Posts Tagged ‘land rights’

Tim Bonner: Ignorant, unjust – and bad for the environment

December 8, 2016

***addendum December 13th***

[I’m indebted to Tim Bonner himself for the title of this post, though I will try to avoid using as many logical fallacies as he does…

I mean, just look at the man:

Case closed!]

*****

Ahem… Rewilding has been earning itself some flack lately in the UK, mainly from people representing the interests of farmers and landowners. The latest email bulletin from Rewilding Britain provided a great example, alongside remarkable news that beavers are back in Scotland with the security of legal protection, and that the UK government says it will put £15m towards ‘natural flood management’ which may or may not include support for re-introduced beaver populations in England & Wales too (hint: it should). At the end of the mail they provided a few links to mentions of rewilding in the press, including this article by Tim Bonner, CEO of the Countryside Alliance:

http://www.conservativehome.com/platform/2016/11/tim-bonner-ignorant-unjust-and-bad-for-the-environment-its-time-to-call-a-halt-to-rewilding.html

I couldn’t find any links to a critique of his positions online, and most of the comments under the piece were supportive (probably because you have to register with Conservative Home in order to leave a comment – too much for most people to stomach I’m sure!) or from the same general political outlook. RB have so far limited their response to an ‘of course, we disagree!’ in the original mail, so I thought I’d help out by shooting some of the fish in Bonner’s Barrel…

He begins:

Land ownership, land rights and land use have always been central to progressive politics. From the Russian revolution through to Scottish land reform legislation, the ability of the majority to impose its will on the landowning minority has been irresistible to purveyors of social change.

Progressives are cast as the enemy of an embattled minority group of landowners & farmers. The examples jump immediately to those crazy bolsheviks in Russia and dastardly scots attempting to have a say over who controls their land. Guilt by association – anyone questioning land ownership or attempting reform is dangerous and will probably pave the way for mass confiscations, socialist tyranny and eventual famine and societal collapse. Also ‘landowning minority’ plays the victim and attempts to obscure the truth that this ‘minority’ in fact wields enormous power, well beyond the limited influence exerted by progressives or any other typical member of society. The stats for Britain again: ‘70% of land is still owned by less than 1% of the population’, and ‘nearly half the country is owned by 40,000 land millionaires, or 0.06 per cent of the population’. Things are even worse in Scotland, which

[…] has the most concentrated pattern of private land ownership in the developed world. The degree of concentration is evident from the fact that a mere 432 landowners account for half of all Scotland’s privately owned land– such land (since not much more than 10 per cent of Scotland is in public ownership) accounting, in turn, for the bulk of the country (‘Towards a comprehensive land reform agenda for Scotland‘ (pdf) – via this excellent 2014 article by George Monbiot which also touches on the situation in England)

– a legacy of their centuries-long colonisation by the major power centers in England.

Bonner continues:

The problem, however, is that with, very few exceptions, land use policies enacted to punish land owners and dismantle traditional land use systems have proved disastrous both for the countryside and the populations it feeds.

It’s all about ‘punishment’, you see. Nothing to do with fairness or redistribution to those who have been disenfranchised. ‘Traditional land use systems’ conceals more than it reveals. If something’s ‘traditional’ does that mean it’s beyond reproach and the best possible way of doing things? A wide diversity of well-established systems of peasant farming were eradicated by formal and informal acts of enclosure in England, Scotland and elsewhere, to be replaced first by sheep (‘eaters of men‘ as Thomas More described them) and eventually by the current ‘traditional’ approach to farming, involving heavy use of toxic chemicals, huge petrol-hungry machines and plant and animal domesticates that are so sickly they can only survive by being constantly doused with industrial medicines. All of this saved labour resulted in people being booted off the land and swelling the urban population which Bonner and his ilk then abuse for trying to have a say in the management of land which was basically stolen from them and their forbears. And if he wants to talk about dismantling traditional land use systems it might be worth mentioning at least in passing that agriculture itself was born out of exactly this process – invading the lands of hunter-gatherer peoples, cutting down their forests, draining their wetlands, depleting the wildlife that sustained them to the point where it was no longer viable to live according to their age-old traditions until finally they were forced to adopt the same methods of neolithic subsistence as the encroaching farmers.
Mark Fisher provides a brief snippet from Nicholas Crane’s recent book, The Making of the British Landscape which describes one way this probably happened:

Amid what he describes as a burgeoning biomass around 9,200BC, while the tundra retreated, horses and reindeer disappeared from southern Britain and were replaced by elk, roe deer, red deer, boar and aurochs. He describes the aurochs as quick, agile and a match for hesitant wolves, their favoured habitat being level, low-lying, fertile and open – “woodland would not have supported the rich grassland they depended upon. Congregating in herds on floodplains and valley floors, they were the biggest beasts in Britain”. It was, however, their “preference for valleys and floodplains that put the herds in conflict with humans who used these landscapes for routeways, foraging and hunting missions”. They killed aurochs, which were a source of red meat and raw materials like bone and hide, the bone being used to make scrapers for cleaning hides. Crane sees the eventual demise of the aurochs in Britain as being the most conspicuous casualty of the farming onslaught competing for the low-lying, level, fertile land – “Aurochs took to grazing in surviving tracts of marginal wetland, but eventually they lost this last-chance reserve, too. By around 1350BC, Britain’s largest mammal had been driven to extinction”. (link)

Back to Bonner:

From the millions of Russians who starved in famines caused by Stalin’s collectivisation to the hungry population of Zimbabwe today, ideologically-driven rural policy has failed almost without exception. On a smaller scale, some ‘community buy outs’ funded by the Scottish Government after the first round of its land reform legislation have struggled to become financially sustainable without the external cash injections traditionally provided by ‘lairds’.

More stalinists and another Official Enemy in the form of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, whose ‘fast track’  reform of repossessing land from white farmers (hint: if you live in Africa and you haven’t got black skin you probably got where you are now thanks to a series of atrocities perpetrated on the indigenous population) predictably turned him into persona non grata among western hypocrites who otherwise have no problem dealing with murderous despots around the globe. Mark Curtis writes:

There is little doubt of the urgent need for radical land reform in [Zimbabwe]. By the beginning of the ‘fast track’ programme, around 4,500 mainly white large-scale commercial farmers still held 28 per cent of the total land; at the same time, more than one million black families, or around 6 million people, eked out an existence in overcrowded, arid, ‘communal’ areas, representing around 41 per cent of the land – essentially the land allocated to Africans by the British colonial government. This situation created ‘a significant land hunger in Zimbabwe’, in the words of Human Rights Watch. (Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, pp.118-9)

But I suppose I should concede that a need for reform doesn’t guarantee success when government officials actually attempt to put this into practice. Usually they have their own interests in mind at the same time. As far as I understand the mid-20th century collectivisation of farms under Stalin, it wasn’t a response to land inequality so much as an attempt to boost productivity and skim off the surpluses so that city-dwellers could devote themselves wholly to the nascent heavy industries. Mugabe apparently handed out many of the confiscated farms to members of his parliamentary cabinet who had little or no experience with farming. As for the situation in Scotland it remains to be seen how things pan out but Bonner’s comparison is clearly absurd and intended to shut down a fair consideration of the attempts they’re making. Besides, is it any wonder that small-time farmers with limited funds and none of the benefits of inherited land and/or property would have difficulty competing from the outset in a cut-throat system that rewards the kind of economies of scale only possible in huge mega-farms? Clearly Bonner doesn’t consider market fundamentalism or doctrines of efficiency, progress, productivity etc as dangerous ideologies which have driven the rural policies of enclosure, mechanisation, depopulation and gigantism leading to the current sorry state of Britain’s landscape in an impressively short space of time.

Shortly after the Hunting Act was passed Peter Bradley, then a Labour MP, wrote one of the most honest explanations of the perverse approach of some on the left to rural policy. Having stated that the ban was “class war” he went on to explain why Labour MPs had pursued it so obsessively: “Labour governments have come and gone and left little impression on the gentry. But a ban on hunting touches them. It threatens their inalienable right to do as they please on their land.”

Only leftists engage in ‘class war’. If they didn’t feel the need to stir up trouble everything would be just fine. Excluding people from the land they once lived on and denying them a right to have a say in how it’s managed does not constitute ‘class war’. I don’t know why he feels the need to include this paragraph. Presumably it’s meant to hurt the Evil Progressive Reformers in some way by exposing some secret dark machinations driving their behaviour? To me Bradley’s comments just seem factually correct. Anyway, why doesn’t it surprise me he’s in favour of sport hunting… An online search for ‘tim bonner rewilding’ brings up this tweet from October 14th:

The more contradictory nonsense I read about ‘rewilding’ the more it’s clear that we hunters have been doing it for years

which surprisingly links to the Rewilding (anarchism) page on Wikipedia. I can’t tell if he’s mentioning this form of rewilding (the one that most speaks to me) merely as an attempt to discredit the landscape rewilding that predominates in the UK or if he actually appreciates an aspect of it. ‘Contradictory nonsense’ and reference to anarchists would indicate more guilt by association (I somehow doubt he views anarchism in a positive light!), but then his attempt at creating a new hashtag (on which, sadly, this appears to be the sole tweet thus far) seems to lay claim to some of the ideas espoused by the ‘anarchist’ or human rewilders. In a response below the tweet he writes that ‘my wildfowling club involved in managed retreat on estuary 20 years ago…no grandstanding just good management’ which leads me to believe it’s the ‘[rewilding] emphasizes regenerative land management techniques employed by hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists, as well as development of the senses and fostering deepening personal relationships with members of other species and the natural world’ part of the wiki page which he relates to. I’d be interested to hear more about the kind of ‘management’ his wildfowling club was involved in, but somehow I doubt rewilders would welcome it unreservedly, mainly because of the sporting aspect. I suspect their view would more closely align with this quote from Roy Haiyupis, a Nuu-Chah-Nulth elder and ‘cultural specialist’ from the northwest coast area of the US (my emph.):

Respect is the very core of our traditions, culture and existence. It is very basic to all we encounter in life. … Respect for nature requires a healthy state of stewardship with a healthy attitude. It is wise to respect nature. Respect the spiritual. … It is not human to waste food. It is inhuman to overexploit. “Protect and Conserve” are key values in respect of nature and natural food sources. Never harm or kill for sport. It is degrading for your honour. … It challenges your integrity and accountability. Nature has that shield or protective barrier [that], once broken, will hit back at you. (quoted in The Earth’s Blanket by Nancy Turner, p.130)

Finally, Bonner gets round to the main thrust of his article:

Which brings me on to the latest attempt at radical land use change: the strange and almost indefinable cult of ‘rewilding’. This ideology seems to have grown out of a number of strands including those who seek to reintroduce flora and fauna, in particular ‘charismatic’ mammals (charismatic megafauna) such as wolves and lynxes to their historic range; those with a John Muir-ian belief that man’s intervention in the environment is always a ‘bad thing’; and those who see a debate about land use as central to counter-acting global warming. To a greater or lesser extent, they all share the belief that their proposals should over-ride the rights of existing landowners and users, and the cultural landscapes they have historically created. To a greater or lesser extent, such proposals also seem to be motivated by political, as well as practical, aims.

‘Cult’ – nice value-neutral terminology there! Without quotes this whole paragraph is just a series of strawmen – what, to Bonner (after his exhaustive research conducted, we must assume, entirely in good faith), the ideology ‘seems’ to be. ‘To a greater or lesser extent’ is a particularly slimy way of making sweeping accusations without taking the responsibility to point out actual examples which might prove his point … to a greater or lesser extent. He may have a point with the ‘John Muir-ian belief that man’s intervention in the environment is always a ‘bad thing’’ – a philosophical aspect to some landscape rewilding which I’ve critiqued on these pages, and which others have started speaking about in wider-reaching publications. But he’s at least aware that some human management practices are celebrated by rewilders, whether we’re talking about indigenous lifeways or the active role for humans in restoration projects like Trees For Life. The whole feeling of optimism infusing the various forms of the movement stems precisely from this belief that it’s actually possible for us humans to ‘intervene’ in a positive way!

As for over-riding the ‘rights of existing landowners and users, and the cultural landscapes they have historically created’, a) you have to ask if they deserve to have these ‘rights’ honoured if it can be shown that their behaviour actually degrades the land for no real benefit and b) it’s flatly wrong to say that rewilders don’t consider this (a little too much in my opinion, but then I’m in a particularly radical wing of the ‘cult’). George Monbiot, one of the leading voices behind landscape rewilding in Britain, wrestles with the problem of how to avoid ‘ethnic cleansing’ of traditional sheep farmers in Wales for a whole chapter of his book Feral before coming to the conclusion that altering the conditions attached to their subsidies would leave them unscathed:

[S]heep farmers in the Welsh hills receive an average of £53,000 a year in subsidies while their average net farm income is £33,000. Keeping livestock, in other words, costs them £20,000 a year, though this gap may diminish if the price of lamb continues to rise. But, under the Common Agricultural Policy, if you want your subsidy payment, one of the few things you are forbidden to do is nothing. The Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition rules specify that if you do not keep the land clear, you forfeit everything. There is no requirement to produce anything; you must merely stop the land from reverting to nature, by either ploughing it, grazing it or simply cutting the resurgent vegetation. The purpose is to prevent the restoration of the ecosystem.

So here, perhaps, is the resolution of the conundrum that caused me such trouble: this rule should be dropped. Those farmers who are in it only for the money would quickly discover that they would earn more by lying on a beach than by chasing sheep over rain-sodden hills. Those who, like Dafydd and Delyth, believe in what they are doing, and have wider aims than just the maximization of profit, would keep farming. Where the life and community associated with raising sheep are highly valued, farming will continue. Where they are not, it will stop. Large areas of land would be rewilded, and the farmers who owned it could receive, as well as their main payments, genuinely green subsidies for the planting, reintroductions and other tasks required to permit a functioning ecosystem to recover. The alternative is the system we have at present: compulsory farming, enforced by the subsidy regime. (pp.180-1)

A lot of effort has also gone into researching the attitudes of farmers and the general public in areas of Europe that have seen reintroductions of some the larger mammals like boar, lynx, wolf and bear, on balance with positive views of the situation even from the farmers. As for political as opposed to practical motivations presumably this is some kind of right wing code meant to denigrate political aspirations and suggest that they’re completely divorced from practical realities. What’s wrong with being motivated by political aims? Isn’t maintaining the status quo, with all its inequity and environmental damage, a deeply political aim as well?

Next Bonner asserts that ‘All that those who recycle the mantra of ‘rewilding’ [including renegade conservatives ‘Bright Blue’ who have raised Bonner’s ire by hosting an article by Rewilding Britain’s Helen Meech] are actually doing is advertising ignorance of the reality of the British countryside’. What is this ‘reality’?

First, it is best to start with some facts. Most important of these is that almost the entirety of the British landscape has been created and maintained in its current form by man. With the tiny exception of a few very high mountain tops, the countryside we love (and the polling is very clear that we really do love it) is man-made and unnatural. Perhaps the best example of an adored created landscape is the Lake District. Man and sheep created that extraordinarily beautiful countryside: they maintain it and, crucially, are also part of it. Millions come to walk on the fells that Wainwright wrote about – or even just to gaze at them – but it is no more a ‘natural’ landscape than a ploughed East Anglian field. Even Wordsworth’s daffodils are an introduced species.

I don’t know why some people take such delight in pointing these things out. Are they trying to depress their listeners, educate them, dispel their childish wonder, or stake a claim to virtue in the beauty still visible in the bones of a ‘working [read: enslaved and dying] landscape’? I feel like responding: “Yes, I know that nearly all of the woodland left in this country has been heavily managed by people for hundreds, even thousands of years. I happen to think that has degraded the ecosystems they supported. But there’s still plenty to value there, irrespective of the demands still being made on it (less since the fossil fuels took off). Furthermore there’s still lies a potential for a return to what once was, no matter how many times this gets frustrated.” Bonner finds the Lake District ‘extraordinarily beautiful’. I found it kindof sad, boggy, quiet (apart from when the wind gets up), rugged. Undeniably beautiful but in a bleak, harsh sort of way. Somewhere to visit, not to stay. The polls say ‘we’ love ‘the countryside’. Fair enough, I can’t argue with that. I know it’s possible to love somebody, however, knowing that not everything is right with them, and feeling the desire to help them heal the damages that have impacted them and to realise their inner potential; to get back to who they really are, or as near to this as is still possible. Aldo Leopold wrote that:

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise. (link)

That’s my burden, living with eyes just starting to widen to the astonishing litany of abuse – both historical and ongoing – written in the landscape everywhere I turn. That’s also my constant marvel, at how living beings resolutely struggle to re-emerge, live, eat, reproduce and die as well as they can in the few ways that are still possible alongside this culture which seems to be purposefully destroying everything it possibly can.

Second, ‘rewilding’, in the context of the UK, is increasingly used to describe any environmental pipe dream which challenges current land ownership and use. Perhaps because the purity of simply withdrawing all management or human impact on large areas of our crowded island is so obviously impossible, we have now entered a surreal phase of redefinition. A recent select committee inquiry used the phrase ‘managed rewilding’ in its call for evidence, a charity included a session on ‘rewilding a golf course’ in its annual conference and even the primary cheerleader, ‘Rewilding Britain’, describes the restoration of a chalk stream, the ultimate in intensively managed watercourses, as ‘rewilding’.

Again, the primary motive is really to challenge farmers and landowners, presumably just for the sake of it. ‘So obviously impossible’ eh? We’ll have to see about that. He gives no further reasoning, and just goes into a few cherry-picked examples of supposed surreality which will probably evaporate on closer inspection (maybe I’ll look into them later) so this whole paragraph is basically an incoherent splutter. Oh, and the old favourite: reductio ad absurdum.

I would argue that anyone really interested in conserving the countryside and improving our environment should be rejecting this sort of nonsense, and instead engaging with the huge opportunities that post-Brexit rural policy presents. After all, most of the really damaging impacts on our countryside and in particular the uplands in the post-war period – from tax breaks for planting commercial conifer plantations, to subsidy for draining upland bogs, to the idiocy of headage payments which pushed sheep numbers to completely unsustainable levels – have been the direct result of government and EU policy.

Huge opportunities such as those infamously listed to the tune of Jerusalem by the Telegraph in the wake of Brexit? Among the many deranged and dishonest examples of supposed benefits, alongside ‘crooked cucumbers,’ ‘cheap tennis balls,’ ‘no EU human rights laws,’ ‘stop EU child benefits,’ ‘fewer chemicals restriction,’ ‘drop green targets,’ and of course ‘straight bananas’ was this one:

Searches of the Countryside Alliance website yielded no results for these terms:

glyphosate
roundup
monsanto
bayer
neonicotinoids
dessication
soil erosion
herbicide
pesticide
fungicide
enclosure
flooding
climate change
permaculture

(‘Peak oil’ returned 30 results, but these all pointed to pages dealing with how best to cook pheasant and other game meats!) Admittedly this isn’t very ‘exhaustive research’ either, and maybe someone who is a CA member can confirm whether these remarkable blind spots are in fact representative of their broader output and campaigning priorities. I trawled through the ‘related articles’ in their ‘food and farming’ section and found this article on the recent ‘State of Nature‘ report, which, while it accepted the findings that:

Between 1970 and 2013, 56% of species declined, with 40% showing strong or moderate declines […] Of the nearly 8,000 species assessed using modern Red List criteria, 15% are extinct or threatened with extinction from Great Britain’

and admitted that ‘it would appear to be grim reading […] incredibly alarming’, still proceeded to line up with the NFU in denying that farming practices bore significant responsibility for the decline of wildlife, had a go at the RSPB for having the temerity to do so, and asserted that farmers have already ‘begun to [deliver] biodiversity benefits’ and that management for sport hunting also made for good conservation. Perhaps it does, and State of Nature does acknowledge that ‘wildlife-friendly [sic] farming schemes’ have ‘bucked national trends’. Either way there seems to be little understanding or acceptance, much less any call to action, over many key issues related to farming and its ecological and social impacts. Presumably issues such as the damage caused by herbicides, pesticides and other agricultural chemicals, problems related to soil erosion and flooding (according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation ‘if current rates of degradation continue all of the world’s top soil could be gone within 60 years’ – for the UK I heard there were 100 harvests left), weather instability due to climate change, and the impacts of peak oil on the ability to maintain current rates of production as well as on how this is done – none of these appear to register, I would guess because following the implications through would jolt – even invalidate – their own political ideologies. Naomi Klein observed this phenomenon among conservative climate change deniers in the US:

Climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding on which contemporary conservatism rests. There is simply no way to square a belief system that vilifies collective action and venerates total market freedom with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces that created and are deepening the crisis.

At the Heartland conference—where everyone from the Ayn Rand Institute to the Heritage Foundation has a table hawking books and pamphlets—these anxieties are close to the surface. [Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute] is forthcoming about the fact that Heartland’s campaign against climate science grew out of fear about the policies that the science would require. “When we look at this issue, we say, This is a recipe for massive increase in government…. Before we take this step, let’s take another look at the science. So conservative and libertarian groups, I think, stopped and said, Let’s not simply accept this as an article of faith; let’s actually do our own research.” This is a crucial point to understand: it is not opposition to the scientific facts of climate change that drives denialists but rather opposition to the real-world implications of those facts.

What Bast is describing—albeit inadvertently—is a phenomenon receiving a great deal of attention these days from a growing subset of social scientists trying to explain the dramatic shifts in belief about climate change. Researchers with Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project have found that political/cultural worldview explains “individuals’ beliefs about global warming more powerfully than any other individual characteristic.”

Those with strong “egalitarian” and “communitarian” worldviews (marked by an inclination toward collective action and social justice, concern about inequality and suspicion of corporate power) overwhelmingly accept the scientific consensus on climate change. On the other hand, those with strong “hierarchical” and “individualistic” worldviews (marked by opposition to government assistance for the poor and minorities, strong support for industry and a belief that we all get what we deserve) overwhelmingly reject the scientific consensus.

For example, among the segment of the US population that displays the strongest “hierarchical” views, only 11 percent rate climate change as a “high risk,” compared with 69 percent of the segment displaying the strongest “egalitarian” views. Yale law professor Dan Kahan, the lead author on this study, attributes this tight correlation between “worldview” and acceptance of climate science to “cultural cognition.” This refers to the process by which all of us—regardless of political leanings—filter new information in ways designed to protect our “preferred vision of the good society.” As Kahan explained in Nature, “People find it disconcerting to believe that behaviour that they find noble is nevertheless detrimental to society, and behaviour that they find base is beneficial to it. Because accepting such a claim could drive a wedge between them and their peers, they have a strong emotional predisposition to reject it.” In other words, it is always easier to deny reality than to watch your worldview get shattered, a fact that was as true of die-hard Stalinists at the height of the purges as it is of libertarian climate deniers today. (‘Capitalism vs. the Climate‘)

So perhaps Bonner is projecting when he views leftists and progressives as taking any opportunity to stick it to the landed gentry rather than having a genuine interest in protecting, preserving and repairing the damage done to the environment and only coming into conflict with farmers and landowners when they undermine or stand in the way of these efforts. He can’t view their concerns as legitimate without calling into question his own belief system, so he must therefore view them as sworn enemies in a culture war, who he must stand up to in defense of his identity – tightly bound up with his conception of the Countryside; what it Is and how it should be kept that way. (By the way I don’t claim to be immune to this ‘cultural cognition’. For example, raised as a dedicated suburbanite, I’ve never made a living from farming, so there aren’t so many obstacles in the way of my accepting strong critiques of agriculture, and I don’t feel the same visceral aversion to nondomesticated life, especially the predators “out there in the Natural World” just waiting to attack my livelihood at the first available opportunity. I can understand why farmers get worked up over city-dwellers lecturing them on how they should operate, when their own lifestyles have been made possible in the first place by the same industrial-scale methods they now deplore.)

Bonner concludes:

Now is the time to agree what outcomes we want from the countryside, which will include everything from food, to water, to carbon capture, and create a new system of payments which will allow farmers and the rural community to deliver them. Real conservatives should forget the dubious rhetoric of ‘rewilding’, and focus on the delivery of public goods and sustaining the cultural landscape of the British countryside.

Drawing up the battle lines: ‘agree’ what ‘we’ want as ‘real conservatives’ and prepare to fight those who have different ideas. Nice to see carbon capture on the list, I suppose.

I conclude:

Some people are impervious to reason or persuasion either on political or practical levels. It’s probably a waste of time attempting to engage with them, so direct your attention to those who will listen and perhaps lend you their support if you deliver on your promises and prove your worth. Fortunately the young rewilding movement seems to have significant public support on its side, which might help it to deliver some genuinely positive changes for the much-abused communities of wild plants and animals on this island. If these changes also benefit humans so much the better, but we should remember that what’s good for humanity is not necessarily what’s good for agriculture. In fact the correlation most often goes the other way.

There’s another Countryside out there waiting for us to make our alliances with it.

***Epilogue, December 13th***

Derek Yalden’s list of mammals gone extinct in the British Isles over the last 15,000 years:

Common name

Species

Date

Cause

Mammoth Mammuthus primigenius 12500 b.p. Climate
Saiga antelope Saiga tatarica 12400 b.p. Climate
Arctic fox Alopex lagopus 12400 b.p. Climate
Lemming Lemmus lemmus 10500 b.p. Climate
Arctic lemming Dicrostonyx torquatus 10500 b.p. Climate
Narrow-headed vole Microtus gregalis 10500 b.p. Climate
Pika Ochotona pusilla
10000 b.p. Climate
Wild horse Equus ferus 9330 b.p. Climate
Giant elk Megaloceros giganteus 9225 b.p. Climate
Reindeer Rangifer tarandus 8300 b.p. Climate
Wolverine Gulo gulo 8000 b.p. Hunting
Northern vole Microtus oeconomus 3500 b.p. Climate
Elk Alces alces 3400 b.p. Hunting
Aurochs Bos primigenius 3250 b.p. Hunting
Lynx Lynx lynx 200 A.D. Hunting
Brown bear Ursus arctos 500 A.D. Hunting
Beaver Castor fiber 1300 A.D. Hunting
Wild boar Sus scrofa 1500 A.D. Hunting
Wolf Canis lupus 1700 A.D. Hunting
Muskrat Ondatra zibethicus 1935 A.D. Hunting
Coypu Myocastor coypus 1987 A.D. Hunting

Note that all the extinctions caused by ‘hunting’ (except the wolverine, for reasons I’ve not been able to establish) happened after the arrival of neolithic farmers, now thought to have first occurred around 8,000 years ago. Proponents of the Overkill theory will dispute some of the earlier ‘climate’ verdicts, insisting that human hunter-gatherers played a part, but otherwise:

About 300 years ago, the Wolf died out [sic], and in the previous century the Gray Whale. Brown Bear, Elk, Beaver, Aurochs, Wild Boar and Lynx also occurred naturally in Britain until, variously, Bronze Age, Roman or later times (Table 1), but were exterminated by some combination of habitat change (caused by farming) and hunting (either to eliminate pests or to exploit fur, meat and other attributes).

In other words, direct responsibility for the extinction of these mammal species, along with many others in different families and likely many more to come, lies with farmers, whether through deliberate policies of extermination (mainly with the predators), overexploitation for meat or other market commodities, or the indirect (but entirely predictable) effects of clearing forest and wetland habitat in the unchecked spread of arable farmland across the country. And now they insist these creatures have no right to reintroduction because ‘there isn’t enough space’ or ‘we need the land for crops & livestock to feed our growing population’. Well, what gives agriculturalists the right to occupy all that land in the first place, to the detriment of all but a handful of domesticated species (and a few more wild plants and animals adapted to field conditions)? And why is the domesticated human population growing if not because of that very same theft of biomass from the rest of the living community? The changes farmers have made to the British landscape are staggering, here illustrated by Yalden:

If there are about 285 million wild mammals in Britain, there are also about 21 million breeding sheep, 4 million cattle, 0.8 million pigs, 0.75 million horses and of course 38 million adult humans (other pets, such as dogs cats, rats, rabbits and guinea pigs, not out in the countryside, are additional to these). All these are very large mammals by the standards of the British fauna, and their biomasses are considerable. To put them in context, the biomass of all the wild mammals amounts to about 2% of the total, while the domestic ungulates contribute 56% and humans 44% [something doesn’t add up here…]. Put another way, there is now only about 64% of the biomass of wild mammals in the countryside that there used to be when the countryside was covered in woodland 6,000 years ago when Elk, Wild Boar and Aurochs accompanied the Roe and Red Deer […] However, the biomass of all mammals, domestic plus wild plus human, is about 33 times greater than it was then. This is a measure of how enormously we have changed the ecology of the countryside. Grasslands, with or without fertilizer, produce much more growth each year than woodlands, so can support more grazing animals, and in turn they and our other crops support us. (ibid.)

To paraphrase Derrick Jensen, it’s about experience: if your experience is that all your food comes from agriculture then that is the land management practice you will defend because your life depends on it. This explains why hunter-gatherer cultures lived alongside the above species for many thousands of years whereas farmers, when they arrived, killed them off in a relatively short period of time: the former depended on them for food and other essential aspects of existence such as clothing, tools and shelter whereas the latter derived their primary subsistence from other means and therefore did not need to pay close attention to how they treated them, nor keep the same traditions of respect or strong conservation ethic observed in all intact hunter-gatherer cultures, past & present. In fact, as we see throughout history up to the present day, cultural traditions among farmers more often encourage antagonistic, even sociopathic behaviour towards nondomesticated species, as success in farming would most often depend on how well they were able to subdue wild plant and animal populations, aka ‘weeds’ and ‘pests’, which competed with or predated their crops and livestock. (When was the last time you heard a fairy tale depicting wolves in a positive light?) … Hence rewilding efforts will always play second fiddle to the ‘food security’ provided by agriculture – unless we are able to shift our dependencies in some way back onto the same ecosystems and species, via the same process of reintroduction and restoration.

A final thought: don’t farmers have a moral responsibility to repair the damage they and their forebears have done? At least they could stop sabotaging the efforts of those who are trying to do this work – even if they do obtain the majority of their food from agriculture in the meantime.

I’ll send you on your way with this lovely rewild-y prose-poem by Jensen:

RIP Ambrósio Vilhalva

December 12, 2013

Via Vanessa and the excellent Survival International some shocking news and a reminder that, for some, counterrevolutionary activity is serious business – not a luxury or middle-class hobby* but a way of life and, ultimately, a necessity for survival. When your culture hasn’t been fully metabolised into the global monoculture this also makes it very dangerous (though arguably not as dangerous as the loss that would come from lying down and giving up your whole identity):

Guarani Indian leader and film-star Ambrósio Vilhalva was murdered on Sunday night, after decades of campaigning for his tribe’s right to live on their ancestral land.

Ambrósio was reportedly stabbed at the entrance to his community, known as Guyra Roká, in Brazil’s Mato Grosso do Sul state. He was found dead in his hut, with multiple knife wounds. He had been repeatedly threatened in recent months. (link)

I remember being impressed by his performance in the film ‘Birdwatchers‘ which poignantly depicts the struggle of one band of Guarani people to reclaim their ancestral land from a sugarcane rancher. For some reason this made his killing more incomprehensible, more appalling to me. Surely having gained some success and international recognition as an actor would offer some protection against this kind of fate? Apparently not enough to put off those who wanted to crush his personal resistance, as well as the wider refusal of his culture to give in to the encroachments of civilisation:

In the last 500 years virtually all the Guarani’s land in Mato Grosso do Sul state has been taken from them.

Waves of deforestation have converted the once-fertile Guarani homeland into a vast network of cattle ranches, and sugar cane plantations for Brazil’s biofuels market.

Many of the Guarani were herded into small reservations, which are now chronically overcrowded. In the Dourados reserve, for example, 12,000 Indians are living on little more than 3,000 hectares.

The destruction of the forest has meant that hunting and fishing are no longer possible, and there is barely enough land even to plant crops. (link)

(Yes, they derive some of their subsistence from agriculture – at the time of first contact with Europeans ‘they were sedentary and agricultural, subsisting largely on manioc, maize, wild game, and honey’ according to Wikipedia. So this isn’t a ‘pure’ agricultural counterrevolution – actually I doubt there ever was one as I think practically all human peoples ever encountered have practiced some form of cultivation – but I’m guessing vast field monocrops and total deforestation would be entirely alien to them all the same.)

Vilhava is not the first Guarani Indian to be murdered in these circumstances. From SI’s page again we hear of a story strikingly similar to the plotline of ‘Birdwatchers’:

The killing of Guarani leader Marcos Veron in 2003 was a tragic but all too typical example of the violence that his people are subject to.

Mr Veron, aged around 70, was the leader of the Guarani-Kaiowá community 
of Takuára. For fifty years his people had been trying to recover a small piece of their ancestral land, after it was seized by a wealthy Brazilian and turned into a vast cattle ranch. Most of the forest that once covered the area had since been cleared.

In April 1997, desperate after years of lobbying the government in vain, Marcos led his community back onto the ranch. They began to rebuild their houses, and could plant their own crops again.

But the rancher who had occupied the area went to court, and a judge ordered the Indians out.

In October 2001, more than one hundred heavily armed police and soldiers forced the Indians to leave their land once more. They eventually ended up living under plastic sheets by the side of a highway.

While still in Takuára, Marcos said, ‘This here is my life, my soul. If 
you take me away from this land, you take my life.’

His words came 
prophetically and tragically true early in 2003, when, during another attempt to return peacefully to his land, he was viciously beaten by employees of the rancher. He died a few hours later.

What do these happenings tell us about the stirrings of counterrevolutionary thought and action in the modern centers of Empire, where traditional peoples were overrun centuries, millennia ago? Should I be worried about the local rapeseed farmer killing me in my sleep because I harvest acorns, nettles and hawthorn berries from around ‘his’ land? Probably not, so long as my foraging remains mostly a solitary endeavour merely supplementing my main subsistence which comes via the wage economy and the global food supply systems. Also I should be ‘safe’ while I don’t challenge the unjust pattern of land ownership in this country† – ie: stick to quietly paying rent for my small flat and be thankful I get a tiny garden, a half-size allotment to play with, and a few parcels of common land to forage in (with whatever’s left of my spare time after I’m done earning enough money to pay all the bills) while those who have claimed ownership of the vast tracts of land continue to wreck them with impunity and thereby cement their fortunes and positions in the hierarchy. If I were to set up camp with a tribe of like-minded types keen to attempt to recreate a full-time foraging subsistence culture I would soon run into a whole series of challenges and obstacles thrown up by the land-owners with the full weight of the law behind them. It would be a struggle similar to that facing the Diggers 2012, who, against the odds, appear to still be holding on to their spot near Runnymede.

Hounded by police and bailiffs, evicted wherever they stopped, they did not mean to settle here. They had walked out of London to occupy disused farmland on the Queen’s estates surrounding Windsor Castle. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that didn’t work out very well. But after several days of pursuit, they landed two fields away from the place where modern democracy is commonly supposed to have been born.

At first this group of mostly young, dispossessed people, who (after the 17th century revolutionaries) call themselves Diggers 2012(1), camped on the old rugby pitch of Brunel University’s Runnymede campus. It’s a weed-choked complex of grand old buildings and modern halls of residence, whose mildewed curtains flap in the wind behind open windows, all mysteriously abandoned as if struck by a plague or a neutron bomb. The diggers were evicted again, and moved down the hill into the woods behind the campus: pressed, as if by the ineluctable force of history, ever closer to the symbolic spot. From the meeting house they have built and their cluster of tents, you can see across the meadows to where the Magna Carta was sealed almost 800 years ago.

Their aim is simple: to remove themselves from the corporate economy, to house themselves, grow food and build a community on abandoned land. (George Monbiot, ‘The Promised Land‘)

It has been said that those who resist effectively will face the full repressive power of the state. Can I call my small scale foraging subversive if the worst I’ve suffered as a result was a few cases of people telling me I was ‘trespassing’ and implying they would call the police if I didn’t go away? Perhaps the powers-that-be just don’t recognise it for the existential threat it truly poses?? Or maybe it’s a sign that I’m not doin’ it right… I’m certainly not in the position right now where I could say and truly mean the words of Marcos Veron: ‘This here is my life, my soul. If 
you take me away from this land, you take my life.’ I would be sad if forced to leave this place where I grew up and learned so many things about the nonhuman world, but I know it wouldn’t kill me. I’m in the same position as the farmer in Birdwatchers who has the nerve to lay claim to the Indian’s ancestral land on the basis of a three generation occupation, a statement which Vilhava’s character and his supporting cast treat with appropriate contempt and a powerful gesture indicating their indivisibility from the land (see video below).

The Indians portrayed in the film appear to have a longstanding connection to the specific area of land they are attempting to reclaim but it seems that there is a tradition among the Guarani people as a whole of searching far and wide for what they call ‘a land without evil’:

For as long as they can remember, the Guarani have been searching – searching for a place revealed to them by their ancestors where people live free from pain and suffering, which they call ‘the land without evil’.

Over hundreds of years, the Guarani have travelled vast distances in search of this land.

One 16th century chronicler noted their ‘constant desire to seek new lands, in which they imagine they will find immortality and perpetual ease’.

This permanent quest is indicative of the unique character of the Guarani, a ‘difference’ about them which has often been noted by outsiders. (SI ibid.)

How much this stems from the brutality, enslavement and genocide meted out to them by European colonialists since first contact in 1537 isn’t clear but it brings their struggle a little closer to the experience of colonised people in the West, particularly those among us who are attempting to decolonise our minds, souls, our whole existence. Orphaned and homeless, we don’t have strong ties to anywhere. Rootless, but only until we find a new place to settle down, as the Runnymede Diggers appear to have done. For now. I wouldn’t call it a privilege – in fact I understand many indigenous, place-based people have found the thought of living like that unbearably sad, if not inconceivable – but it does offer some flexibility and the possibility of preserving life, albeit in an impoverished, insecure way, until conditions become more favourable. Like the ‘resurrection plant‘ of the Sahara desert which blows about in the winds apparently dead for decades, even centuries until it finds water and finally drops its seeds.

So rest in peace Ambrósio Vilhalva. Meanwhile the struggle continues for the Guarani. Follow the links on the SI pages to see how you can offer your support, but as the Zapatistas said perhaps the best support would be to follow their example in your own country.

***UPDATE 13/12/13***

I missed this obituary which shows that Vilhava was basically acting out scenes from his own life:

Ambrósio’s life typified that of so many Guarani. His community, Guyra Roka or ‘Place of the Bird’, was expelled from their tekoha (ancestral land) in the 1940s and 50s by ranchers and farmers, and dumped in a tiny reserve already overcrowded with hundreds of other Guarani refugees. Violence, suicide and malnutrition were soon rife.

[…]

Like many, Ambrósio and his community dreamed of returning to their tekoha. In 2000, led by Ambrósio and his father Papito (the rezador or religious leader) the community moved out of the reserve to camp on a roadside near their land, now cleared, fenced off and filled with endless fields of sugar cane. Life here was grim too – their rickety tarpaulin shelters were permanently enveloped in clouds of dust from the trucks thundering past day and night. Children were malnourished, and adults were forced to seek work on the ranches occupying their land.

Tired of waiting for the government to take action, Ambrósio and Papito led three attempts to reoccupy their land, finally succeeding in 2004. Avoiding the ranchers’ pistoleiros, the community settled on a tiny piece of land where they planted crops amidst the sugar cane. Largely thanks to Ambrósio’s tireless and passionate advocacy, the Minster of Justice finally recognized Guyra Roka as Guarani land in 2009. But it was a victory in name only – the landowners vowed not to move, and occupy the area to this day. The largest and most powerful is Zé Teixeira, a state congressman.

Ambrósio was catapulted into international stardom in 2008 when he played the lead role in Birdwatchers, an award-winning feature film that highlighted the bitter conflict between the ranchers and the Guarani. With his love of language and powerful, brooding presence, Ambrósio was a natural. The film’s director later said he tore up the script and let the Guarani speak their parts as they saw fit.

Read more about the Diggers 2012 and their 1649 forebears in this superb article by historian Dr. John Gurney. Sample paragraph:

It was in April 1649 that the Diggers, inspired by the writings of Gerrard Winstanley, occupied waste land on St George’s Hill in Surrey, and sowed the ground with parsnips, carrots and beans. For Winstanley, the earth had been corrupted by covetousness and the rise of private property, and the time was ripe for it to become once more a ‘common treasury for all’. Change was to be brought about by the poor working the land in common and refusing to work for hire. The common people had ‘by their labours … lifted up their landlords and others to rule in tyranny and oppression over them’, and, Winstanley insisted, ‘so long as such are rulers as calls the land theirs … the common people shall never have their liberty; nor the land ever freed from troubles, oppressions and complainings’. The earth was made ‘to preserve all her children’, and not to ‘preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the earth from others, that they might beg or starve in a fruitful land’ – everyone should be able to ‘live upon the increase of the earth comfortably’. Soon all people – rich as well as poor – would, Winstanley hoped, be persuaded to throw in their lot with the Diggers and work to create a new, and better society. To Winstanley, agency was key, for ‘action is the life of all and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing’.

—————————–

* – h/t Dmitry Orlov: ‘resilience and sustainability are often little more than middle-class hobbies, while the overwhelming trend throughout the world is toward a different kind of steady state, one characterized by something called durable disorder

† – those figures again: ‘70% of land is still owned by less than 1% of the population’, and ‘nearly half the country is owned by 40,000 land millionaires, or 0.06 per cent of the population’