Communities and conservation: report on John Muir Trust Panel Discussion December 9th

This was an excellent event that looked at another aspect of wild places- the role local communities can play in looking after and managing the land.


Richard Williams Land Operations Manager, John Muir Trust
Kevin Cumming Project Manager, Langholm Initative
Sally Reynolds Member of Community Land Scotland, and Development Officer at Carloway Estate Trust
Dr Chris Loynes Reader in Human Nature Relations at University of Cumbria 

The panellists were first asked what role communities can play in conservation. Sally stressed that local people should be at heart of any conservation initiatives. This is because they think and act with the long-term in mind, which leads to conservation. Conservation works best when it is bottom-up and designed by the community, who will still be there when the funding has run out for a particular project.

Rich felt that communities’ decisions about land management are driven by economics. Therefore, if communities are going to be brought on board they need to be convinced that there will be economic benefits. But in addition, they need to feel that there are a range of benefits.

Kevin was aware of the complexities of communities- that different communities had different needs. There are, however, many similarities across rural areas: employment, housing, inclusion are all important. He also stressed the importance of bringing new people into a community and creating a new sense of place. Langholm is an inspiration to people coming into the area and are welcomed by the longer-term residents.

All the speakers recognised that communities may have needs that diverge from the aims of conservationists. There can be polarised opinions with those living and working on the land insisting on benefits to their communities and wanting a repeopling of the land. Kevin questioned why conservation and local development issues need to be opposed-why can’t the two work together? We need to find mechanisms of developing the land for the benefit of local people that are not at the expense of the environment.

The Langholm Initiative tries to balance the different views of the community. Though the original impetus for the community buy-out was to protect nature and wildlife, such as the hen harrier, it was also important to address the economic needs. In any case, funding for community buy-outs from the Scottish government are more likely to be approved if the aims are to address economic issues. They have found a way of creating revenue streams so as to fund the environmental projects. Most of the land is to be used for ecological restoration and eco-tourism, but some land has been set aside to generate an income, through forestry and small business units. It is very difficult, however, to monetarise nature- based tourism. It is important to get local tourism businesses to buy into this type of tourism. 

Rich spoke of the JMT’s work to make sure they consult extensively with communities, putting plans out there, employing local contractors and having a range of what is often called by some ‘engagement’ activities.

The speakers also addressed issues of land ownership and power. Owning land confers power to make decisions about how land is used. Chris pointed out that rewilding could be seen as pushing people off the land. It is important that there is equity in people’s ability to influence how the land is used. Power needs to be more evenly distributed. Sally said that community ownership looks like any other form of ownership- it is important that rights and responsibility of ownership are understood. (A statement was published as part of the Land Reform Act 2016:

The speakers seemed to agree that there should be a mixture of land ownership models. However, Chris argued that we should reject extractivist models of land ownership and Kevin also thought different models needed to be investigated. A People’s Land Policy attendee asked a question:

“Important point that ownership gives power to make decisions about how
the land is used and managed. Despite rights and responsibilities this
power still exists. Why not look at stewardship and get rid of ownership
as the way we think about land? Land as a commons- owned by all but used by people for a variety of reasons. A land worker from Land Workers
Alliance once told me that he didn’t need to own land, he wanted land
that he could belong to.”

The person fielding the questions called this question ‘radical’. Sally certainly seemed to think that this was not something to be considered- we cannot get away from the current system we had. Nevertheless, she felt that when communities buy land they do see it as a way of caring and protecting that land for future generations. Rights and responsibilities is still the best option for ensuring that people look after the land, even though it is still voluntary for landowners to sign up to the statement.

Chris, however, elaborated on the idea of the Commons- that land is like air and water- it belongs to all of us. We are all custodians and therefore should all have a say in how this land is looked after. Communities voices in this are important.

Another attendee asked about the role of ‘communities of interest’- those who may not live or work in a locality but still care about, and have an interest in how the land is managed. Kevin supported the view that these should have a voice because even if it is not your immediate area, the effects of land management could have an impact on everyone, eg climate change. If land is heavily drained, then it can cause flooding in the lower ground. Also, a lot of land use is subsidy-driven. Therefore, we are all paying taxes to landowners and should have a say in how that land is managed. Rich agreed and pointed out that post-Brexit there will be subsidies based on public benefits for public money. The JMT itself is a community of interest with its 12,000 members having a stake in how its properties are managed.

Sally seemed to disagree and reemphasised her view that local communities should have the biggest voice- anything that is done on the land needs to have the support of those who live and work on the land.

Chris talked about the Lake District with its millions of visitors. They have a voice, even if they are unaware of it because of the way the tourist gaze shapes the land. One way forward would be to have citizens’ assemblies.

From this report you can see that this was a very rich discussion with people who have extensive experience in working with local communities and in conservation. For the full (unedited!) version of the meeting, a link to the podcast will be made available soon.

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