THE SCOTTISH Government must stop giving “carte blanche” to rich industrialists who are buying up vast swathes of Scotland’s countryside and instead bring about more radical land reform that benefits local communities, according to campaigners.
The charge is led by Global Justice Now Scotland, which has compiled a dossier detailing landowners links to the “darker sides of global capitalism” including worker exploitation, human rights abuses and a disregard for the environment.
It is backed by land reform campaigners Lesley Riddoch and Scottish Green Party MSP Andy Wightman as well as think-tank Common Weal, who are calling for greater transparency about land ownership, more available and affordable land and greater accountability about how it is used for the public good.
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Researchers for Global Justice Now Scotland traced links between owners of high-profile estates to alleged global injustices. They include criticism of the 7,000 acre Lovat estate near Beauly in Inverness-shire, which is owned by Scottish-registered company Lovat Investments Ltd, subsidiaries of which invested in controversial African fracking firm Kalahari Energy.
A spokesman for Lovat estates has publicly confirmed that two investment companies based at Lovat Estates “made a small investment in a company called Kalahari Energy” in 2006.
Campaigners have also raised concerns about the ownership of the 55,000 acre Assynt estate, near Lochinver in south west Sutherland, registered to the Vestey family, who were at the centre of a long-running battle over land rights with the indigenous Gurindji people in northern Australia 1966. Aboriginal workers claimed the land was morally theirs despite legal ownership by British aristocrat Lord Vestey.
In 2005, Hugo Chavez’s Venezuelan government confiscated 3,000 hectares of Vestey land to “return it” to indigenous people. However, earlier this year an international arbitration centre ordered Venezuela to pay the Vestey Group nearly $100m (£77.4m) for the nationalisation of its cattle ranches.
Danish businessman Anders Holch Povlsen, who has snapped up various Scottish estates totalling 150,00 acres in Sutherland and Inverness-shire in recent years, is also highlighted. His clothing company Bestseller holds a 27 per cent stake British fashion label Asos, which the GMB union has criticised for underpaying workers and treating them unfairly. It has been reported that staff were so over-worked they did not have time to go to the toilet. Asos insists it pays above the minimum wage, does not monitor breaks or use zero-hours contracts.
Liz Murray, head of Scottish campaigns for Global Justice Now said: “Our research exposes some of the super-rich, global capitalists who have bought into the outdated and undemocratic land ownership system here in Scotland and own vast tracts of land. We’ve also unearthed some unsavoury connections between those land owners and scandals of worker exploitation, human rights abuses and disregard for the environment around the world.
“The Scottish Government must go further on land reform and fundamentally change Scotland’s absurdly outdated feudal system of land ownership which includes these super-rich land barons. Our research adds to that urgent call for Scottish politicians to be braver and to go further on land reform.”
Land campaigner Riddoch, a key organiser of the Our Land festival running events across the country until September 17, claimed the report demonstrated an urgent need for greater transparency.
"Scotland has given carte blanche to rich industrialists for centuries," she said. "The super-rich have always been able to buy and manage Scottish land with no questions asked. For centuries lairds have run sporting estates, sometimes the size of small countries without local input, evicting tenants here, tolerating crofters there.
"Our Land believes truly radical land reform in Scotland will send a clear message to the super-rich that the days of doing as you like with land and local communities is a part of the feudal past – here and across the globe."
Robin McAlpine, director of Common Weal, said: "Most Scottish citizens probably think of their country as a proud place with a fine history and a distinct identity. I doubt they think of the place as easy prey for people with lots of money who want to put it somewhere safer than a bank.”
Ronnie Cowan MP said some positive steps had been made, but with less than 1,000 people owning over half of Scotland he insisted there was no room for complacency.
"For too long rural projects have been difficult to develop because enormous amounts of land have been held in private ownership," he added. "If large amounts of land are maintained by individual landowners then entire communities often lose the opportunity to access their own valuable natural assets."
The Sunday Herald attempted to contact all the owners of the estates highlighted by Global Justice Now Scotland’s report. None responded to emails or calls. However, a spokesperson for Scottish Land and Estates said that its members had been “at the vanguard” of helping the Scottish Government reach its target of completing the Land Register of Scotland by 2024.
“It is widely known who owns estates in Scotland, and the conclusions of the report appear to be based on criticism of certain individuals rather than on a need for land reform to truly serve Scotland’s rural communities,” he added. "Rural landowners deliver a wide range of economic, environmental and social benefits and continue to invest in some of Scotland’s most fragile areas."
A Scottish Government spokesperson said land reform was at the centre of plans for "a fairer and more prosperous Scotland", with plans to build on the Land Reform (Scotland) Act which was passed by Parliament in March being rolled out.
Our Land is a campaign coalition created and supported by Common Weal, Women for Independence, Scottish Land Action Movement, Radical Independence, Global Justice Now Scotland, 38 Degrees Scotland and Land reform campaigners Lesley Riddoch and MSP Andy Wightman. For more info on the Our Land Festival, see www.ourland.scot