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Redefining our relationship to land

Sophia Doyle

Sophia Doyle reflects on her placement at Shared Assets and why it is imperative to change our understandings of land beyond property relations when working towards land justice.

For the past two months I have been able to gain some insight into the land sector and land justice organising in the UK by supporting the team at Shared Assets as an intern.

The purpose of the placement was to experience how activist organisations worked in their particular sectors, and reflect on how the theory that I’m studying in my MA programme in Postcolonial Culture and Global Policy is translated into practical work on the ground. At the beginning of my placement Mark (Walton) posed this question to me:

How can we build alternative worlds / alternatives to the current UK land system while simultaneously having to work within an unjust land / political / financial system? 

I have been reflecting on this question throughout my time at Shared Assets, which in many ways echoes a historical debate within political organising, a debate that boils down to the different ways that people might approach social and political change – gradual vs. revolutionary change, reform vs. abolition?

Historically I have tended to fall strongly on the ‘abolishing’ end of the spectrum, however, my experiences at Shared Assets have given me time to reflect a bit about why I was framing these approaches in a binary opposition to each other in the first place. They led me to question whether this binary is – as all binaries are – just another construct, which perhaps can keep us from doing the practical work of dismantling unjust structures, from within or outside. I was reminded of Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer Leanne Simpson’s reflection on Audre Lorde’s famous statement that ‘the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house’: “I have spent enough time taking down the master’s house, and now I want most of my energy to go into visioning and building our new house”.

A distinction that I find helpful is that between what some organisers call ‘reformist reforms’ – i.e. reforms that essentially maintain the status quo and continue to uphold existing power relations, and transformative or ‘non-reformist’ reform. This approach includes working within an existing and unjust system (for example the current system of land ownership in the UK) towards fundamentally transforming it, a work that doesn’t derive its legitimacy and right to exist on criteria of the system it is trying to transform (i.e. property relations). These were some tensions I was grappling with in my time at Shared Assets – how can we work towards different ways of relating to land beyond ownership while making the current unjust and unequal land system more survivable?

I feel that Shared Assets does a good job at balancing some of these tensions by both working directly with communities to establish a more democratic management of a particular ‘piece’ of land or space, and creating spaces where the envisioning of new ways of stewarding and living with Land can happen, such as the series of land justice conversations that Ọlá has been organising as part of the Movement Building work.

Image Credit: European Space Agency, 2019

To me, working solely towards more equitable systems of land ownership does not challenge the issue at the heart of the UK land system today: the fact that land is framed as property in the first place. The current ideology, where land is framed as property, commodity or resource, is built on colonial logics / histories that cast Land, and its Indigenous and Enslaved populations, as having no agency and existing solely for economic exploitation. If this is the case then just changing ownership structures of land is not enough. As Linda Hogan reminds us: ‘what happens to people and what happens to the land is the same thing’

Land justice is therefore not just about making land accessible in the material sense (although it is also that!) – it is also about the ways in which we relate to the land that we’re on and the histories entangled with the Land. It is about a re-definition of the relationships to Land, a relationship that is life-giving and generative, mutually constitutive and reciprocal.

In the UK and across the world people are calling to attention how communal land stewardship and agroecological farming practices (which are sometimes framed as ‘new’ or ‘innovative’) have been fundamental to many people’s relationship to their environments since time immemorial, and continue to be lived today. They never were eradicated fully, even under centuries of violent assault from colonialism, racial capitalism and globalisation.

With this acknowledgement comes a responsibility to those of us working to change the current land system in the UK to centre ways of relating to land that explode the understanding of land as property. One of the steps we might take is to move away from a narrative of land existing solely for human ‘improvement’, ‘utilisation’ or ‘use’ towards a model of stewardship, relationship and responsibility. A sense that we belong to the land rather than the land belonging to us.  

As Nick Hayes reminds us in The Book of Trespass: “The concept of property really is a bubble, a hallucination conjured by a history of privatisation, whose hard, impenetrable border is in fact a flimsy meniscus – one foot over the line, you pierce its logic and the bubble bursts”. However, a concept is a powerful tool to wield, and while it is an illusion it is still ‘real’ – we can see the very real, material and violent conditions of exclusion that the colonial logic of property has brought.

To this end it is certainly useful to start from this recognition, but our work can’t end there.

There are other things that need abolishing besides the current heavily unequal system of land ownership in Britain, but these struggles cannot be separated, as they are part of the same logic that devalues some lives for the benefit of others.

Seeking reparative justice is essential when seeking to repair a damaged #land system and taking the next steps towards #landjustice.

My work with Shared Assets has shown me that whilst we are a long way from a radical transformation of the land system, and the systems of power that it both represents and underpins, there are many ways in which alternative worlds already exist across the land justice sector today.

Whether it is through community park management, soil care or food growing, in rural and urban spaces people are starting to reevaluate their connection to their environments and remembering anew the kind of relationships they want to be in, both with the land and with each other. 

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