Will the Scottish Left Step up for Land Justice?

Struggles in Colombia and across the world can help guide us to build a land justice movement in Scotland, write Heather Urquhart and Tara Wight.

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“This is not a liberal space. This is not a space where all perspectives are welcome. This is a gathering for scholars and activists of the left.” 

With these words, one of the organisers of the Land Deals Politics Initiative (LDPI) conference in Bogota, Colombia, welcomed the social movement delegation to a conference anchored in the left. The gathering brought together activists and scholars from struggles for land justice around the world to share collective learnings and strategies for resistance to land grabbing. We joined as a scholar-activist and a campaigner from the land-based workers’ movement in Scotland. Familiar with the administrative exercises and slow consultation processes of the Scottish land reform, we had not expected the conference to be quite so inspiring, insightful, and unapologetically leftist. 

Colombia was the perfect choice of venue for a conference focused on resisting land-grabbing. Following a 2016 peace agreement between the state and FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejercito del Pueblo, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army) and the recent election of a left-wing government, the country appears to be full of hope and potential. FARC was founded by peasant farmers and indigenous people in the 1960s in response to large-scale dispossession. Land remained central to their struggle through decades of conflict, and their actions included breaking up large ranches and redistributing land to local subsistence farmers. A peace agreement was only reached once the state agreed to large-scale land redistribution, with the current government promising to give more than 3 million hectares to small-scale farmers, and committing $4.35 billion to purchasing land for redistribution. 

The conference fieldtrip took us to a large cattle-ranch confiscated from a drug lord and given to 91 ex-FARC combatants and their families. The farmers showed us around their new land, where they are building homes and growing food to feed themselves and to sell. Since their recent arrival, they have begun undertaking plans to generate a collective income and build social community by eating together in their new garden. We sampled their first harvest of delicious tropical fruits while their children ran around the gardens and swimming pool that had once belonged to a drug cartel. 

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Colombia’s history of socialist and anarchist struggles have centred questions of land in a commitment to liberation from domination and oppression. This commitment, driven by anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal and anti-colonial ideals, ensures land justice movements are rooted in ambitions to reclaim stolen land, and dismantle concentrated patterns of land ownership, but also challenge extractive relationships with the land. The influence of feminist and indigenous cosmologies in this struggle emphasise the importance of recognising land, not only as the means of production, but also the means of social reproduction. Therefore land is the necessary means not to only to accumulate profit, but also to engage in what italian ecofeminist Stefania Barca describes as ‘the work of sustaining life in its material and immaterial needs’. When the critical role of land in the reproduction of ecological and social life is the focal point of struggles, the function of land in supporting subsistence and wellbeing economies is prioritised over extractive and profit-driven ones.

This was made clear by delegates from La Via Campesina, the international peasants’ movement, who shared experiences of fighting for and occupying agricultural land as a pivotal part of the battle against corporate control over food systems, nature, and life itself. This perspective emphasises sustainable and equitable land management practices that benefit communities and future generations, contrasting with exploitative approaches that lead to environmental degradation and social inequality. Centering land in these struggles prioritises policies and practices that ensure land rights for indigenous peoples, secure tenure for local communities, and promote sustainable use of resources, thereby fostering a more just and sustainable future.

Stories from left land struggles worldwide offered a stark contrast with the narratives of the modern left in Scotland, where rural affairs and land issues are often background concerns. But land injustice in Scotland is a class issue. Scotland has the second most unequal distribution of land ownership in the world, with more than half the country owned by just 433 people. Major landowners like Anders Polvson accumulated the corporate wealth they used to purchase their land through the exploitation of land, nature, and labour. They now control how and for whom land is managed across Scotland, setting land aside for the leisure of a few and greenwashing their sins at the expense of the rural working class. 

In a country where most people were dispossessed from the land more than a century ago, the passing of time conceals the abnormality of land ownership in Scotland and infringes on our collective capacity to imagine the possibilities of a more equitable relationship with the land. It is no wonder our social movements, including climate, rent, and labour movements, are unusually disconnected from the land. The rallying cry of ‘Land to the Tiller’, which has accompanied revolution in many parts of the world, has little resonance in a country where just 1.2% of the population actually work the land. While alienation from land has become normalised, the excessive disparity in wealth and power held by landowners in Scotland cannot go unchallenged. And addressing this imbalance is essential for reestablishing connection to the land

The Land Reform Bill making its way through parliament certainly doesn’t mount that challenge. Discussions about land in Scotland are largely led by the Scottish Government through a series of lack lustre land reform bills padded with empty rhetoric. Of course, there are examples of valiant efforts from communities fighting corporate control of land at the local level, and a few well-written treaties on land reform from prominent Scottish thinkers, but land redistribution is certainly not a central concern for the Scottish left. Given the tiny fraction of land workers in Scotland, the power to challenge the 443 people who own most of Scotland will only come when the left joins land-working communities to mount a resistance to green land-grabbing, capitalist rewilding, and Government complicity. With political education urban and rural class struggles can collectively organise in resistance to capitalism. 

One central priority is challenging the positioning of land-grabbing as environmental. The LDPI conference heard examples of how the global north is increasing pressure on countries in the global south to sacrifice land to new extractive economies. With more than 50% of the rare minerals needed for renewable energy infrastructure found on indigenous land, the neoliberal green renewable revolution continues to dispossess and displace people across colonial fault-lines. Colonial violence is also emerging from demands placed on countries in the global south to set land aside for conservation and carbon credit markets in a bid to outsource the responsibilities of the climate crises. Despite contributing the least to the climate crises, countries in the global south are rapidly losing their land and the means of reproducing their social worlds to maintain the high polluting lifestyles enjoyed in the global north.

Rural Scotland knows all too well that green land grabs are not isolated to the global south. With a sparse population, centralised control of land and high potential for restoration, many of the locations identified for rewilding and reforesting map on to historic fault lines of displacement and dispossession. This is evidenced by Alladale Wilderness Reserve and Wildland Sutherland, both developed on sites where the rural poor were cleared to make way for extractive economies. Presenting private land ownership as the ideal model for habitat restoration and carbon sequestration conceals, what Malcom Ferdinand describes in his work on ‘decolonial ecology’ as the shared histories of land grabbing, clearance, and extractivism, and denies the possibility for land to be held in common to support the collective flourishing of ecological and social life.

For all their empty rhetoric about land reform, the Scottish government is selling our country’s ‘natural capital’ to neoliberal interests. In 2023, the Scottish government agreed a £2 billion deal with private investment banks to plant trees and capture carbon. All of the government’s plans for meeting climate and environmental targets rely heavily on increasing private investment in land to offset carbon emissions and biodiversity loss. Returning to stories of displacement, enclosure and extraction in Scotland’s history can make us aware how Scotland is now being used to offset the environmental costs of the ongoing clearances in the global south that are the means by which the global north is preserving its lifestyles.

These parallel stories can also remind us that wherever there is displacement, there is resistance. For inspiration on how to resist this new form of enclosure, we can once again look to international movements. Peasant farmers across Africa have been organising against REDD+, a UN-backed carbon offsetting mechanism whereby countries of the global north use forests, agriculture, and other natural resources as sponges for their emissions rather than reducing carbon outputs. They have also been resisting other dubious tree-planting schemes for well over a decade, with tactics including street protest, rioting, legal challenges, and occupation and cultivation of contested land. Indigenous leaders from Nicaragua, Guatemala and other parts of Latin America spoke at the conference about their fight against ‘green’ extractivism. Closer to home, comrades from ‘Save Leitrum’ in Ireland staged a mass direct action last year in which they pulled up thousands of conifers that had been planted on peatlands as part of a green-washing exercise. A culture of direct action in resistance to greenwashing and other tactics and traditions of resistance are shared across the global North and South, and engaging in global left dialogue can provide valuable reflections and lessons for the land struggle in Scotland.

A land struggle in Scotland capable of challenging the concentration of ownership depends on the left developing a broader movement with and beyond of Scotland’s land working communities. Such an urban and rural, national and international, anti-capitalist and anti-colonial movement would not only be a means for repairing Scotland’s rural communities still broken by the clearances. It would provide a node in the global resistance to the use of land as the means of insurance and indemnity for the extractive appetite of those who, like the 443 who own most of Scotland, treat land as a thing to grab and possess. The challenge for the left in Scotland is to engage with land workers and urban communities to develop a movement that can reclaim workers’ right to land. 

Heather Urquhart is a politics PhD researcher examining rewilding and land ownership in the Highlands and Islands. Tara Wight has a PhD in agricultural science and currently works for the Landworkers Alliance, campaigning for land justice and a fairer farming system in Scotland.