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12 March 2024

ORFC24: Land as Reparations and How to Get There

“What we call history is perhaps a way of avoiding responsibility for what has happened, is happening, in time.” – A Rap on Race, James Baldwin and Margaret Mead.

The ‘Honest Truth’

Esther Stanford-Xosei, a legal specialist and international expert on reparations, argues in the session, Land as Reparations, and How to Get There, that prior to this moment of ecological crisis – regarded by many as the sixth mass extinction event – was the extinction of whole peoples, their cultures and their ways of knowing and working with the

land. These present and historical extinctions are one and the same. At this provocation, I am reminded of the words of Indigenous Action, who have, in the context of climate emergency, posed the question: ‘The end is near. Or has it come and gone before?’ How we might address historic and ongoing colonial harms through land distribution should be a key question guiding the food and farming movement today.

Food, Farming, and the Bigger Picture

Andre Kpodonu, Head of Activism at Feedback, poses an important question, what would modern agriculture be without the original investments from an industrialising Britain? What would the sector be, had it not reaped the rewards of Britain’s ‘unjust enrichment’? That the food system has been built from the cumulative harm done to other people’s land and the people with ancestral claim to it, has been largely missing from progressive visions of Britain’s future food system. Indeed, we have to see rural Britain and its exclusions as connected to chattel slavery and colonialism, since it was the British empire that tied our fates so closely together. Not to mention that it is this same hunger for mastery over land and the devouring of finite resources that is foundational to our food system today. 

Esther speaks of the pan-African cultures to whom land ownership is a taboo idea. Throughout the session, she uses the term ‘rematriation’ purposefully – in non-Western cultures, the question is how one can claim ownership over the earth, which represents the ‘Mother’ from which we all came. The British countryside in many ways symbolises the opposite of this belief; the high fences, big gates, and grand houses are all aesthetics of private ownership; our psychological inheritance from Empire. Yet an alternative has always existed. 

The third panellist, Miriam – whose ancestors have their history in colonial ventures, but who now runs England’s first community-run estate and researches the mining and metal industries – makes the powerful suggestion that reparations work for the good of everyone, whether your ancestors were perpetrators or survivors or victims. Simply put, seeing the land relationally, not as a commodity, is intrinsic to the restoration of colonised people’s ‘personhood’, but also it reveals to us that ‘our humanity is best expressed in how we relate to others’. Esther reminds us that we have to see food and farming as just one part of a holistic picture. For Non-Western peoples, to ‘reach into their archives’, will be instructive not just for farming, but for a whole world vision. 

Promises of Non-Repetition

Naomi concludes the session with a powerful assertion for the movement: ‘It is a waste of our lives to make mistakes that have already been made’. What wasn’t as present in the session, however, was the material ways that these structures of capitalism and colonialism are held onto today. Non-repetition is, for Esther, the most important aspect of reparations. We might point to, among many examples, today’s white savourist conservation programmes that are said to only benefit historic colonial landowners, or the green land grabs taking place across the Global South in the name of ‘carbon offsets’.

Finally, Miriam reminds us that reparations are as much about the present as they are about the past. I am reminded of Kathryn Yusoff’s contention that ‘one is born into history; one isn’t born into a void’. ‘I am called to do what I can in the present. It matters what happens now’, Miriam says. This means not only a radical redistribution of wealth but a redistribution of power. To avoid a situation in which individual wealthholders are directing a programme for repair, Esther stresses that reparations are all about relationships. Reparations in the food and farming sector must have the principle of ‘co-creation’ and ‘plurality’, in Andre’s words, at their centre. They must be grounded in the trajectory of those harmed; they must be demands made ‘from below’.

In an era of extinction, of green colonialism, and land dispossession, we should continue to ask ourselves, what might it mean to do farming with the ancient African principle of ‘Ubuntu’ – ‘I am because we are’? This is our restorative and reparative instruction.

Tallulah Brennan is a writer and an MA student in Environmental Humanities. She was a speaker at the ‘How do prisons and policing intersect with our struggles for land justice?’ session at last year’s ORFC, and facilitates Land (Dis)Connection discussion sessions at the University of Bristol, where she currently studies. She has written for nature magazine, Where the Leaves Fall in their 13th in-print issue, for SHADO’s online social justice magazine, and has contributed to other independent zines and websites. Instagram: @___tallulahm Email: tallulahmaeb@hotmail.com

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