Land, and the army marching to claim it, in the UK and around the world

by | Nov 20, 2012

The right to access land matters, in a fundamental way. It is a place to live, a source for food, for water, for fuel, and for sustenance of almost every kind. And land management also has profound impacts on our ecosystems and environment, and thus on our well-being and our collective future. So it matters deeply that while UK supermarkets and housing estates find permission to build easy to come by, those who wish to use land to explore truly sustainable living are blocked and frustrated at every turn.

It is this sorry state of affairs that has given birth to the “Reclaim the Fields” movement and activist groups like Grow Heathrow and the Diggers 2012. Inspired by the example of Gerrard Winstanley’s 17th Century Diggers, these peaceful, practical radicals have moved onto disused UK land in order to cultivate it, build dwellings and live in common “by the sweat of our brow”.

In other words, they have asserted their right to simply exist on nature’s bounty, seeking neither permission from anyone nor dominion over anyone; a right that they believe people should still share with the other animals. A right, indeed, that was enshrined in UK law in the 1217 Charter of the Forest. More recently, however, the strange young notion of owning exclusive rights to land has pushed back hard (as this excellent article documents). Thus, as they fully expected – and as happened to their forebears – the Diggers 2012’s crops have been torn up and they themselves have been hassled, moved on and in some cases arrested.

It might seem, then, that the efforts of these determined folk are being successfully repelled by ‘the system’, were it not for two crucial considerations – that they have history on their side, and that there is an enormous army surging at their backs.

As we look around the world, we see them, from the likes of the 1.5m strong Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil and the vast international peasant’s movement La Via Campesina, to the tens of thousands of Greek families deserting the cities to return to any land they can access and the immense – and successful – land rights march across India earlier this year.

Tens of thousands of India's poorest march on Delhi to demand land rights

Meanwhile, closer to home, I see increasing numbers of my friends disillusioned and marginalised from the mainstream economy – ripped off by the banks, burdened with huge debts and struggling to find decent employment. As the inherently unsustainable financial economy continues to unravel, the people of England are not yet reaping the desperate consequences to the extent that those of Greece or India are, but it is growing even here, and it will come heavily home to this dark heart of the financial empire soon enough. For many, ‘austerity’ is already biting hard.

Naturally, in such circumstances, we seek alternatives. Yet while some might wish to follow the example of those Greek families and earn a simple, honest life “by the sweat of our brow”, rather than working frantically to earn ‘a living’ while paying off the debts incurred by a corrupt financial system, they are simply not being permitted to do so.

New laws are being passed absurdly criminalising the likes of squatting and trespass (even against the wishes of the police forces), meaning that the police are being forced to step in on behalf of landowners. Meanwhile, planning policy reform makes it ever easier for corporations – and harder for families – to control land, leaving the courts obliged to prosecute those who wish to work to heal disused, neglected land instead of relying on state handouts to survive the vagaries of the employment market. The glaring injustice that has mobilised mass movements in the likes of Brazil and India is becoming ever more apparent here.

Thus I see the tide of history at the backs of the Diggers 2012, with their direct action the vanguard of an inevitable UK movement to reclaim the land under our feet from the 1% – or 0.06% – who would call it theirs.

Native American graffiti reclaiming their right to their ancestral land

Yet, as with all influential movements for change in society, the activists cannot achieve much alone. Their direct action and willingness to put their bodies on the line powerfully expresses and demonstrates the ever-swelling public pressure, but if that pressure is to lead to a better society, rather than simply widespread frustration and anger, we also need positive lifestyle examples for law-abiding citizens to follow, complemented by the slow work of developing alternative legal and organisational forms that allow land to meet the pressing needs of the people.

This is why this year I agreed to become a director of an organisation called the Ecological Land Co-operative, which exists to overcome the two great barriers to land for those wishing to establish ecological businesses and smallholdings – soaring land prices and simple legal permission.

We are now on the brink of making our first area of land available, and my article in the latest edition of Permaculture Magazine (out now and highly recommended) explains how that has been done, as well as outlining the seven year journey to reach this point – with assistance from some of the leading experts on land reform – and our plans for the future. The photo at the top of this blog post shows that very piece of land; twenty-two acres in South-West England.

Crowdfunding and community financing have also allowed us to work on a pair of research reports. The first – Small Is Successful – examined existing land-based businesses of 10 acres or less and evidenced the economically viable and highly sustainable nature of the livelihoods they provide, without any need for the subsidies on which large farms so often rely. The Research Council UK showcased this as one of a hundred pieces of UK research ‘that will have a profound effect on our future’, and we have also presented our message at the House of Commons, to the All Party Parliamentary Group for Agroecology.

Aboriginal Land Rights Protest

Our second research project has just begun; we are collaborating with others to produce a resource establishing both the current state of ecological farming in the UK – providing a single point of information on who is doing what and where, what acreages, to what markets, etc – and the current state of research into such agriculture.

I see this work as supporting and strengthening the wider movement to reclaim land from the ecologically destructive, market-driven mainstream of conventional land use. Or, if that sounds a little grand, perhaps I can borrow from one who speaks more plainly? In the words of a U.S. farmer quoted in Colin Tudge‘s So Shall We Reap:

“I just want to farm well. I don’t want to compete with anybody.”

In this world of frantic capitalism, there is a radical thought if ever I heard one.

It is a thought that inspires me. I feel more and more that the people the world needs most right now are not campaigners or activists, but such people who simply wish to live in relationship with a piece of land in a healing, productive and ecologically nurturing way. There is no shortage of them, and we should be making it as easy as possible for them to access land, without forcing them to launch political campaigns or planning permission battles in order to do so.

Perhaps that vast and diverse movement – from La Via Campesina and the Diggers 2012 to the Eco Land Co-op – in truth has but one simple aim. To safeguard the quiet dignity of that farmer, and the billions like him.

Going to work

From the manifesto of The Land magazine:

“…Rarely will you hear someone with access to a microphone mouth the word “land”.

That is because economists define wealth and justice in terms of access to the market. Politicians echo the economists because the more dependent that people become upon the market, the more securely they can be roped into the fiscal and political hierarchy. Access to land is not simply a threat to landowning élites — it is a threat to the religion of unlimited economic growth and the power structure that depends upon it.

The market (however attractive it may appear) is built on promises: the only source of wealth is the earth. Anyone who has land has access to energy, water, nourishment, shelter, healing, wisdom, ancestors and a grave.

…Yet the earth is more than a tool cupboard, for although the earth gives, it dictates its terms; and its terms alter from place to place. So it is that agriculture begets human culture; and cultural diversity, like biological diversity, flowers in obedience to the conditions that the earth imposes. The first and inevitable effect of the global market is to uproot and destroy land-based human cultures. The final and inevitable achievement of a rootless global market will be to destroy itself.

In a shrunken world, taxed to keep the wheels of industry accelerating, land and its resources are increasingly contested. Seven billion people compete to acquire land for a variety of conflicting uses: land for food, for water, for energy, for timber, for carbon sinks, for housing, for wildlife, for recreation, for investment. The politics of land — who owns it, who controls it and who has access to it — is more important than ever, though you might not think so from a superficial reading of government policy and the media.

…Rome fell; the Soviet Empire collapsed; the stars and stripes are fading in the west. Nothing is forever in history, except geography. Capitalism is a confidence trick, a dazzling edifice built on paper promises. It may stand longer than some of us anticipate, but when it crumbles, the land will remain.”

The Ecological Land Co-operative team, hard at work


  1. Benjamin McCarron

    Thanks Shaun for an excellent piece. I am also delighted to hear of the two reports that you have been working on.
    You may be interested to see this example of the story repeating in one of the most built up city states. This weekend I am going to visit a farm in Singapore called Bollywood Veggies. Their story
    shows that even politically connected people can face legal challenges to converting land to farming and subsistence (though happily they overcame them). On the ‘meet the farmers’ page the couple give as their motivation “It is their hope that through showcasing a rural lifestyle, they can help create a society that is more caring and civil with a focus beyond material assets.”
    I can’t wait to see it!

  2. Benjamin McCarron

    Thanks Shaun for an excellent piece. I am also delighted to hear of the two reports that you have been working on.
    You may be interested to see this example of the story repeating in one of the most built up city states. This weekend I am going to visit a farm in Singapore called Bollywood Veggies. Their story
    shows that even politically connected people can face legal challenges to converting land to farming and subsistence (though happily they overcame them). On the ‘meet the farmers’ page the couple give as their motivation “It is their hope that through showcasing a rural lifestyle, they can help create a society that is more caring and civil with a focus beyond material assets.”
    I can’t wait to see it!

  3. Kai

    Great piece; inspiring – respect. The more of this the better.

  4. Josef Davies-Coates

    Nice article, surprised there was no mention of Community Land Trusts though.

  5. Shaun Chamberlin

    Thanks all, glad it touched something for you. Thanks too for the links to related brilliant work.

    And Josef, yes, the Community Land Trusts are doing great things. In fact, I believe the ELC is itself a type of CLT. But this post is by no means intended to be a comprehensive survey of our “vast and diverse movement” – no, that’s for our research project! 😉

    Speaking of which, if other readers know of projects that we should know about – particularly ecologically minded growers here in the UK – please do pass them on.

  6. Ian M

    Wow, thanks Shaun – this article actually made me feel good for a change!

    Those stats in Fairlie’s piece floored me when I first read them, mostly because of his wording: ‘…most of the rest of us spend half our working lives paying off the debt on a patch of land barely large enough to accommodate a dwelling and a washing line’. The bareface truth of it practically made my blood boil! That’s why I have to work so hard all the time, mostly running to stand still – because the descendants of some Norman fuckers own all the land and force me to make my Human Resources available for strip-mining simply for the right to occupy space?? It really brought home for me Derrick Jensen’s point that ‘access to land is everything’ and a lack of that basic connection (involving some degree of basic subsistence) puts people in a terribly insecure position wide open to exploitation by those who have claimed it for themselves.

    To me this feels like a near-totally suffocating situation. I don’t think we can afford to play by the rules as they stand, and it heartens me to see that others are beginning to operate according to their own value systems on this. A sentiment in Miles Olson’s recent book, Unlearn, Rewild lends support, here quoted by Dmitry Orlov:

    How can you get out of this trap? Miles does not mince words: escape is illegal. If you want to escape, you have to break the law. “As soon as you begin to act outside the system, you are breaking its rules… Red handcuffs or blue handcuffs. Anything too far outside this culture’s mandate is not accepted; non-participation is not a legitimate option… Really, if we are all forced to work as part of a death machine, with no other viable alternative, where is the possibility for a sustainable future? The answer is obvious: in breaking the rules. Or, to put it more accurately, breaking the ridiculously insane rules.” [p. 48] Need an example of “ridiculously insane rules”? “It is illegal to salvage roadkill in many places, so learn your local laws and act appropriately. Whether that means following them is up to you.” [p. 107] (link)

    How about rejecting the premise of land ownership entirely, acting instead from the assumption that all land is free for access and interaction as each individual or group sees fit? I do this in foraging all the time and it feels great, albeit slightly scary sometimes. In the end you start to view the land-owner’s attempts to demarcate their property as mere obstacles, surmountable (by jumping over, digging under, squeezing through, etc.) or insurmountable – almost as though you were another species and the law didn’t apply to you. Do foxes respect fences?

    There’s plenty of scope for low-key cultivation of wild plant communities in ways that only the keen-eyed would even notice. Anthony Wigens Clandestine Farm is a classic for this – the opening paragraph sets the tone:

    One March afternoon I climbed over the fence which divides my neighbour’s land from mine, and walked on his farm as though it were my own. I looked on it, not in a jealous, possessive way, but simply as I might if there were no such thing as land property and all the people held all the land in common. This was to be the Clandestine Farm, a stretch of countrysdie from which I would take a portion of the natural produce without asking any man’s leave. To do so I trespassed on the legal owner’s land, but I took none of the crops which he grew and did nothing to harm them or restrict his privileges. I neither squatted no expropriated, nor was I a thief.

    His big experiment was with growing Good King Henry in a stretch of private woodland. I prefer Burdock myself, and just made my second harvest (two 1st year roots) from a patch by a quiet public footpath which I started ‘cultivating’ last year, with the trenches dug providing loose soil for new seedlings to grow from nearby burrs. I would imagine these plants, even in all their 2nd year flowering glory are totally ignored by the vast majority of people.

    Admittedly this is just a small-scale ‘under the radar’ operation, and possibly it wouldn’t be viable for a quasi tribal group to be out doing the same thing on a regular basis (at least not in daylight!). Furthermore I don’t think it’s right that, even if you don’t feel like a criminal, you have to be on a constant active lookout for those who will treat you as such. So I see the need for more aboveground, confrontational tactics too – as the 2012 Diggers seem to be employing – to establish a little more of a sense of security in these areas.

    Anyway it’s late so I’ll stop babbling. Good luck with all your projects!


  7. Shaun Chamberlin

    Glad to spread a little cheer Ian 🙂 And thanks for passing on your stimulating thoughts, good wishes and – most importantly – your quietly powerful actions!

    Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a country where working to increase and harvest nature’s bounty in such a way was seen simply as a good thing?

  8. Shaun Chamberlin

    Through posting this article, I’ve been informed of a few exciting events coming up here in the UK around the right to land. The first is next week:

    Nov 30 2012, Bristol – Meeting to set up a UK branch of La Via Campesina

    Feb 6 2013, University of Essex – Transition Research Group meeting on Food. Details here.

    There is also tentative discussion afoot about setting up a UK Agroecology Forum – contact me if you would like more information.

  9. Richard Watson

    Excellent article, of interest to anyone interested in an alternative solution to our current problems in the Uk and elsewhere.
    However, in the Indian subcontinent those people have nothing to lose but something to gain. I live in an affluent area and town in Herts and the wealth is obvious as it is in other wealthy areas. The people have everything to lose and nothing to gain. I cannot see them altering their lifestyles voluntarily, evidenced by their love of their 4×4’s to drive their kids to school, and the size of their shopping trollies in Waitrose. They might even pay lip service to Environmental issues. These are the people who need convincing but are also the upholders and beneficiaries of the system. If this view appears pessimistic I would point out that I come from the war generation and have seen the profligacy and greed in society increase on the promises over the years that there was enough for everybody who was ruthless enough to grab it. This of course meant the people who run the show. In the long run history shows it was ever thus.

  10. Shaun Chamberlin

    Thanks Richard, glad you like my piece. And thanks for your comments too, which are clearly born of long consideration.

    I must say though that I do personally feel that things are changing here too. In the article I do mention the momentum building in ‘majority world’ countries like India and Brazil, but speak more about what is happening here in the UK (and in Greece, which may be a bellwether).

    Ever more people here are feeling closer to having ‘nothing to lose’, and as we look to Greece, Ireland etc, we see tens of thousands already returning to the land as the financial economy unravels and abandons ever more of us.

    It may be that your wealthy area is part of the ‘1%’ – that the majority there will be among the last to feel the pinch – but as material suffering continues to spread around the world and around the UK, they will likely find, as many have before them, that acute inequality is not much fun for the rich either.

    I must say, if your neighbours don’t choose to voluntarily adjust their lifestyles as oil becomes scarcer and pricier, as the changing climate undermines agriculture, as the financial crisis deepens and the dispossessed become more desperate, then they will find themselves ill-equipped for the world they are living in. Particularly for those of us in the ‘minority world’ of material wealth (dependent on the smooth functioning of global power and infrastructure), lifestyle change over the coming years really isn’t optional – the only choice is whether it is voluntary or involuntary. One of those options will be far more pleasant, but I can only agree with you that not all will choose it.

    Waitrose and 4x4s are approaching their ‘best before’ dates.

    I’m no longer sure that ‘these are the people who need convincing’ – In all honesty, at this moment ‘trying to convince’ doesn’t excite me at all. It is already too late to head off many of the deleterious impacts of our collective choices and people are suffering and dying now because of climate change, peak oil and the rest. There are far more important, inspiring things that urgently call our attention than lobbying those who aren’t ready to see.

    As we continue into our era of decline, your neighbours may soon enough find themselves seeking help, but until then I for one will be focusing my energies (via the ELC and other projects) on supporting those who will accept my support, which often seems to be those who have less and are ready to do more.

    I don’t think I would describe your viewpoint as pessimistic, but I would offer one quote regarding the lessons of history, from the late Howard Zinn:

    “To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

    What we choose to emphasise in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

    And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

  11. Colin Donoghue

    The first part of this article is excellent, a clear and on-point summary of much of the movement by sovereign humans to claim their birthright to their fair share of the land and water (resolving the root injustice that creates all the major destruction an oppression in the world).
    However the latter portion of this article is way off, quickly (and without good reason) dismissing these grassroots movements as impractical due to lack of numbers, and then offers the “solution” of land co-operatives that people can buy into. This strategy ignores the crucial facts that most people on Earth can’t afford to participate in such a program, and that they shouldn’t have to in the first place since land and water is a birthright, not something that should need “crowdfunding” to acquire. And what of the land that is already owned by the few? What of property taxes and permitting that maintain monetary-slavery and an unsustainable lifestyle (i.e. $-free homesteading)? Do you think petitioning for new regulations will save the day?
    Rather than encouraging people to add to the #’s of groups like Diggers 2012, groups which embody a strategy which would actually bring real revolutionary (and uncompromising/uncorrupted) positive change to the world, the author diverts people back into systemic/”legal” channels, which are ultimately paths that lead to nowhere, being that the system, in ANY form (since it is based on taxation, land control & cost), disallows multidimensional sustainability, freedom, equality and justice; as Mr. Chamberlin say’s, “those who wish to use land to explore truly sustainable living are blocked and frustrated at every turn”. So how is operating within that system a possible solution? How is there any transition from such restraints? There is no real in-between monetary-slavery and gift-economies, we either have the means to be self-sufficient without being forced to pay to just live on the planet, or we don’t. I don’t know if the “bait and switch” structure of this article is just the result of indoctrination/nationalism or what, but it’s not helpful to the liberation of humanity nor the ending of the ecocide that is occurring.
    I explain the reasons why sovereignty and birthrights must remain central to a truly effective social/environmental-justice movement in the top 2 posts here:

  12. Shaun Chamberlin

    Hi Colin, thanks for your stimulating comments.

    I’m glad that you enjoyed the first part of my article, and in fact I agree with much of the rest of what you say too. I am a wholehearted supporter of the gift economy (see e.g. my post Transition Money, or the recent book The Moneyless Manifesto, which I edited) and work to support it, as well as choosing to live within it to a great extent.

    Having read and enjoyed the articles you link to (as well as the one on ‘practical philosophy/spirituality’), it seems clear that you and I agree to a large extent on the problem, so I think two things have led to our apparent disagreement.

    Firstly, misunderstanding, for which I accept responsibility. I am sorry that my article gave the impression of “dismissing these grassroots movements as impractical due to lack of numbers” – that was the opposite of my intention, and I am glad to report that readers from those movements have not shared that impression. For clarity, let me state here that I am in no way trying to divert people from those movements (unless by creating a society in which they are unnecessary!). To quote from my article, I believe that “their direct action and willingness to put their bodies on the line powerfully expresses and demonstrates the ever-swelling public pressure”, but I also believe that it will be more influential if complemented by other forms of activism, including (but far from limited to) the work of the ELC. I believe that history bears out that a diverse, united movement is stronger than any one approach alone.

    I think you make a powerful point that although the ELC is seeking to reduce the price of access to UK land by a factor of perhaps around five, this is still unaffordable to much of the world. You also highlight that as a small organisation funded only by community support we are a drop in the ocean when set against the established land ownership patterns. You’re right, on both counts, and I completely agree that this is unjust and unacceptable.

    The question we clearly both grapple with is what to do?

    And this is the second source of our disagreement, I think – we largely agree on the problems, but perhaps differ on the tactics/strategy for addressing them.

    To answer your direct question, no, I don’t think that petitioning for new regulations will save the day. But I do think that the kind of world that we both want to live in will be one with very different laws, regulations or customs (all societies have some codes of conduct, formal or informal), and that doing the work of producing those is an important complement to the important work of direct action. Nor do I believe that direct action alone is sufficient to create radical change in societies like ours (in one of your articles, for example, you endorse Gandhi, who believed that direct action is necessary but insufficient. But if you have examples of direct action alone creating radical change, I would be extremely interested), but I do believe that those who feel called to do that work are critically important. Apologies if that was not clear.

    It strikes me that movements for radical change have tended to be led by certain brave pioneers – like the Diggers 2012 – but the successful movements have eventually been joined by the largely law-abiding masses, who recognise the justice of the cause (and are often aided in recognising this by seeing the glaring injustices of the repressive backlash from the powers-that-be).

    Given that not everyone is willing (or practically able) to break unjust laws, I believe that any path to the kind of world we both want to see must involve actions that they too can take to support radical change. Without direct action, this would likely prove useless, but I believe the inverse is likely also true.

    If you disagree (as I suspect you might!), then hopefully we can productively discuss this further. I am glad to discover your work.




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