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Reclaim the fields: a fight for the landless generation

Ian Fitzpatrick’s comments on the Ecologist blog caught our attention this week. He writes: Following in the footsteps of attempts to open up car-dominated city streets to the public again, activists behind ‘Reclaim the Fields’ want to gain public access to agricultural land.

Earlier this month around eighty urban food growers, farmers, activists and thinkers from around the country came to Grow Heathrow, an abandoned nurseries site in the village of Sipson – marking the first UK gathering of Reclaim the Fields.

Activists in Sipson are turning a previously derelict site into a successful market garden producing local fruit and vegetables and a site for the local community to share skills and knowledge. It is this tale of returning unproductive land to the public that Reclaim the Fields hopes to repeat across the UK and Europe, with a camp get-together planned in Romania later this year.

At present farmland in the UK is almost entirely in the hands of a tiny percentage of the population. Industrial farming techniques have taken hundreds of thousands of people away from farming. Even those who want access to land are restricted by inflated land prices. The issue is only been made worse by the pressure on local authorities to sell off their farmland, which provided more than one-third of the farm tenancies that came onto the market in 2006.

Despite the phenomenal success of food-orientated community groups and charities in the UK over the past decade this issue of access to land has never really been addressed. In the view of many this is a permanent impediment for people hoping to develop land-based livelihoods.

The Diggers movement

The actual roots of this loss of access to land goes back further than the advent of industrial farming. It can be traced back to the enclosure of common land in England in the 13th century, which accelerated during the 15th and 16th centuries as sheep farming became more profitable than arable farming. The gathering pace of these enclosures in the 17th century, combined with widespread food shortages resulting from crop failure, provided fertile soil for political turmoil. It was during this time of crisis that the Diggers emerged as a movement to cultivate food on common land. Their chief spokesperson, Gerrard Winstanley, said at the time that ‘Propriety and single interest divides the people of a land…and is the cause of all wars and bloodshed’. As an experiment in land reform it was short-lived; but thanks largely to Winstanley’s prolific writings, the ideas lived on.

Echoing the Diggers movement, ‘The Land Is Ours’ emerged in 1994 as a campaign for a more equal and inclusive distribution of land – with particular focus on the issue of unused land and housing. Their campaign began by occupying a disused airfield close to the site of the Diggers’ first experiment on St George’s Hill in Surrey. A number of sites were occupied over the years (the recent Kew Bridge Eco Village in London was inspired by it) and ‘Chapter 7′ was developed to focus attention on planning and low-impact housing.

With the founders becoming absorbed by other campaigns, ‘The Land Is Ours’ receded from the spotlight in the late 1990s. While the issue of access to land for housing was broadly adopted by urban squatters and planning campaigners, the issue of access to land for agriculture had been left with no clear movement or campaign.

It was out of this vacuum that Reclaim the Fields emerged, growing out of a series of meetings in 2007 and 2008. The first was a youth assembly at the anti-G8 demonstrations at Rostock, Germany in June 2007. A group of younger members from various small farm groups decided to organise a gathering the following summer with the ‘youth branch’ of the European Coordination Via Campesina (ECVC) and Young Friends of the Earth Europe, to coincide with the European Social Forum in Malmö, Sweden. In November 2008, a smaller group within the ‘youth branch’ of Via Campesina decided to split off and form a fully separate group called ‘Reclaim the Fields’, a deliberate nod towards the anti-road and anti-capitalist protest movement ‘Reclaim the Streets’ of the 1990s and early 2000s. While many members of Reclaim the Fields agreed with the aims of Via Campesina, the split resulted mainly from differences of political organisation and culture. Via Campesina – a huge international movement with an estimated 150 million members ranging from peasants and landless people to indigenous communities and migrants – was considered too hierarchical, bureaucratic and lobby-oriented. Members of Reclaim the Fields wanted to create a more autonomous and non-hierarchical space centered on young people’s experiences of contemporary peasant issues.

Future plans

Over the past two years the movement has grown steadily with national groups forming, and gatherings and political mobilisations taking place across Europe. Although links had been forged early on between mainland Europe and the UK, it was after a group of UK-based urban food growers participated at the European Assembly in Graz in October 2009 that a UK national Reclaim the Fields group was formed.

With increasing concern about Britain’s – and indeed the planet’s – capacity to feed itself sustainably, compounded by an aging farming population, rising rates of unemployment, and the continued rise in the price of land, Reclaim the Fields acts as a network for sharing ideas, experiences and skills, and for collaboratively researching and campaigning around issues of access to land and food sovereignty.

Although still in its infancy the movement reflects the growing gap between a rising number of landless citizens who yearn to create sustainable land-based livelihoods and the mounting difficulties of gaining access to land. In that sense their struggle is no different to those of countless peasants, indigenous peoples and migrants around the world.

The next Reclaim the Fields European Assembly will be in Romania in September. For more information go to the website: http://www.reclaimthefields.org/

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