Friday, January 5, 2018

"Reclaiming the commons" -- an interview with veteran land rights campaigner George Monbiot

"Guy Shrubsole speaks to veteran land rights campaigner George Monbiot...

Movements for land reform in the British Isles have ebbed and flowed for centuries. Each new wave can seek to learn from the past - or be destined to repeat its mistakes. The Land senses that the past year has seen a fresh flowering of public interest in land issues - sparked by the ongoing housing crisis, the Grenfell Tower disaster, debates about farming post-Brexit, and other factors. It’s a good time to take stock, so this section brings together voices, new and established, to make sense of the current moment and lend momentum to a new, rising land movement. It features veteran land rights campaigners George Monbiot, Marion Shoard, and Andy Wightman, includes a graphic history of UK land movements, and an assessment of land value capture as a mechanism for economic fairness, before introducing a representative of the Other Side, and some of the activists and organisations of today’s land movement. 

GS: What first got you interested in land and land rights? 

GM: I was working in Brazil in the late 1980s, and I was interested in why so many people were moving into the Amazon, often with quite damaging impacts on the rainforests. It didn’t take me long to see that people were being effectively forced to go because their own land was being stolen from them in their home states. A group of very violent businesspeople supported by the Government were seizing the land owned by peasant communities. People with indigenous roots often going back millennia, but who didn’t have written, legal title to their land; rather it had been held by them in common for a very long time. There were people being killed left, right and centre; there was a bishop who was murdered. I spent long enough there to get beaten up myself by the military police. Then after six years of working in Brazil, West Papua and East Africa, I returned to Britain, and was persuaded by some of my friends to go along to Twyford Down, where there was this huge dispute over a road being driven through beautiful chalk downland and Iron Age remains. And as soon as I got there I thought, this is what I’ve been seeing in Brazil. This is a land dispute over land massively valued by local people, being taken from them by an outside force – in this case, government combined with a huge construction company, and everything that people value here being destroyed. I started reading the poems of John Clare, and saw how his early poetry documented the rich life of the community in which he was brought up, and the way their lives were granted meaning by the land, spiritually, ceremonially, economically, socially – and then his later poems, like The Fallen Elm, documenting the destruction of that entire system through enclosure. And I realised that this was exactly the same process that I’d seen happening amongst indigenous people in the three continents in which I’d worked. Alienation and anomie leading to psychic rupture. And then I realised that what I’d witnessed there is still with us here, in Britain today. 

GS: In 1995 you wrote A Land Reform Manifesto, in which you criticised a huge landowning estate for selling off its land for the Newbury bypass to be built. At the time you said a landed estate’s “power to treat its property as it wishes is scarcely restrained. It is this that lies at the heart of our environmental crisis” . Do you still believe that? 

GM: Well, I would take it further. Land as an issue has to be painfully uncovered, because it’s so successfully hidden from us. Hidden in a thousand ways – hidden by the media, obviously; hidden by economics, which discusses land as if it were any other form of capital, a great methodological mistake; hidden by the power of patrimonial capital. It’s not just the power of the great estates to do as they will; my thinking’s gone way beyond that – it’s the conversion of broad possession into narrow property in general. It’s the almost complete closure of a whole sector of the economy, the commons, and its replacement by both state and market." 

Read more from The Land Magazine [PDF] here.

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