“Behold, my friends, the spring has come; the earth has received the embraces of the sun and we shall soon see the results of that love! Every seed has awakened and so has all animal life. It is through this mysterious power that we too have our being and we therefore yield to our neighbours, even our animal neighbours, the same right as ourselves, to inhabit this land.”
Chief Sitting Bull
Saturday was the first day of spring. It was also the day a number of us had been working towards for the last six months or so. Inspired by our friend Tal Leshem we got it into our heads that we wanted to organise a land conference, bring people together to discuss issues around land ownership and rights and find ways to answer the question ‘How can we grow a proper relationship between people and place?’ We knew it was important not only because it mattered to us as a team, but because there was no getting away from the different crises around housing, food, climate change, inequality that were upon us in our own country and worldwide.If we are to solve any of these issues we have to start thinking about our relationship with the land. So we posed a question and on that very first spring day 130 people piled into Totnes Civic Hall to try to answer it.
To get the conversation going we invited a number of speakers to offer their perspective.
Tal Leshem compared our current system of land ownership to the ownership of slaves during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. If someone owns the land upon which your life depends, are you not in fact enslaved to that person? He argued that we have become so accustomed to this notion of ownership that we don’t question it, but the time has come to reform this dysfunctional system, the way people in the past had the courage to challenge and reform the slave system.
Some of this reform may start by transforming our actual physical and visceral relationship with the land, the soil and the creatures that live within and upon her – by learning how to tend to the Earth. Jonty Williams co-founder of the Husbandry school in Bickington, spoke about his mentor Walter, a rough man, he said, who tended to his animals twice a day, seven days a week, only brushing his teeth once a week on Sunday and doing his finances the same day. For Jonty learning husbandry is a long slow process and he believes we must take care not to rush into change, but to be willing to go slow, be considered in our actions and build something solid and lasting.
A system that shares the wealth of the land with everyone was the case put forward by Julian Pratt. Julian described a new form of property rights to land in which proprietors would have the responsibility to care for the land, enshrined in a husbandry clause, and the duty to compensate others for excluding them from their land by paying annual dues equal to the market rent of the land. This concept is also known as Land Value Tax, Location Fees or Stewardship Dues.
But how do we get access to the land in our current ownership system? Simon Fairlie is editor of the Land Magazine and advises small farmers and low income people on planning through Chapter 7. The planning system is necessary, he stated, but flawed: it favours the wealthy, the conventional and the profitable. Not many of us have the stamina to wait many years (17 was his record) to get planning permission for a simple dwelling on a piece of agricultural land. What we need is more affordable land available in areas near to towns that would not put extra pressure on existing infrastructure. Are upgraded caravans the answer? What can we get away with? His talk sparked many people’s imaginations, but also made it clear that the issue of land rights goes very deep.
It is an issue that is not restricted to the UK – far from it. Elsewhere on the globe in places like India and many parts of Africa land grabs are taking place which remove people from their ancestral lands to make way for corporations – all under the guise of development. Our final speaker Jyoti Fernandes campaigns for The Landworkers Alliance and La Via Campesina. She highlighted the plight of rural families who lose not only their homes and means of subsistence through these land grabs, but who are robbed of centuries long connections with the land where – alongside homes and crops – stories, songs, rituals and customs have been grown. This decimation of identity is as big a crime as their forced enslavement into the global neoliberal economy.
At a time when most of us in the West have become accustomed to our relationship with the land being limited and mediated by systems of ownership, Jyoti’s plea was a powerful reminder that there is a different way of being with the land that is still practised by many rural people around the globe.
Many people present recognised that the connection to land that Jyoti described was once our own and it is time to rebuild it. Part of this rebuilding needs to incorporate the voices of those often ignored in our anthropocentric worldview: the land and all its other-than-human inhabitants. Artist Toni Spencer created a space to ‘listen to the land’ and those other voices. Which voices do we need to hear and represent if we are to build a land reform movement that is truly just for all living beings? Can we find ways to incorporate the needs of other than human lives into our plans of action?
So what to do?
When we set out to organise this conference we knew we wanted to come away with some practical actions to move us towards this proper relationship. Having had the morning to share and reflect we devoted the afternoon to creative conversations based on topics generated by participants – a bit like an action focused open space. The room buzzed with ideas.
“How can we connect land owners with land users and create useful legal structures?”
”How about an interactive land ownership map of all land over ten acres?”
“I would like to set up an Earth Sharing Devon network.”
“We need to think about urban access to land and about a sense of place in the context of cities.”
“It’s time to make land ownership a political issue and get these ‘radical’ ideas on the agenda.”
“What does it mean to be indigenous, what would Indigenous Devon look like?”
“Is the notion of the commons useful for creating a new paradigm, for creating a new relationship?”
“I would like to talk about the place of children and young people in the commons.”
“What are we prepared to give up in order to become richer in the true sense?”
Creative juices flowed, new ideas emerged. (A grand total of 25 which we are now in the process of collating, while we think of ways to keep connecting, building and growing together.)
Existing projects such as The Hillyfield, Shared Assets, Ecological Land Cooperative and Farm-able were posted on the ‘Great Stuff’ wall.
There was not enough time to speak about everything. There was not enough time to connect with everyone, but as the day drew to a close with a rendition of Leon Rosselson’s ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ and the beautiful acapella harmonies of Glorious Chorus there was a sense that this may just be the tiny beginning of something powerful. That in coming together in this way we start to remember connections and relationships easily lost in the busy-ness of modern life, we realise that we are not alone and that our struggle is part of a much greater struggle shared with people all over the world and throughout history.
As I was packing up a young woman came up to me and confirmed this. “For years I thought I was alone with my fears and frustrations. I have so many ideas of how we can make things better but I can’t do them on my own. Today I realised lots of people feel the same as I do and I am hopeful that we can make something happen together.”
Yes, so are we.
We would like to thank Simon Fairlie, Jyoti Fernandes, Dee Cunnison, Toni Spencer, Sky and Callum Williams, Eleanor Jubb, Rosemary Field, Emilio Mula, Craig, Glorious Chorus and The Water Pilots for the musical finale and Sima and Hannah of The Kitchen Table for their wonderful soup.
Special thanks to the Network of Wellbeing for their generous support.
And finally a big thank you to our wider community of friends. It would not have been possible without you.
The Land Conference was organised by Inez Aponte of Growing Good Lives, Roland Hague, Tal Leshem, Kamran Malik, Julian Pratt and Jonty Williams.