With the escalation in tensions between Ukraine and Russia, the term “land grab” has never been far from the headlines since the annexation of Crimea a few weeks ago.
But while this political issue has been attracting considerable coverage, it’s by no means the only land grab that’s going on around the world at the moment.
Although most folk probably associate the term with the actions of the evil cattle barons in old cowboy movies – or with the behaviour of 19th century colonial powers where guns were used against spears and clubs – the 21st century has seen its fair share too.
In recent years, richer and fast- developing nations – such as China and some of the oil-rich nations in the Middle East – have been taking control of considerable chunks of land which might in the future prove priceless. Often in underdeveloped parts of the world, areas subject to modern land grabs usually offer the potential for producing considerable amounts of food, given the right use of fertilisers and agronomic know-how.
And although the yuan, dollar and other forms of currency might be getting used instead of Martini-Henry rifles and Maxim guns, the effect has often been pretty nearly as devastating. Subsistence farmers have been pushed off the land they have often worked for generations, but for which no titles or deeds of ownership are held, leaving them with little ability to seek legal redress.
The overall aim of this land grab strategy appears to be to secure future food supplies for the rich and expanding countries by purchasing productive ground. And even countries such as Australia and New Zealand have been viewing with growing disquiet just how much of their country is being bought up by large commercial interests from foreign countries.
But our own shores are by no means immune from the phenomenon of the land grab either. And although Scotland’s land register was recently criticised by a House of Commons Select Committee for being behind those of Turkey and Latvia, there is little doubt that ownership of a considerable amount of the land is in the hands of those who live outside the country.
Prime farmland, shooting estates and Highland hideaways have all been snapped up by foreign interests both recently and in the past. And even estates held by nationals have, according to the select committee’s report, often been supported and sustained by “exemptions, subsidies and cosy tax deals”.
This situation is nothing new and has been going on for centuries. But, whereas other countries appear to have addressed some of the issues which have sustained the practices underlying such an inequality of land ownership, and despite endless “reviews” of the legislation surrounding land, many would argue that there have been few radical moves to refocus ownership in our own hills, glens, farms and fields.
The term land-grab has also been getting a deal of airing in the grass-roots side of the farming world. It would appear that many estates around the country have been expending considerable efforts to take direct control of as much of their land – let or otherwise – as possible. From the landowners’ side it has been argued that the uncertainty over future changes to tenancy legislation has been at the heart of this move – and no discussion of the topic is ever made without raising the “right to buy” bogeyman.
However, there’s also a fair chance that at least a proportion of this land grab is being carried out in the hope that landowners can pick up EU support payments for 2015 and beyond.
All entitlements to such support currently held by farmers will expire at the end of December this year. And although many thought that the new area-based payment system would have rendered them redundant, an entirely new set will be allocated based on the area claimed in 2015.
The rush to cash in has also had considerable implications for short-term and grass lets as people manoeuvre to maximise any likelihood of allocations.
However, a simple remedy is available. Under EU rules, support payments could be limited by what was claimed in 2013 – and a simple announcement by the Scottish Government that this would be the case would halt the speculative amassing of land which is causing so much disruption in the marketplace.
And, with the proviso of an effective national reserve for those who had genuinely increased their farming business over this period, many believe that the sooner such an announcement is made, the better.