeting public criteria and evidence rather than providing its own evidence;
  • Support from some, but not from speaker for ownership reform;
  • The concept of multi-functionality, linked with the strategy, should be explored. Land has to fulfil a number of useful purposes;
  • Reform of subsidies so that landowners have to do what fits in with the land use strategy;
  • More direct protection of nature with no exceptions for any development;
  • Use of the concept of natural capital- not to determine price of land but as part of decision-making;
  • How to involve the professions in the whole land issue.

Seminar 2: Protecting Wild Land and Empowering Communities

This seminar was led by Mike Daniels, the head of policy and land management of the John Muir Trust (JMT). The JMT is a conservation charity based in Scotland that seek to protect and enhance wild land. It has helped purchase a number of key properties which it manages with the aim of conserving and promoting wild land. However, their unique approach is founded on engagement and partnerships with other organisations, addressing policy on issues such as wind farms and land reform, while working closely with communities to ensure that conservation efforts enhance rather than alienate communities.

Mike began his presentation with a discussion on ‘wild land’, its value and definitions, as both a physical and experiential quality. It was acknowledged that much of the remaining wild land in the UK is concentrated in Scotland, which has been recognised in legislation, with the identification of 42 wild land areas in 2014 as part of planning guidance. Using the example of Wind Farm development in Scotland over time, Mike explored the impact of these installations on wild land, which has not always been a positive addition to these environments. Instead this demonstrated the need for a balanced approach to these sensitive environments, acknowledging that sustainable development requires a basis in a protected and enhanced environment.

The presentation provided an overview of land reform legislation in Scotland, touching on the Land Reform Acts of 2003 and 2016. Importantly, the foundation of the Scottish Land Commission recognises that land reform is an ongoing and evolving process that has to addresses a wider culture of ownership and not simply issues of national government intervention. The Scottish Land Commission has helped develop a debate around what would responsible land ownership look like.

The conflict between competing demands on wild land, between development for community benefit and its protection, represents the interesting intersection that the JMT acts within and seeks to mediate through community engagement and an emphasis on stewardship. JMT continues to help communities with a similar vision to the Trust, helping out with a range of community buy-outs, as well as acting as a landowner themselves. To best illustrated this, Mike discussed two developing projects: Langholm Moor Community Buyout Appeal and the Yearn Stane project in Clydeside.

Langholm Moor Community Buyout Appeal in southern Scotland is a project where the local community is working on buying this former grouse moor with the aim of managing it for conservation and rewilding. The moor had previously been subject to two ten-year projects exploring whether grouse shooting can exist hand-in-hand with hen harrier conservation, but these projects have not been successful. The moor was placed on the market, and the local community exercised their interest via the Land Reform acts and set out purchasing it. Current community proposals focus on ecological restoration as a way to support the community. This includes exploring the potential for woodland restoration, peat restoration, flood resilience and promoting biodiversity, as well as creating nature-based local economy around sustainable tourism and other sectors. The community is looking to take advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity to create a national nature reserve.

The Yearn Stane project in Clydeside involves large urban communities fringing a ‘wild land’ area, including the Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park and Renfrewshire Hills. The project is a large-scale ecological restoration of the area for the benefit of the environment, local community and the economy. Substantial work is expecting to restore the ecosystems of the Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park, including a functioning bog, while involving local communities, reducing flood damage and developing community based local businesses and social enterprises.

Mike concluded his presentation reiterating the JMT’s objectives to be part of a movement around how we see land as much more than just a community. Instead placing an emphasis on community ownership and management which considers the wider environment.

Q&A & Discussion

  • Some questions offered highlighted the gap between the community right to buy, and initiatives that proactively help communities with the actual purchase of land. This led to a discussion on the current land fund in Scotland, its strengths and weaknesses. Wider opportunities were highlighted in addressing taxation, and the potential for a right to buy for sustainable development.
  • A question regarding the Land Reform Acts asked why more communities haven’t taken advantage of the new rights and whether there are any common barriers to participation. Mike highlighted that the current legislation is only triggered when owners put it on the market. A major identified barrier relates to the financial burden for the communities, with no current public subsidies to cover community ownership for sustainable development.
  • Has the JMT ever encountered fundamental conflicts between the objectives of encouraging local economy and promoting conservation? The JMT itself owns land and Mike pointed to a recent study which compared private land and conservation land in Scotland in terms of jobs provided and noted that the comparison is favourable.
  • Does the community always do the right thing? What sort of structures do they use for decision making? Mike highlighted the importance of governance in his experience, as key to creating community ownership in a way that is transparent and fair. There is also the question of whether public ownership could be a more important manner in which to manage land democratically.
  • What happens to wind farms being decommissioned? This is a phenomenon which has not substantially occurred yet, but there are issues raised about their long-term impact on wild land.
  • A question of tree planting sought to understand its role in re-wilding. Mike emphasised the importance of tree planting within JMT’s projects, an important part of rewilding as only 4% of our native woodland cover in Scotland. Natural regeneration is the best way to go. Carbon sequestration but actually the focus is biodiversity.
  • A specific question about the Langholm Moor asked around the negotiations between the owner and the community. For this project, much of the community impetus comes from a few energetic individuals. One of the biggest jobs in community organisation is helping to develop the necessary consensus for strong negotiation.
  • Is there a possibility to consider or introduce wild land in an urban setting or does is it precluded by the need for large amounts of open space or conflicting demands? Discussion felt it was possible but in urban settings the strategic nature of wild land and its connection to the wider environment is critical.

Break-out room discussions: Summary

  • The issue of education, how to improve people’s understanding of their role and impact on the environment
  • In regard to models of land ownership, a diversity of models was seen as potentially being the best solution. Different models should respond to multiple issues and scales, while always relating to the people and the place in question.
  • Land management should focus on custodianship rather than ownership and consider the longer-term multiple benefits of land as well as immediate ones.
  • Comparing public ownership to community ownership, it was felt that the process of the owning, in community ownership is of itself a source of value, as opposed to the current model of public ownership which tends to imply a less locally involved approach.
  • Community consultation and engagement is felt to ‘ebbs and flow’, and there is interest in understanding how to think of community engagement in a dynamic and evolving way, at the same time balancing engagement with a robust and effective decision-making process.
  • Ensuring community consultations engaged people who are normally missed out, such as young people, in a meaningful way. Also acknowledging the time issues of community engagement, how to make it part of daily everyday life.
  • Can we re-wild cities? This include considering unbuilt spaces, and a different approach to existing green spaces.
  • Some discussion was around ‘wild land’ and whether this is a more of a future hope and separate to the need to address what’s required here and now to combat climate change in the short term. This led into a broader discussion around the definition of ‘sustainable’ and the appropriateness of other terms such as ‘regenerative’.

Issues to consider when developing the People’s Land Policy

  • Vision to include a commitment to recognise the value of ‘wild land’, its definition and means to encourage its enhancement and restoration.
  • Develop policies that properly protect, enhance and restore wild land, including exploring the potential for designation
  • Policies should explore re-wilding as a potential means to help address climate change
  • Understanding that large scale renewable energy sources can have negative local impacts on environments, such as wind farms, and policies should seek an appropriate balance between strategic needs and local needs
  • PLP to explore the model of the Scottish Land Commission as a possible vehicle for wider land reform in the UK
  • Policies should promote and enable community engagement and stewardship as a fundamental component of land policy
  • Policies need to recognise the opportunities that conservation can have to promote local economies, and should not be seen as mutually exclusive    

Seminar 3: Land, Climate Change and the Ecological Crisis: The Impact of Mining

This seminar was led by speakers from partner organisations of the London Mining Network:

Seb Ordonoz: War on Want

Hal Rhoades: Yes to Life, No to Mining (part of Gaia Foundation)

Isobel Tarr: Coal Action Network

This seminar examined how global mining corporations devastate the environment and the health and well-being of local communities and considered how these activities continue to relate to the UK. Not only is mining still an issue in this country, for example through fracking, but the UK has effectively exported many of the problems mining brings to other countries. Communities in the global south have to deal with the ecological, health and social consequences of a brutal mining industry, many of these mining corporations being based in the UK. This session placed our struggle for land rights firmly in the international context, facilitating a movement for land rights that challenges the colonial legacy, based on solidarity.

Summary of Presentations

Seb Ordonoz

Seb provided a global context to the issues discussed: “the global dynamics within which extractivism operates.” He focused on the problems of a particular development model that is linked to capitalism and colonialism.

He began by pointing out that the root cause of the current pandemic, and many previous ones, is the destruction of habitats caused by the spread of industrial agriculture and other activities by companies based in the Global North. The dominant narrative is one where nature is seen as something to be subjugated, controlled and exploited, similar to the way people of European descent viewed colonised people.

This extractivist model is “at the heart of the colonial model” in which workers and communities are exploited to provide profits for multi-national corporations. The pandemic has revealed the lengths companies are willing to go to continue production at the expense of the health and well-being of local communities. (See report: https://londonminingnetwork.org/2020/06/voices-from-the-ground-covid-19-and-mining/).

The mining industry uses a particular narrative to promote itself. During the pandemic and before with the advance of the climate change agenda, they present themselves as “the saviours” because they can assist economic recovery and provide the necessary metals and minerals for renewables. This is a narrative of “green growth” and is really just legitimising the same development model as before, still exploiting the Global South. Seb stressed that we need another model of transition, one that involves community sovereignty and justice.

Hal Rhoades

Hal revealed the UK’s “global role as a mining powerhouse.” He reinforced Seb’s point that mining “has been at the heart of the British colonial project.” London is the “hub” of the mining industry because of its role in providing business and financial services: the London Stock Exchange and the London Metal Exchange. The UK has either the biggest or second biggest (disputed with Canada) number of mining corporations based here and is the third largest exporter of al mining business services globally. So, although most mines are in the Global South, the overall control of them is in the North, with the UK a major player.

“Mining is an industry predicated on harm”. This is a key point. Mining harms communities and the environment and tramples land rights of local people. UK companies are implicated in a number of mining disaster stories (see, for example: https://londonminingnetwork.org/2019/01/london-mining-network-comment-on-mining-waste-disaster-in-brazil/).

Mining expansion globally has been associated with the decline of the UK mining industry. Production has been “outsourced.” With Brexit the UK will be even more concerned to secure supplies or key minerals and metals. These are needed for renewables, communication technology (mobile phones, computers) and for other technological developments such as AI. The PR is that “Mining can make us great!” The diplomatic service plays a key role in getting countries to open their countries to British mining interests.

There is also now an interest in expanding mining in the UK again, especially in lithium, copper, and gold (see: https://www.cornishlithium.com/). It is difficult to fight these projects because of the “narrative of benevolence.” How can people oppose something that will create jobs and provide the resources for renewable energy? Blackmail is used- if we don’t mine here we will mine elsewhere and the conditions would be worse. However, this is misleading- they will mine here and elsewhere.

We need to create a pole of unity for communities around the world- based on the idea that communities should have the right to say no, the right to land, the right to decide what happens on their territory. This will also require exploring systemic alternatives to the growth-driven model.

Isobel Tarr

Isobel focused on coal mining but raised many of the same issues discussed in the previous talks. The coal industry is still strong despite the move to renewables. The focus has been on emissions and not on supply so though coal will not be used to generate energy after 2025. However, it can still be produced and exported or sold to industry, such as cement and steel. Most new mines are open cast but there is currently a proposal for a deep mine in Whitehaven, Cumbria:  https://www.climatechangenews.com/2019/04/25/town-needs-self-respect-new-coal-mine-open-uk/.  And the dominant narrative is, as always, the need for jobs. These narratives need to be challenged. Communities have been making links with coal mining communities in places like Colombia and the message is the same: our ownership and control of our land has been abruptly taken away.

Questions from Chair

What is the role for land reform?

Isobel

We need to focus on- a holistic way of looking at land and energy. Land justice is tied to energy justice. Land is not a field but a territory through which we connect spiritually, interact, and reproduce life. It is this wider connection to land which is important, not just ownership. We need to question the view that the person who has the right to the land is the one who has the right to exploit it. People are very alienated from the land around them, trapped in their homes, areas not accessible because of mining developments.  In one community campaign people held a vigil on the land to reconnect to it in a meaningful way.

How do we deal with the economic arguments?

Hal

Mining is not actually profitable. If they had to bear all the costs, eg environmental, social, then they could not operate. We need to stop this subsidisation of the mining industry and force a true cost accounting of the impacts.

We also have to look at the idea of the economy that doesn’t grow.  We need to make connections with different communities and focus on creating alternatives- not a negative but a yes to life, yes to biological diversity, yes to communities. We need to campaign around a positive pole, drawing on people’s innate connection with the land.

Questions from Floor

1. The issue of deep floor and deep-sea mining was raised. It was argued that local people are very keen because of jobs created. The jobs argument has to be addressed but we need to remember that jobs can also be destroyed as a result of these developments. In Colombia there was a project to create a port which would create 400 jobs but destroy 36,000 jobs in fishing.  Mining is increasingly automated, eg a mine in Australia which is run from an office in Perth with driverless trucks, diggers etc. Another issue is that we do not know what the damage to ecosystems will be.

2. What minerals/metals do we actually need?

It depends on what is meant by ‘need’. If it is a need to maintain a western standard of living than this is different from elsewhere. The green economy looks different to different people. But in general, the view seemed to be that we need to focus on reducing our needs as much as possible and aim for a circular economy in which these mineral resources are reused.

The problem is that the macrosystems, ie. capitalism, are at odds with individual communities and what they need to sustain themselves. We need to start looking at a post-extractivist society. Of course, there will still be extraction, but this is different from extractivism, which is an exploitative system based on fundamental inequalities of class, race, gender etc. Once we create a society which exists within planetary boundaries in which we have dealt with inequalities and redistribution, we still have to come to an agreement about when, where and how to extract what we need for our well-being. The Commons and land reform will be part of this.

General Discussion- focus on policies

We need a major paradigm shift but how do we achieve this?

1.  An important policy would be based on the ‘right to say no’ which is now part of indigenous people’s rights. The problem is that land-based people’s knowledge is not accepted by authorities. If people say no, we don’t want your money, it is considered illegitimate. Other communities are pursuing the same demand eg. customary communities are still land-based. How useful would this be in England? One example was the way in Oxford, people got back land that was taken by the university centuries ago and this land is now used for allotments.

2. Need to change the planning framework so that the community is at the centre- making decisions about what they want the land for rather than being in a situation where they have to fight people coming in.

3. We can marry the vision with action today by prefiguring our vision in the way we relate to communities- different from mining companies- respecting local views- make them centre of discussions, respecting their knowledge, promote self-determination.

4. The paradigm shift requires us to question the idea of development that comes from the colonial period. One way this could be done is to put the indigenous voices and others from the Global South at the centre. We don’t have to invent anything new because alternative world views already exist- where the earth is a living thing and needs to be respected. The concept of ‘ecocide’ has also been used. If we put some of the thinking into what we are doing here, then it would take us to a new vision. Education will be a crucial part of this, for example the work of the John Muir Trust.

Issues to consider when developing the People’s Land Policy

  • Vision to include the views of indigenous people from the Global South about an alternative view of nature- not just about how land is used but our whole relationship to it.
  • Vision to include a discussion of the problems of the narrative of extractivism and a yes to life approach.
  • The right to say no needs to be explored as a policy. To what extent could this be used in Britain? Is it right that one community can determine everything that happens on a territory?
  • Policies to control the operation of British mining companies and the financial services part of this in London.
  • The circular economy as a way of reducing demand for mineral resources.
  • Trade policies which focus on fair/just mining.
  • Development of the alternative jobs agenda- transition.
  • Critique of renewables as part of a growth model- need a whole energy strategy.
  • Changes in planning policy to make the community the centre- but again consideration of the public interest as a whole.
  • Deep floor/sea mining policy
  • Education policy on environmental education

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