FNew environmental projects have captured the public imagination such as rebuilding. For decades, activists have called for restoring natural ecosystems as an urgent response to climate change and as a good in itself. Now not only are environmentalists among her advocates – business and the wealthy are taking part, too.
Across the UK, hundreds of thousands of acres are being purchased for recycling by corporations, billionaires and wealth managers. Billionaire Asos Anders Povlsen and his wife Anne are the two largest landowners in Scotland today. In a statement of sorts addressed to the people of Scotland, the couple wrote that their intention was to “restore our parts of the Highlands to their former great natural condition and to repair the damage done to them by man”. Investment firms Aviva and Standardleben also bought land for forestry and swamp restoration. Brewdog chain of breweries and pubs is growing Scotland’s “greatest jungle ever”; While pop star Ed Sheeran “is trying to naturalize as much of Britain as possible [he] Could you”.
Whatever the merits of these private programmes, the practice of buying private land for environmental motives has generated controversy and has been described as another form of ‘greenwashing’. In many cases, land is purchased and trees planted to “offset” the owner’s carbon emissions elsewhere. It’s easy to see the attraction from the corporate and wealthy perspective. But what are the consequences for the rest of us?
The race for land to be used for this type of compensation has been driven by a combination of green government subsidies, such as, as researchers Laurie MacFarlane and Miriam Britt point out, UK property markets are lightly regulated and tax credits encouraging investment in land and property. This system speeds up the sale of large areas of the UK with little control.
In the UK, Scotland has been hardest hit: the average property price has risen 87% in the past year, according to research by property agents Strutt & Parker. Some land has seen price hikes of 333% since 2018. Many landowners are colloquially and pejoratively referred to as “green landowners,” reflecting the upland purges of the 18th and 19th centuries. New Somerset-based Real Wild Estates recently said its business model is to “make nature pay by delivering sustainable commercial returns” to investors.
Part of the problem lies in the reparations themselves, with many activists calling for the UK to reach negative rather than zero emissions – which would require major domestic renewal as well as massive financial inflows to the global south. Offsets should be the last resort for residual emissions, and only intended to offset so-called hard-to-decarbonize sectors such as steel. The current system gives immunity to corporations and the wealthy, who can issue whatever they want as long as they plant enough trees later.
This race for land will only accelerate and exacerbate the current rural housing crisis, as prices have skyrocketed during the pandemic as urban dwellers have sought to escape to the countryside. Added to this is the effect of Airbnb, where apartments are bought for tourists to rent.
The land purchased as compensation is often portrayed as deserted – an empty wilderness without community. Corporate rebuilding rarely takes into account the displacement of the communities that live and work on the land. It also has implications for agriculture: the threat to farming in Scotland, agriculture in Wales, and the ongoing struggles to continue farming in England.
Rather than enabling a generation of green pastures or ecological aristocrats, we should push for the democratization of land ownership, using mechanisms such as community acquisitions and community restoration or land farms, which are managed and owned by local authorities and open to new farmers. It’s starting to make the industry easier. Real land reform would root rebuilding projects in people, secure good rural jobs in agroecology and conservation, and produce sustainable food, livelihoods, and a shared connection to nature.
There are already some models for this. The famous Langholm Moor Community Buyout purchased 5,300 acres of land to return to community ownership. For another inspiring initiative, visit Olfa Island, which was returned to community ownership in 2018. In 2015, the population was reduced to just five people. They are now witnessing a “recolonization” of the island, and conservation projects are underway to restore the habitat and biodiversity. The benefits of climate, nature and society are far from zero.
Resettlement should not be about profit and compensation, distant and alien to rural communities. The value of true democratic reconstruction lies in the fact that it not only secures a habitat for beavers and captures carbon dioxide, but also for people.