Land Ownership & Racial Justice

By Josina Calliste and Mark Walton

Originally published in STIR Magazine Issue 31, Autumn 2020. This is an edited transcript of a conversation hosted during Stir to Action’s Playground for the New Economy festival, 1st-3rd September 2020.

How has colonialism, displacement, and migration shaped our land system? How have those histories impacted on land access, ownership, food inequalities, health outcomes, and environmental connection? And what needs to change in the land system to help deliver racial justice?

MW When submitting a recent funding bid on policy and land reform for Shared Assets, the organisation replied to say, “You do realise who the trustees of our foundation are?” As in, land reform is not particularly in their interest as funders. There are these major structural issues that we consistently face and decisions get based on them all the time. Just in the time that we’ve been running Shared Assets – the last eight years or so – the way that we think about land has really changed and has created a range of different agendas. A lot of the work over the last few years that focuses on food systems has begun to centre around land ownership, land use, and the need for a more strategic and open decision around how we use it.

More recently through covid-19 we’ve seen more recognition of land as a social justice issue. Who has access to green space? This has been an important question during lockdown, and it has revealed, if you like, many of the inequalities around our food system: who grows and picks our food, their work conditions, and issues of migrant labour. So suddenly we begin to see land positioned in some of these contexts in a way that we haven’t seen in public discourse in recent years. It’s also become a racial justice issue.

JC There’s a lot of issues around policing that we’ve not necessarily articulated to a great extent, but in terms of the covid-19 laws and in terms of who’s been fined or assessed or prosecuted, it’s been overwhelmingly black and brown people. And, of course, in terms of who requires access to food banks, it’s disproportionately women of colour. We’re looking at a lot of people requiring emergency food aid where we weren’t before. It’s an entrenched problem that is also a racialised issue.

Participants in attendance at the post-Oxford Real Farming Conference 2020 BPoC caucus convened by LION at Willowbrook Farm.

MW Broadly you can look at a lot of the issues with covid-19 as just ripping the cover off a lot of existing inequalities, especially in the way that it hit in the first wave, in terms of the space people were able to access, and the quality of space that they were able to access. As Josina said, [this manifests itself in] the prosecution of people when they’re out using that space, and issues of racism and harassment that people face just for being out in green space, or in their neighbourhoods.

Now we’d like to take a quick tour through British colonial history because I think we can’t talk about land and racial justice without exploring the colonial context that really shaped not only systems in our country but also in countries that were colonised as part of the expansion of the British Empire. This history is based on a new book by Guy Shrubsole, Who Owns England?: How We Lost Our Green and Pleasant Land, and How to Take It Back. Shrubsole has been looking at who owns the land around us, and 30% is still owned by aristocrats and the gentry. That’s a phenomenal figure really, and it’s even higher in Scotland. Most of that wealth has come from colonial exploitation, which has included things like slave ownership, plantation ownership, or even just benefiting from the flow of raw material that’s built industrial wealth and financed big houses and large estates.

We actually live in a system now, whether we recognise it or not, that is feudal, where an individual has a perceived divine blessing and right to rule over us and the ground beneath our feet.

I think this is exemplified by the fact that the National Trust is just beginning to look at the links to slavery in some of their properties, and possibly a third of them have direct links to slavery in terms of the origins of their wealth. So you can’t ignore the impacts of this in terms of land ownership in this country, and we’ll come on to talk more about this.

We’ve also found out that the Crown and Royal family own about 1.4%, but that’s just their personal land ownership. In fact, the Crown, that’s not Queen Elizabeth II herself, is the world’s primary feudal landowner. She is the legal landowner of 6.6 billion acres – a sixth of the world’s land surface. And this doesn’t really play out in a normal way, where if you have the freehold of a piece of land you have the right to do whatever you want with it – this only comes into play if you die and it becomes ownerless, and then it reverts back to the Crown. But even so I think there’s something really important about conceptions of land and land ownership and the fact that we actually live in a system now, whether we recognise it or not, that is feudal, where an individual has a perceived divine blessing and right to rule over us and the ground beneath our feet. This really impacts and shapes how we respond to land.

We still think of land as property, as inert and something we can own, and maybe we need a whole different relationship with land. What if we related to land as an animate object and had a reciprocal relationship with it?

But what if we were to move beyond current conceptions of ownership? We still think of land as property, as inert and something we can own, and maybe we need a whole different relationship with land. What if we related to land as an animate object and had a reciprocal relationship with it? These are cultural framings and they dictate so much of what we do without us really knowing or thinking about it.

JC That’s something that I’m really enjoying about our work with lion (Land In Our Names), looking at a variation of cultural framings and bringing in spiritual qualities, for instance how indigenous communities frame their relationships to land as symbiotic, aligned, and alive.

MW I think there’s a huge amount to explore in that approach. It’s really important that we break open these sorts of closed ways in which we think about land. Some of the work that we’ve been doing around new land narratives has been to challenge this idea that land is a fixed system and it’s always been that way. It’s not, it’s always changed, but it suits quite a lot of people to think that nothing is ever going to change.

Even British colonialism was not a single system, not all of its rule came from Westminster. There were many different ways in which Britain took ownership of places by force, by proclamation, but they also had quite a lot of independence within that kind of colonial framework to develop their own systems and rules. Many colonies had different two-tier systems of parliament that we might recognise here from the House of Lords and House of Commons but that, as here until 1918, meant that only white men who owned property were able to vote. And I think this highlights again the white patriarchal and classic framings that we’re working with here in terms of power and who gets to exercise power. If you didn’t own land until about a century ago you didn’t have any power to do anything at all. And so land ownership is the source of that wealth and political power as well. The American civil rights activist Jesse Jackson said, “When they wrote the Constitution, only white male landowners had the right to vote,” about the newly independent United States after the War of Independence. But it was still only using the same model that was in use throughout the British Empire – it really didn’t shift it that far.

Indigenous communities frame their relationships to land as symbiotic, aligned, and alive.

There’s a great project looking at the legacies of British slave ownership which is supported through University College London. At the moment they’re looking at Caribbean slave ownership and its links back into the UK, with maps showing the impact of these plantation owners, and the impact that it will have had upon those places and those communities. Land ownership and colonialism and racism have shaped the land system not only here but everywhere that they touched. And tracing back those legacies of slave ownership, they’ve been able to use databases to show when slavery is abolished how much the British taxpayers recompensed these land owners for the loss of their ‘property’. All of it is on public records, so they’re gradually tracing back those payments to their names and addresses. I think that the fact that this is just Caribbean slavery and there are over 5000 addresses there, over 5000 individual people, that begins to shape the landscape in our own country.

I think this is really important as a comparison with the maps of the empire and where migrants have come from to this country. There’s been some big changes but there’s a big overlap for a very good reason – those people were bought and encouraged to come as labour. Though it may have been hundreds of years ago, those events still shape who we are and the places where we are now.

Photo by Magda V

It’s both about the wealth that we’ve already accumulated and owned, the places that have been privatised, the enclosure of the countryside, and the current lack of opportunity. But then it’s also the systemic racism that stems from the view that only property-owning white men should have power.

So that’s our tour through rich colonialism. It’s a history that we all need to know, but that we’re not really taught, and when you start to look at it and you start to look around you can see the physical manifestation of it in our towns and countryside and I think it’s really important that we do identify and acknowledge it, and we don’t just perceive the countryside as being just as it is, as the English countryside, having always been this way.

Josina Calliste is a co-founder of Land In Our Names, aiming to disrupt oppressive land dynamics relating to BPoC communities in Britain.

Mark Walton is a co-founder of Shared Assets, a think and do tank that supports the development of new models of managing land for the common good.

Featured photo courtesy of LION from their post-Oxford Real Farming Conference 2020 BPoC caucus at Willowbrook Farm

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