Renewing the Land Question: Against Greengrabbing and Green Colonialism

Neither rewilding nor agribusiness, but agroecological socialism.

18 min read

In the lead-up to COP26, the great and the good of England’s landowning class met at the National Trust’s Wimpole Estate to discuss ‘nature-based’ solutions to climate change and pathways to ‘net zero’. The Estate’s well known links to the slave trade and Britain’s colonial exploitation of India made it an appropriate venue for the meeting. Like Wimpole, England’s largest landowners owe their land, wealth, and status in no small part to over five centuries of racialised global oppression. And like Wimpole, they stand as testament to colonialism’s enduring legacy on England’s landscapes both pastoral and political.

Anti-colonialism and land justice are inextricable from averting climate catastrophe. So much so that it’s difficult to imagine how England’s landowners could hope to contribute to halting global heating without broaching the subject. 1% of England’s population owns 50% of the land. Many among the aristocracy can trace their land titles back through the colonial era, the slave trade, and enclosures, to the Norman Conquest. More recent entrants to the privileged club of British land ownership secured their titles through what Brett Christophers calls the “new enclosures”, through which corporations have bought up vast tracts of British countryside and cities to secure rental incomes.

Anti-colonialism & land justice are inextricable from averting climate catastrophe. So much so it’s difficult to imagine how England’s landowners could hope to contribute to halting global heating without broaching the subject.

Land is a valuable asset. Not just because, as Mark Twain once quipped, “they’re not making it anymore”, but because those who own the land get to decide how it’s used, who benefits, who doesn’t, and who’s excluded. This is why, until the turn of the 20th century, land lay at the heart of British radicalism. Speaking to the Manchester section of the International Workingmen’s Association in 1872 Karl Marx argued that “the nationalisation of the land” had become “a social necessity.” A radical proposal by today’s standards, even among leftists, Marx was merely adding his voice to a chorus of general sentiment. 30 years before Marx’s speech, Britain’s Chartist movement drafted a radical ‘Land Plan’ to redistribute this rainy island’s land among its working classes. For centuries before that, land had been at the centre of England’s most revolutionary riots, insurrections, and rebellions: the Swing Riots, the anti-enclosures movement, the Diggers, and peasant uprisings.

The complexly interrelated processes of enclosure, clearance, proletarianisation, colonisation, and urbanisation have caused the land question to recede from view in Britain, much to the detriment of food justice campaigns, housing campaigns, environmental movements, and any attempt to overcome rural/urban divides. An urbanised population, alienated from the land, is a population that doesn’t think of itself has having any claim to it. But the politics of land have a huge impact on our lives. Whether it’s the continued extraction of fossil fuels, the militarisation of borders, the erection of wind turbines and solar arrays, or commoditised food production, gentrification and buy to let, it all comes down to land ownership.

Thankfully, “The Land Question” is coming back into focus. Guy Shrubsole, Brett Christophers and Labour’s Corbyn-era “Land For the Many” report have reinvigorated discussion, while collectives like Land in Our Names are challenging colonial land patterns, viewing “land rights as the basis for revolution and sovereignty in our communities.” This matters because, as the meeting at Wimpole suggests, the struggle over land ownership and land use will decide what kind of green transition we are likely to see in Britain and beyond over the coming decades. Will it be a transition towards green capitalist exploitation and eco-apartheid? Or can we fight for something better?

Green Grabbing, Green Washing, Green Colonialism

The plans for net-zero and nature-based solutions discussed at Wimpole are at the bleeding edge of pro-capital, pro-rentier, greenwashed land-use in Britain today. Rewilding, for instance, has been praised by environmentalists from across the political spectrum, including George Monbiot and Zac Goldsmith.1 Prominent examples, including the Knepp Estate in West Sussex, have featured positively in the British press. Isabella Tree’s book Rewilding, based on her experience at the Knepp Estate is a bestseller. Few have stopped to consider the colonial history of these rewilding projects, or how they might be predicated on continued unequal access to, and control of, land.

The plans for net-zero and nature-based solutions discussed at Wimpole are at the bleeding edge of pro-capital, pro-rentier, greenwashed land-use in Britain today.

Knepp Estate is owned by Isabella Tree’s husband Charles Burrell, 10th Baronet. Burrell grew up on a white settler colonial farm in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), where his father “farmed tobacco in the rich red soil”. Burrell later moved to Australia before attending private school and agricultural college in the UK. Today, Charles maintains a collection of “tribal art from Africa” and “collections of tropical seed pods and exotic insects and butterflies.” Isabella Tree, meanwhile, was adopted by Michael Lambert Tree and Lady Anne Evelyn Beatrice Cavendish, who similarly participated in the administration of the British Empire. Lady Anne’s father, Edward William Spencer Cavendish (10th Duke of Devonshire) was variously the Under-Secretary for Dominion Affairs, the Chairman of the Overseas Settlements Board, which was established after the First World War to assist in the “emigration” of British citizens to other parts of the Empire, and Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Colonies.

Rewilding itself can be a colonial project. In his Guardian write-up of Randal Plunkett’s rewilding project, on the Dunsany Estate in County Meath, Ireland for the Guardian, Rory Carroll makes much of the Baron’s love of death metal, his ponytail, and his (fake) leather jacket, relishing in his conversion story from a steak-eating bodybuilder to an eccentric vegan nature-lover. The Plunketts, we are told, are “one of Ireland’s most storied families,” who were “installed in Dunsany in 1402”—for which we might read, ‘they started occupying Dunsany in 1402’. Prominent Plunketts, we’re told, include Oliver, a Catholic archbishop who was executed in England in 1681 on suspicion of a “popish plot”, and Horace, who “supported rural development and farming innovations in the early 20th century.” It’s a necessarily brief history, but it’s nevertheless remarkable that it skips over the Plunketts’ involvement in the British Empire’s exploits in South Africa2, in putting down the anti-colonial 1916 Easter Rising on the island of Ireland, and the family’s connections—reported in the Guardian less than a year earlier—with the infamously barbaric Drax slave plantations.

It was once fashionable for aristocratic families to make an income from their land by opening safari parks on their estates. Think of Longleat—the seat of the Marquesses of Bath—or Woburn, the family seat of the Duke of Bedford. These parks used environmental education and conservation programmes to greenwash the aristocracy’s wealth, attained and maintained through theft, plunder, enclosure, slavery and empire. Rewilding is today’s equivalent. The Knepp Estate offers weddings, a diverse portfolio of over 150 properties to rent, and “glamping, camping and safaris”. All of these offer as their selling point their location on a ‘rewilded’ estate. (For those in search of warmer climes, they also offer Spiti Charlie, a Greek holiday home on the island of Spetses.)

As Catherine Hall’s Legacies of British Slavery (LBS) project has shown us, every aspect of British life today is downstream from slavery and colonialism. In his classic work Capitalist and Slavery, Eric Williams shows these connections through the example of Lloyd’s of London. In its early years, Lloyd’s was a coffee house that served as a catchment for runaway slaves before becoming the bank we know today. Benjamin Greene, founder of the Greene King brewery and pub chain, held at least 231 people in slavery on plantations in Montserrat and St Kitts; in 1833, he received a huge sum (equal to around £500,000 today) to compensate him for the loss of his plantations—and their profits—after abolition. (His son later became Governor of the Bank of England, his grandson was a Conservative MP, and his great-nephew was the novelist Graham Greene.) And Greene was by no means alone in this. As LBS has discovered, £20million (around £2billion today) in compensation was distributed, around half of which stayed in the country. This money was then invested heavily in colonial goods and shipping. Today, LBS estimates “that somewhere between 10-20% of Britain’s wealthy can be identified as having had significant links to slavery”.

For some, this means that the act of tracing wealth through history until we find troubled waters is counterproductive. Should today’s aristocratic rewilders really be held responsible for the acts of their parents, or their parents’ parents? Don’t we need to improve biodiversity and reintroduce flagship species? The problem is that history isn’t in the past, it’s the foundation on which the power of today’s landowners rests. In fact, nothing other than their violent acquisition of land, their colonisation of “rich red soil,” and their forcing of enslaved people into labour that forms the basis of their power and right to decide how the land is used today.3

Green Finance and the New Enclosures

Private investors, banks and corporations hoping to profit from the UK’s commitments to net-zero and improved biodiversity have also turned to rewilding. The Real Wild Estates Company, which describes itself as “the UK’s ecosystem and species restoration business offering sustainable financial returns,” is backed by L’Oréal Groupe’s ‘L’Oréal Fund for Nature Regeneration’—which, in turn, is managed by Mirova Natural Capital, a leading sustainable investment fund and asset manager. Real Wild Estates are skilled self-aggrandisers. Their brochure summarises their mission statement like this:

Our aim is to fuse the financial muscle and human ingenuity of the corporate and financial sector with the inestimable worth of the natural world – to help us restore what we have lost.

Strip away the marketing speak and Real Wild Estates is little more than an elaborate middleman for greenwashed finance, land grabs, and carbon offsetting. Across Britain, the company locates land that, it believes, is suitable for “nature restoration with viable natural capital potential”. It then “supports land management or acquisition,” and brokers carbon offsetting schemes for clients.

Carbon offsetting schemes allow landowners to sell carbon credits to corporations who wish to keep emitting world-destroying fossil fuels by ‘offsetting’ these emissions through nature regeneration and carbon sequestration programs. In so doing, they can potentially reach ‘net zero’ emissions. Forest plantations are one of the most common forms of carbon offset schemes and land across Britain is being purchased for precisely this purpose. Britain is one of the Global North’s most deforested countries, which might make reforestation sound like an unalloyed good—but not all trees, and not all forests, are equal. The glossy brochures of carbon credit providers advertise “forest restoration” programmes, but in practice, they usually grow monocultural plantations. These aggressively simplified ecosystems make a poor habitat for wildlife and are much less effective at sequestering carbon than more biodiverse forest systems. Despite all this, monocultures are preferred because they’re cheap to grow, easy to manage, and provide commercially in-demand wood that can be harvested and sold at regular intervals.

Even if we were to see a shift to biodiverse forest systems, there are still severe problems with reforestation as offsetting. In October, Shell announced plans to attain carbon neutrality by 2050. To get there, it will need to offset 120 million tonnes of CO2. A report by ActionAid found that, were this to be achieved by tree-planting alone, Shell will need to have covered 12 million hectares of land (an area three times the size of the Netherlands) with trees by 2030. Giving over this much land to carbon offsetting will require ‘green grabs’ at a gigantic scale that will consolidate land ownership in fewer hands, further alienating rural and urban working classes from the land.

Shell is the sole funder of a £5million carbon offsetting tree-planting initiative in Glengarry, Scotland, which is being developed in association with the Scottish government agency Forestry and Land Scotland. Shell will claim credits from the scheme against its emissions in Scotland. But the Scottish government is also counting the scheme towards its targets and the Westminster government—which still represents Scotland at a global level—is also counting offsets from Glengarry towards its international commitments. This means that the same carbon credits are potentially being double or triple counted by multiple institutions for multiple purposes. This risks overestimating precisely how much carbon has been offset. Underlying all of this is the difficult task of guaranteeing that the carbon these systems claim to have sequestered has, in fact, been sequestered. A study for the European Commission into United Nations backed offsetting projects found that 85% of the projects overestimated their impact or were unlikely to have resulted in additional emissions reductions.

It’s in this context that Laurie MacFarlane has spoken about the rise of the “green lairds” and a “great net-zero land grab” in Scotland. Similar green grabs are taking place throughout Britain. In Wales, large swathes of land (including farms) are being bought by hedge-funds, capitalising on very generous tree-planting grants from the Welsh government. In England, large estates are being targeted for their rental property, eco-tourism potential, and receipt of government subsidies, by companies like Real Wild Estates Company, Foresight Sustainable Forestry PLC and speculative finance.

Like the rest of the greenwashing industry, Real Wild Estates lumps these revenue streams together under the category of ‘natural capital’. Today, the World Economic Forum estimates natural capital contributes $44trillion in “economic value generation” to the world’s GDP cases, these contributions to GDP are not actually creating value, in the sense that they are not a product of socially necessary labour, but are more accurately understood as tangled webs of rental income and financial speculation on underlying assets, including land.

‘Natural capital’ is a haven for surplus capital unable to find productive sites of investment in our world of declining profit rates and interminable crisis. Nevertheless, the revenue streams bundled into ‘natural capital’ are being touted as a potential mechanism for delivering a green economic recovery from COVID, while also meeting the UK’s net-zero and biodiversity goals. The idea is to financially value ecosystems so that payment can be provided for good practice. Through Environment and Land Management Schemes (ELMS), for example, the Conservative government intends to subsidise landowners in England who deliver ‘ecological services’. Landowners will be paid for actions such as tree planting, restoring peatlands, and improving grassland and soil management. These are important actions, but the government’s promise of ‘payments for ecosystem services’ or ‘public funds for public goods’ will not realise the full extent and scale of landscape regeneration required. Worse, as with all agricultural subsidies, ELMS is a massive redistribution of wealth to landowners. Even when the tenant farmer is the recipient of the subsidy, it usually results in an indirect payment to the landowner via rent. The labour which tenants exert in improving and maintaining the land will simultaneously increase the value of the land’s value for the landowner. This of course says nothing of exploited labour — waged and unwaged — on British farms and the super-exploited labour of the Global South that, along with subsidies, help maintain the financial margins of British farmers.

For centuries, capitalism has produced what Jason W. Moore calls ‘cheap’ food, energy, and natural resources by externalising ecological and social harms. Natural capital claims to put a stop to this by including previously externalised ecosystems in market valuations. Its proponents argue that, as the financial valuation of ecosystems rises, more money will flow into ecological conservation, regenerating ecosystems in the process. More markets, fewer problems. Some critics of natural capital object to the commoditisation of nature on moral grounds. Nature is sacrosanct, valuable in itself, and shouldn’t be subjected to market logic. But the real problem with natural capital lies elsewhere. Since ecosystem services do not produce value — they are a source of rent for landowners or a means to capture a portion of the social product— they will become a cost for productive capital.

Productive capital, then, has two options. It can either pursue investments in less heavily regulated areas that do not require offsetting schemes or ecosystem service payments, and continue polluting in the process. Or it can pay this ecological rent and reduce its rate of profit. The former circumvents ecosystem services to keep energy, food and resources ‘cheap’, and profits high, through externalisation. The latter reduces rates of profit, in turn contributing to a generalised falling rate of profit across all sectors. Natural capital, in other words, does not resolve capitalism’s crisis tendencies. More markets does not mean fewer problems, because capitalism and private land ownership are intrinsically anti-ecological. Natural capital is therefore revealed as a state-led process of market creation, vainly trying to resolve two of capital’s most pressing conjunctural crises at once. An ecological crisis, or capital’s tendency to undermine what James O’Connor called its ecological conditions of reproduction, and a profitability crisis that is only worsened by state-backed market creation and financialisation. The paradox is that, in aiming for the holy grail of green capitalist accumulation — ecological sustainability and profitability — natural capital achieves the reverse: ecological deterioration, rentierism, and falling rates of profit.

The paradox is that, in aiming for the holy grail of green capitalist accumulation — ecological sustainability and profitability — natural capital achieves the reverse: ecological deterioration, rentierism, and falling rates of profit.

Nevertheless, rewilding, net-zero, natural capital, and ‘nature-based solutions’ are how discussions at Wimpole, at COP26, or in corporate boardrooms and government offices across Britain manage to avoid issues of anti-colonialism and land justice. By turning to nature-based solutions, landowners obfuscate the fact that a transformation in who owns the land and how it’s used is essential for mitigating ecological collapse. What we need is revolutionary land reform.

An Agroecological Revolution

It is possible to mitigate global heating, avert ecological collapse, and address historic land injustices if we’re willing to entertain radically different patterns of landownership and land-use. For decades, producers and peasants in the Global South, led by La Via Campesina and others, have argued for food sovereignty and agroecological farming as a means to bring people together in internationalist, anti-capitalist solidarity. Cuba is leading the way with its organipónicos cooperatives. More than half the area of Havana Province is under cultivation, with urban and peri-urban farms supplying 70% of its vegetable needs, 10.5 million litres of milk and 1,700 tons of meat.

Although 70% of the land in Britain is used for agricultural purposes, the country produces just 55% of what it consumes. Of that 55%, much is grown and harvested, cared for, and slaughtered, by seasonal, casualised, gendered, and racialised immigrant labour under brutally exploitative conditions. The rest of Britain’s food is either grown under similarly exploitative systems in the EU’s industrialised and polluting agribusiness sites, or in tropical climates where super-profits can be secured through the super-exploitation of the Global South’s lands and labour. Food production accounts for 34% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and almost a third of agricultural emissions are due to food storage and distribution.

Food sovereignty demands localised food production, and for populations to have access to food that is affordable and culturally appropriate. It moves us away from productivism and centralises social reproduction, dislodging capital and empowering peasants and women in the process. Agroecology calls for more people to work on the land, growing nutritious food to meet human needs whilst restoring ecological flows and biodiversity. It desires a blurring of the lines of demarcation between leisure and work, country and city. It’s in favour of localised democratic management of land, set within the clear objectives of increasing food production without dependence on agribusiness, while tackling food insecurity and reconnecting people with where their food comes from. When combined with more efficient land use, such as agroforestry, the cessation of biofuel production, and a shift in diets towards plant-based proteins, pasture-fed livestock, and seasonal fruits, nuts and vegetables, agroecology could feed Europe. It can also play an important role in sequestering carbon in soil and biomass, reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture around 40% and increasing resilience to climate chaos. As Max Ajl writes, wresting back control of food and farming allows us an “entry point into restructuring our world.” As we’ve argued elsewhere, it allows us to provide for ourselves beyond capital’s circuits of reproduction. Moreover, through agroecology, as Chitaya says, “women can teach men, Black people can teach white people, the poor can teach the rich.”

To achieve this shift, the question of nationalising the land, towards decommodification, is essential. To prevent further corporate takeover, to grant land access to historically excluded groups, to ensure land is used most effectively to reverse ecological breakdown and avert further climate collapse, the land must be put under democratic ownership. To succeed, land nationalisation must be facilitated through local democratic control within a broader national framework, with goals such as rapid decarbonisation and the reversal of biodiversity loss at its centre.

To begin, a national land bank could facilitate the purchase of new land that comes onto the market, to let out to tenants at a low rent, to farm in accordance with agroecological principles. This could be achieved through the reinvigoration and re-imagination of the county farms estate, enabling the interplay between local and national aims. County farms were established during the late-Victorian agricultural depression with the aim of easing access to land for those who couldn’t afford to buy land or pay rent at market rates. Today, these farms are being sold off at an alarming rate, as councils seek to pay for essential services and reduce deficits. Shrubsole has found that the extent of county farms in England has halved in 40 years.

This short-term thinking is destroying an organisational form that could serve to undermine landlordism and build the basis for a new commons. Food produced by these farms could be purchased by the public sector through localised public procurement platforms, as has been considered in Wales. Land that was appropriated by the military, such as the common lands of Epynt, near Brecon, could be returned to communities and land workers to manage in common. The Crown Estate—all 106,000 hectares of it— is also ripe for expropriation. These are not the limits of our horizon, but they may go some way towards establishing agroecological communes and rebuilding the left’s relation to land and the material basis of our society, whilst undermining capital’s control of the countryside.

To establish agroceological communes, land that was appropriated by the military could be returned to communities and land workers to manage in common. The Crown Estate—all 106,000 hectares of it— is also ripe for expropriation.

Speaking in 1872, Marx knew that revolutionary land reform would bring about a dramatic shift in the balance of forces between the working classes, landlords, capital, and the state:

The nationalisation of land will work a complete change in the relations between labour and capital, and finally, do away with the capitalist form of production, whether industrial or rural. Then class distinctions and privileges will disappear together with the economical basis upon which they rest. To live on other people’s labour will become a thing of the past. There will be no longer any government or state power, distinct from society itself! Agriculture, mining, manufacture, in one word, all branches of production, will gradually be organised in the most adequate manner. National centralisation of the means of production will become the national basis of a society composed of associations of free and equal producers, carrying on the social business on a common and rational plan. Such is the humanitarian goal to which the great economic movement of the 19th century is tending.

Little essential has changed. Then, as now, the power of state, capital and landowners to decide how the land is used rests only on what the 18th century poet and opponent of enclosure, John Clare, called “the lawless law” of racialised violence and expropriation. It’s time to renew the land question and rebuild the commons.

  1. Monbiot’s uncritical support of rewilding takes with one hand what he gave with the other. Though we’re supportive of Monbiot’s efforts to reopen the land question in Land for the Many and elsewhere, he sadly reproduces urbanite, bourgeois, and eco-modernist conceptualisations of nature as something ontologically distinct from the social. Monbiot’s vehement disdain for sheep farmers also does little to build solidarity across urban/rural divides and obscures the violent history of enclosure and dispossession that drove land workers to sheep farming to begin with. We believe excavating this history of dispossession is a pre-requisite for a new land movement today. 

  2. The 18th Baron of Dunsany, Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, fought as a second lieutenant in the Coldstream Guards Regiment in the Second Boer War before returning to Ireland where he became a moderately notable poet in the Irish literary renaissance. In 1916, while on leave from his station at Ebrington Barracks, Derry, Edward heard news of a rebellion to English colonial rule in Dublin and drove in to defend the Empire against what became known as the Easter Rising. He was wounded with a bullet to the skull. Ironically, Edward appears to be a distant of cousin of the Irish Nationalist, Republican and Revolutionary, Joseph Mary Plunkett, a leader of the Easter Rising. Joseph Plunkett was killed by firing squad for his role in the rebellion at just 28 years old. As a final curious note, Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett was also the subject of a rhapsodic poem written by the eminent horror writer, racist and reactionary, H.P Lovecraft. 

  3. Rewilding is not just an aristocratic pursuit. Capitalists like billionaire Anders Povlesen have also ventured into rewilding to greenwash their exploitation of lands and labour. Povlesen is Scotland’s largest landowner, Denmark’s richest entrepreneur, and a fast fashion tycoon. Besides owning Bestseller, a fashion company with 20 brands including Jack & Jones, Object, PIECES and ONLY, Povlesen is ASOS’ largest shareholder and purchased Topshop in 2021. Povlesen owns 230,000 acres of Britain between his 13 estates, worth more than £120 million. His Scottish rewilding project is the most ambitious privately funded environmental project in the Highlands history. That rewilding in Britain is, in practice, the pursuit of aristocrats and capitalists should give environmentalists, conservationists and land campaigners pause. 


Kai Heron (@KaiHeron)

Kai Heron is a Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London. He writes and researches in the areas of contemporary political theory, political economy, climate politics, and land struggles. He is a co-editor, with Lauren Eastwood, of The De Gruyter Handbook of Degrowth, forthcoming in 2023.

Alex Heffron (@AlexHeffron20)

Alex Heffron is a first generation farmer who works a small, agroecological farm with family and friends in the south west of Wales. He writes about agrarian politics and organises with Undod for an ecosocialist Welsh republic.