Even within Scotland’s sometimes turbulent history, the Highland Clearances stand out as a notorious episode which changed the face of our country.
Families were ripped away from their homes and stripped of their livelihoods. Many moved from the Highlands to the Lowlands, but many more left these lands forever. As they made new lives in North America and elsewhere, their departure left a void in Scotland.
Depopulation, emigration and unjust abuse of land ownership carried on in Scotland until the creation of our new Parliament in 1999. Only then did we abolish Feudal Tenure of land and reform use and ownership in the interests of those who live and work in rural Scotland. And only then did we take real action to develop Scotland as a country of in-migration, attracting fresh talent and retaining local talent too.
Scotland has moved on from the divisive events of the 18thand 19th Centuries. But right now, something all too similar is happening in some of the poorest countries in the world.
An unprecedented rush for land has not been adequately regulated to prevent land grabs, meaning that many poor communities are being evicted without any consultation or compensation. These land grabs can be violent and can leave people homeless, without access to the land they need to grow food to eat and make a living.
Such deals are happening at such a frenetic pace across developing countries that the UN’s Head of Food and Agriculture says the situation resembles the ‘Wild West’. It’s hard to argue with that assessment. According to Oxfam, poor countries lose an area the size of a football pitch to these deals every second. Their report says land 26 times the size of Scotland was sold off globally between 2000 and 2010 – that land could grow food for one billion people.
Most land sales are taking place across Africa, in countries with serious hunger problems. And two-thirds of investors plan to export what they produce, meaning they are doing little to improve local food security. In addition, nearly 60 percent of land deals have been to grow crops that can be used for biofuels – diverting food from people’s stomachs to petrol tanks.
All of this threatens to perpetuate the cruel irony of a rich continent full of poor people.
This global land rush is out of control – people cannot break free of poverty if they are thrown off their land and prevented from the means to support themselves. Agricultural development and reforms to land ownership are central to moving from dependency to growth and independence.
Oxfam is campaigning for the World Bank, which funds many big land deals and is a key standard-setter, to impose a temporary freeze on large-scale land deals pending a review of the current rules. Oxfam also wants the UK Government to push the World Bank into action. It should do just that.
Last week several Peers led by Lord Judd at Lords Questions pressed Ministers to act. Not all investment in developing countries is bad but we must ensure it empowers, rather than harms, some of the world’s poorest people. Then investment can be a catalyst for development, helping realise the potential of the people.
Right now one in eight people go to bed hungry each night – that is nearly one billion people. We cannot tackle that scandal without the world’s small scale farmers having access to land.
And as Scotland’s own history shows, the consequences of inaction can be both catastrophic and long-lasting.