Rewilding: Thomas Malthus, Aurochs and ‘green fascism’. The dark side of misanthropic environmentalism

Danish billionaires plan to rewild large swath of Scottish Highlands

Scotland’s largest private [Viking] landowners want to reverse years of land ‘mismanagement’, says adviser
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/mar/21/danish-billionaires-anders-and-anne-holch-povlsen-say-plan-is-to-restore-scottish-highlands

Rewilding and Malthus

ON DECEMBER 27, 2016 BY GRAHAM   In September I was fortunate to attend the excellent Future of Wild Europeconference at Leeds University. Over three days, keynote speakers and early-career researchers in the environmental humanities gave presentations on rewilding, ethnography and many other fascinating topics related to political ecology.
https://theculturalwilderness.wordpress.com/2016/12/27/rewilding-and-malthus/

When the Nazis Tried to Bring Animals Back From Extinction

By Lorraine Boissoneault www.smithsonian.com – March 31, 2017
Their ideology of genetic purity extended to aspirations about reviving a pristine landscape with ancient animals and forests
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/when-nazis-tried-bring-animals-back-extinction-180962739/

Brown bears and wolves to be reintroduced to woods near Bristol after council gives permission

By Alex Wood 4 JUL 2018 Bear Wood could reopen in time for next summer, and will house brown bears as well as lynx, wolves and wolverine in woodlands https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/brown-bears-reintroduced-woods-near-1749087

The trouble with rewilding

Posted on 14 December 2016 by entitlecollective By Irma Allen*  A rewilding movement that bases itself on arguments around overpopulation, without interrogating the power structures that are enabling it, is in danger of failing to generate the kinds of solidarities, social justice outcomes and progressive visions of wildness that we so desperately need.
https://entitleblog.org/2016/12/14/the-trouble-with-rewilding/

In September I was fortunate to attend the excellent Future of Wild Europeconference at Leeds University. Over three days, keynote speakers and early-career researchers in the environmental humanities gave presentations on rewilding, ethnography and many other fascinating topics related to political ecology.

Pretty much my first academic conference, I found it hugely stimulating, and a great opportunity to accost authors of papers I was citing in my dissertation at coffee break. It was also not without a share of controversy and a range of different and at times conflicting visions were presented as to what a ‘wild Europe’ might mean and how to get there.

Irma Allen of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm also attended the conference and has written about her impressions in a thought-provoking blog, The Trouble with Rewilding. Here, she poses some challenging questions about what she felt was revealed concerning  the ideological underpinnings of the rewilding movement. Three main issues  concern her: the racialized Malthussian origins of rewilding; concerns about land abandonment and passive rewilding in Europe being facilitated by importing ‘virtual’ agricultural land; and rewilding initiatives being concentrated in the historically marginalized regions of Central and Eastern Europe.

  1. Malthus and the discourse of over-population

Environmentalism has a dark history of Malthussian ‘Limits to Growth’ thinking and misanthropy. A focus on and at times pre-occupation with over-population as the primary driver of environmental destruction, frequently accompanied by the reification of a sublime Nature above human well-being, has lead to an assumption that the only truly healthy Nature is one devoid of humans.

As Allen says, this issue was most famously addressed by William Cronon in his 1996 essay The Trouble with Wilderness (pdf) (Cronon 1996):

Perhaps partly because our own conflicts over such places and organisms have become so messy, the convergence of wilderness values with concerns about biological diversity and endangered species has helped produce a deep fascination for remote ecosystems, where it is easier to imagine that nature might somehow be ‘left alone’ to flourish by its own pristine devices. The classic example is the tropical rain forest, which since the 1970s has become the most powerful modern icon of unfallen, sacred land ‘a veritable Garden of Eden’ for many Americans and Europeans. And yet protecting the rain forest in the eyes of First World environmnetalists all too often means protecting it from people who live there.
Those who seek to preserve such ‘wilderness’ from the activities of native peoples run the risk of reproducing the same tragedy ‘being forceably removed from an ancient home’ that befell American Indians. Third World countries face massive environmental problems and deep social conflicts, but these are not likely to be solved by a cultural myth that encourages us to ‘preserve’ peopleless landscapes that have not existed in such places for millennia.
‘exporting American notions of wilderness in this way can become an unthinking and self-defeating form of cultural imperialism’

Cronon goes onto argue that the dichotomy that the concept of wilderness creates- that of a separation of anything touched by humans from pristine Nature- leads us to de-value the more prosaic world that we inhabit, and thus disregard the nature and the natural that is all around us, in our backyards, or even in the heart of the city. If we hold an essentially illusory image of ‘the wilderness’ – since nature untouched by humans hardly exists anymore, and arguably has not for a long time- as the only true nature worth preserving or paying attention to, we will neglect to look after the less exciting but equally important diversity than can often be found all around us.

In her post, Allen goes onto trace these Malthussian strains from one of the originators of rewilding, deep ecologist Dave Foreman, to the founder of Rewilding Europe, Toby Aykroyd, who also gave a presentation at the Leeds conference. Allen found that Aykroyd is also the founder of the Population and Sustainability Network, which focusses on the links between reproductive health, population and the environment, and provides free family planning services in developing countries- all well and good she says, but – when motivated by concern over natural resources and carrying capacities, and linked to power-laden development agendas, this shades into murkier territories and rationales that I find deeply uncomfortable. –

In my dissertation on rewilding (available here) I also referenced some of these associations:

The darker side of misanthropic environmentalism still pervades more extreme rewilding discourses and can readily be found on online forums and blogs (see for example The Happy Anachronism blog, 2012; The Rewild West n.d.). Drastic reductions in human population, either forced or through some kind of ecological collapse, are seen by these writers as a necessary and even desirable pre-requisite to any genuine rewilding (Foreman 2015). At times, these views can seem uncomfortably close to certain strands of Nazi ideology, which was itself strongly informed by belief in the purity of pristine Nature, underpinned by their mythology of the urwald (primeval forest) which they associated with the Fatherland and Aryan supremacy (Biehl and Staudenmaier 1995; Schama 1996).

While some find thinking about this uncomfortable and would rather not have it discussed, or claim that it is no longer relevant, the conservation movement needs to own openly to its origins in a history of forced evictions of native peoples in order to create protected wilderness areas (Dowie 2011), a practice that is still going on today.

In this way, ‘wilderness’ can be seen a cultural artifact, literally created by the forced removal of people (Ginn and Demeritt 2008). This is what Monbiot (1994) calls forced rewilding  (it is a curious aspect of his work that he gives scant mention of these issues in his more recent influential rewilding book Feral [2013]).

Perhaps oddly, neither Allen in her post, nor as far as I could see from a quick search on the PSN website, make any mention of the demographic transition-the well researched process of development, by which birth rates decline, sometimes dramatically, with economic development, as infant mortality declines and people move away from subsistence farming, and no longer require large numbers of children to ensure enough survived to work the land (Galor and Weil 2000).

Given that the data has been in on this process for decades and just keeps getting stronger, psychological explanations are being employed, as referenced by Allen,  to explain why overpopulation is still routinely referred to as ‘the elephant on the room’, a kind of ‘public secret’ when in fact it has always been a core underpinning of the environmental movement, championed most prominently by Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich (1968). A challenge for rewilding then will be to make a clean break with such Malthussian ideology.

Dolly Jorgensen, who also spoke at the conference, comes to the same conclusion in her review of rewilding:

Taken as a whole, rewilding discourse seeks to erase human history and involvement with the land and flora and fauna

(Jorgensen, D. 2014)

In response, Prior and Ward (2016) make the case that many rewilding ‘experiments’ are indeed well integrated with human activity and presence, citing two examples of beaver re-introductions in Scotland, and the Oostvaardersplassen reserve in the Netherlands. However, my own research last summer suggests that people are likely to continue to use ‘rewilding’ in many different ways, and even if efforts are made to shake off the idea of rewilding being about the reconstruction of an imagined ‘pristine’ nature, there is bound to be some considerable slippage in public discourse. Rewilding will remain strongly associated with wilderness discourse and continue to draw from a broad church, including Malthussian deep-ecology.

Rather than focus on over-population, Allen sees over-consumption as being a more significant issue, bringing her to her second issue: exporting productive land overseas to allow increased conservation at home.

2. Virtual land trade in Europe

Citing the 2010 OPERA report (von Witzke and Noleppa 2010) on land-sparing, Allen points to data suggesting that Europe’s dramatic increase in productive land abandonment- hailed by some as an opportunity for passive rewilding ( Navarro and Pereira 2012) and regreening (the topic of my last post)  has come only at the expense of a ‘virtual land grab’ outside the EU, mainly in developing countries, who have seen a consummate loss of forest cover. If so, this would provide a challenge to those, like myself, who have argued for intensification of agriculture as a way of freeing up farmland for nature.

However more recent data show that post-2008, the trend within the EU of increasing its virtual land imports has reversed, declining more than a third from the peak of 2007/8:

Source: Noleppa, S., & Cartsburg, M. (2014). Another look at agricultural trade of the European Union: Virtual land trade and self-sufficiency. Hffa Research.

While Europe still imports a large amount of ‘virtual farmlandland’, mainly in the form of oilseed crops, primarily soya from South America, the trend for other crops is in the other direction as Europe increases efficiency and raises yields. Moreover, a proportion of this virtual acreage is for the production of crops to meet the EU biofuel mandates. Under scenarios explored in the earlier study, this could already account for some 3-4m ha, rising by another 10% if biofuel mandates are increased.

Allen also points to the issue of land-grabbing in Europe, fingering EU-backed neo-liberal policies. While this may be a serious problem, dislocating traditional farming communities, this cannot be the same land that is being abandoned, but is rather for intensive production- which itself could lead to more abandonment of marginal land and subsequent re-greening. Implicit in her post is also a degree of ‘anti-capitalist’ rhetoric, which ignores the considerable data for overall long-term improvement of living conditions under capitalism.

Allen argues that rather than welcoming the process of depopulating rural areas and land abandonment, rewilding should align itself with High Nature Value farming (HNV) and the benefits known to be provided to wildlife by by small farms- in other words, a land-sharing approach:

The key point here is that there is nothing neutral about processes of rural depopulation. Rather than passively celebrate their demise, should rewilding advocates not align themselves with small-scale farmers, whose practices, at least in Europe, can often encourage far greater biodiversity, and are themselves perhaps part of the very notion of ‘wild’ we might want to cultivate – non-homogenous, diverse, non-standardised, and self-willed?

This does seem to obviate the whole point of what rewilding seeks to achieve: If rewilding means anything at all distinctive, it is as a challenge to conventional conservation policies, which are deeply meshed within agri-environment schemes coming out of Europe the past 40 years. In contrast to rewilding, whereby natural processes are given priority to lead where they may (not unproblematic in itself), HNV farming has more in common with what we already have, which seeks to maintain specific habitats, generally those found in pre-WW2 pre-industrially farmed landscapes.

Agri-environment policies are already geared to promote land-sharing. But with world food demand set to rise dramatically over the coming decades, we will also need land-sparing, including new technologies to increase yields. A stalling in  innovation is cited as one of the major reasons for the slow-down in agricultural yield increases globally, and in Europe especially, where GMOs for example are strongly opposed and largely restricted. The OPERA report concludes that excessive regulations and bureaucracy have stifled agricultural innovation in the EU, while an increase in lower-yielding Organic agriculture across the EU would only lead to in an increase in virtual land imports.

3. Bio-capitalism in Eastern Europe

Allen’s final point is to question how, although rewilding generally has been focussed on the developed world, yet within Europe, most initiatives seem to be in the poorer eastern countries. This is true at least for one of the more prominent rewilding organisations, Rewilding Europe, which has most of its projects located in the poorer European countries of eastern Europe.

I think this is another valid point which is worthy of further discussion and research. This could be focussed for example on how eastern Europe may be at an earlier stage of the demographic transition through which more devloped countries have already passed, and how this relates to forest transitions. From informal discussions and other presentations at the Leeds conference, there were suggestions that RW Europe, and perhaps other organisations, see the depopulation of rural areas much to their advantage, and their assumption that alternative livelihoods in eco- and wildlife tourism can seemlessly make up for the decline in farming in these areas needs to be demonstrated rather than assumed.

Conclusion

Irma Allen has raised some perhaps uncomfortable questions for the rewilding movement. Its Malthussian origins should not be ignored and vigilance is needed to ensure it just does not become just the latest vehicle for misanthropic green fascism. Nevertheless, there are some contradictions in her arguments, and a danger of replicating these very same issues in her own apparent preference for small farms and extensive agriculture, while opposing agricultural technology that is badly needed to feed a still growing world population aswell as freeing up more land for nature. This is not to undersate the social disruptions which are likely to accompany such transitions, and further study should be undertaken to assess the social impacts of both agricultural intensification and any possible ‘green-grabbing’ being carried out in the name of rewilding.

References

Biehl, J. and Staudenmaier, P. 1995 Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience AK
Press

Cronon, W. (ed) 1996 Uncommon Ground- Rethinking the Human Place in Nature
W.W.Norton & Co. New York/London

Ehrlich, P. 1968 The Population Bomb MacMillan

FAO. 2016. State of the World�s Forests 2016.
Forests and agriculture: land-use challenges and opportunities. Rome.

Foreman, D. 2015 [online] An Interview with Dave Foreman
http://www.thewildernist.org/2015/03/interview-dave-foreman/ [last accessed 12-07-2016]

Galor, O. and Weil, D.N. 2000 Population, Technology and Growth: From Malthusian Stagnation to the Demographic Transition and Beyond American Economic Review Vol. 90, No. 4 (Sept 2000), pp 806-828

Ginn, F. and Demeritt, D. 2008 Nature: A Contested Concept Ch.17 in Clifford, N.J. et al 2008 Key Concepts in Geography, Sage Publications Ltd.

Jorgensen, D. 2014 Rethinking Rewilding Geoforum 65 (2015) 482-488

Monbiot 1994 No Man’s Land: an investigative journey Through Kenya and Tanzania, MacMillan, London

Monbiot, G. 2013 Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life Allen Lane

Navarro, L.M. and Pereira, H. M.2012 Rewilding Abandoned landscapes in Europe  Ecosystems (2012) 15: 900-912

Noleppa, S., & Cartsburg, M. (2014). Another look at agricultural trade of the European Union: Virtual land trade and self-sufficiency. Hffa Research.

Prior, J. and Ward, K. 2016 Rethinking rewilding: A response to JorgensenGeoforum 69
(2016) 132-135

Schama, S. (1996), S. 1996 Landscape and Memory Vintage

Von Witzke, H., & Noleppa, S. (2010). EU agricultural production and trade: Can more efficiency prevent increasing ‘land-grabbing’ outside of Europe? Study Commissioned by OPERA.

New Book: “Who Owns England” by Guy Shrubsole reveals half of England owned by 25,000 landowners

Half of England is owned by less than 1% of its population, with corporations and aristocrats the biggest landowners, according to new data published in “Who Owns England?”, written by Guy Shrubsole, joint coordinator of the ‘Who Owns England’ website & Blog


Source: The Guardian (The article is reproduced in full below)

Shrubsole estimates that “the aristocracy and gentry still own around 30% of England”. This may even be an underestimate, as the owners of 17% of England and Wales remain undeclared at the Land Registry. The most likely owners of this undeclared land are aristocrats, as many of their estates have remained in their families for centuries. See also:https://whoownsengland.org/2019/01/11/the-holes-in-the-map-englands-unregistered-land/

According to Shrubsole “a handful of newly moneyed industrialists, oligarchs and City bankers” own around 17% of England. The bulk of the population owns very little land or none at all. Those who own homes in England, in total, own only 5% of the country (although in precise legal terms, freehold or “fee simple” exists in law as a right to dispose of the asset, since the 1925 Law of Property Act established in law that the Crown was transformed as the absolute owner of all land in England and Wales).

He calculates that the land under the ownership of the royal family amounts to 1.4% of England (although the Crown is ultimate owner of all land).

 

Who Owns England?: How We Lost Our Green and Pleasant Land, and How to Take It Back

New Book by Guy Shrubsole,

‘A formidable, brave and important book’ Robert MacFarlane

Who owns England?

Behind this simple question lies this country’s oldest and best-kept secret. This is the history of how England’s elite came to own our land, and an inspiring manifesto for how to open up our countryside once more.

This book has been a long time coming. Since 1086, in fact. For centuries, England’s elite have covered up how they got their hands on millions of acres of our land, by constructing walls, burying surveys and more recently, sheltering behind offshore shell companies. But with the dawn of digital mapping and the Freedom of Information Act, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for them to hide.

Trespassing through tightly-guarded country estates, ecologically ravaged grouse moors and empty Mayfair mansions, writer and activist Guy Shrubsole has used these 21st century tools to uncover a wealth of never-before-seen information about the people who own our land, to create the most comprehensive map of land ownership in England that has ever been made public.

From secret military islands to tunnels deep beneath London, Shrubsole unearths truths concealed since the Domesday Book about who is really in charge of this country – at a time when Brexit is meant to be returning sovereignty to the people. Melding history, politics and polemic, he vividly demonstrates how taking control of land ownership is key to tackling everything from the housing crisis to climate change – and even halting the erosion of our very democracy.

It’s time to expose the truth about who owns England – and finally take back our green and pleasant land.

Source: https://www.harpercollins.co.uk/9780008321673/who-owns-england-how-we-lost-our-green-and-pleasant-land-and-how-to-take-it-back/

 

Half of England is owned by less than 1% of the population

Research by author reveals corporations and aristocrats are the biggest landowners

by Rob Evans, The Guardian Date: 17Apr2019
https://www.theguardian.com/money/2019/apr/17/who-owns-england-thousand-secret-landowners-author

Half of England is owned by less than 1% of its population, according to new data shared with the Guardian that seeks to penetrate the secrecy that has traditionally surrounded land ownership.

The findings, described as “astonishingly unequal”, suggest that about 25,000 landowners – typically members of the aristocracy and corporations – have control of half of the country.

The figures show that if the land were distributed evenly across the entire population, each person would have almost an acre – an area roughly the size of Parliament Square in central London.

Major owners include the Duke of Buccleuch, the Queen, several large grouse moor estates, and the entrepreneur James Dyson.

While land has long been concentrated in the hands of a small number of owners, precise information about property ownership has been notoriously hard to access. But a combination of the development of digital maps and data as well as pressure from campaigners has made it possible to assemble the shocking statistics.

Jon Trickett, Labour MP and shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, hailed the significance of the findings and called for a full debate on the issue, adding: “The dramatic concentration of land ownership is an inescapable reminder that ours is a country for the few and not the many.

“It’s simply not right that aristocrats, whose families have owned the same areas of land for centuries, and large corporations exercise more influence over local neighbourhoods – in both urban and rural areas – than the people who live there.

“Land is a source of wealth, it impacts on house prices, it is a source of food and it can provide enjoyment for millions of people.”

Guy Shrubsole, author of the book in which the figures are revealed, Who Owns England?, argues that the findings show a picture that has not changed for centuries. “Most people remain unaware of quite how much land is owned by so few,” he writes, adding: “A few thousand dukes, baronets and country squires own far more land than all of middle England put together.”

“Land ownership in England is astonishingly unequal, heavily concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite.”

The book’s findings are drawn from a combination of public maps, data released through the Freedom of Information Act and other sources.

Shrubsole estimates that “the aristocracy and gentry still own around 30% of England”. This may even be an underestimate, as the owners of 17% of England and Wales remain undeclared at the Land Registry. The most likely owners of this undeclared land are aristocrats, as many of their estates have remained in their families for centuries.

As these estates have not been sold on the open market, their ownership does not need to be recorded at the Land Registry, the public body responsible for keeping a database of land and property in England and Wales.

Shrubsole estimates that 18% of England is owned by corporations, some of them based overseas or in offshore jurisdictions. He has based this calculation on a spreadsheet of land owned by all UK-registered companies that has been released by the Land Registry. From this spreadsheet, he has listed the top 100 landowning companies.

The list is headed by a large water company, United Utilities, which said that much of its land consisted of areas immediately surrounding its reservoirs.

Prominent on the list are the Boughton estate in Northamptonshire, belonging to the Duke of Buccleuch, the Woburn estate, which is owned by the Duke of Bedford, and the Badminton estate in Gloucestershire, owned by the Duke and Duchess of Beaufort. Several large grouse moor estates and Beeswax Dyson Farming, a farm owned by pro-Brexit businessman James Dyson, are also high on the list.

Shrubsole, who works as a campaigner for the environmental charity Friends of the Earth, estimates that “a handful of newly moneyed industrialists, oligarchs and City bankers” own around 17% of England.

The public sector – central and local government, and universities – appears to be the most open about its landholdings, according to Shrubsole, partly in order to advertise land it has wanted to sell off in recent years. He concludes that the public sector owns 8% of England.

Shrubsole writes that the bulk of the population owns very little land or none at all. Those who own homes in England, in total, own only 5% of the country.

He calculates that the land under the ownership of the royal family amounts to 1.4% of England. This includes the Crown Estate, the Queen’s personal estate at Sandringham, Norfolk, and the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster, which provide income to members of the family.

Conservation charities, such as the National Trust and the Woodland Trust, collectively own 2% of England, while the church accounts for 0.5%.

A small number of ultra-wealthy individuals have traditionally owned vast swaths of land in Scotland. Last month, a major review conducted by the Scottish Land Commission, a government quango, found that big landowners behaved like monopolies across large areas of rural Scotland and had too much power over land use, economic investment and local communities. The quango recommended radical reform of ownership rules.

Carys Roberts, chief economist of the left-of-centre thinktank the Institute for Public Policy Research, said she was “shocked but not surprised” by Shrubsole’s findings on the concentration of land ownership. She said that the concentration of land in a few hands was a big reason why wealth as a whole was so unequal in the country, as those without land were prevented from generating more income.

She added:”We have this idea that the class structures have changed so that the aristocracy is not as important as it used to be. What this demonstrates is the continuing importance of the aristocracy in terms of wealth and power in our society.”

She said that one effect of the sale of public land was that the public lost democratic control of that land and it could not then be used, for example, for housing or environmental improvements. “You can’t make the best social use of it,” she added.
[end]


See also: https://whoownsengland.org/2019/01/11/the-holes-in-the-map-englands-unregistered-land/

‘Untermensch’ with nowhere to go: Myanmar farmers under siege from land law

Nowhere to go: Myanmar farmers under siege from land law

The Myanmar government has tightened a law on so-called ‘vacant, fallow and virgin’ land, and farmers are at risk.

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/03/myanmar-farmers-siege-land-law-190328003658355.html

by The law puts farmers at risk, mostly in territories that are home to ethnic minorities [File: Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP Photo]
The law puts farmers at risk, mostly in territories that are home to ethnic minorities [File: Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP Photo]

Yangon, Myanmar – Han Win Naung is besieged on his own land.

Last September, local administrators in Myanmar’s southern Tanintharyi region put up a sign at the edge of his 5.7-hectare farm that read “Under Management Ownership – Do Not Trespass”.

They felled the trees and started building a drug rehabilitation facility and an agriculture training school on opposite ends of his plot.

He was eventually informed that the administrators were challenging his claim to the land and had filed charges against him under a controversial law that could see him jailed for three years.

“I didn’t know what this law was,” the 37-year-old farmer told Al Jazeera. “I didn’t understand what was happening to us. They also asked us to move. We don’t have anywhere else to go.”

Han Win Naung is accused of violating the Vacant, Fellow and Virgin (VFV) Lands Management Law which requires anyone living on land categorised as “vacant, fallow, and virgin” to apply for a permit to continue using it for the next 30 years.

According to estimates based on government data, this category totals more than 20 million hectares or 30 percent of Myanmar’s land area. Three-quarters of it is home to the country’s ethnic minorities.

The law has sparked outrage among land-rights activists, who say it criminalises millions of farmers who do not have permits and lays the ground for unchecked land seizures by the government, the military and private companies.

Han Win Naung’s farm was seized by the Myanmar authorities under a new land law and his crops are now untended [Han Win Naung/Al Jazeera]

Struggle to survive

“The more people learn about this law, the more they will use it against farmers who cannot afford lawyers,” said a lawyer who is representing Han Win Naung. She asked to be identified only as a member of Tanintharyi Friends, a group that represents several farmers who have been sued under this law.

Now Han Win Naung’s farm is in disrepair. Because of the lawsuit, he has been unable to tend to the mango, banana and cashew trees that have sustained his family since his father set up the farm 28 years ago.

“We haven’t been able to do anything on the farm since September … We are facing a lot of trouble getting food on the table,” he said.

The VFV law is modelled on a British colonial policy in which land occupied by indigenous people was labelled “wasteland” in order to justify seizing it and extracting its revenue. After independence, Myanmar’s military rulers adopted the strategy as a way to ensure they could feed their ranks.

In 2012, the nominally civilian government under former general Thein Sein enshrined the strategy into law, referring to the targeted land as “vacant, fallow, and virgin” instead of “wasteland”.

Last year, despite coming to power on a platform of protecting the land rights of smallholder farmers and promising to reverse all military land grabs within a single year, the government of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) made the VFV law stricter.

With the NLD’s endorsement, arrests and evictions of farmers like Han Win Naung are accelerating.

In September 2018, Myanmar’s parliament, which is controlled by the NLD, passed an amendment that imposed a two-year prison sentence on anyone found living on “vacant, fallow, and virgin land” without a permit after March 11.

This gave millions of farmers, many of them illiterate or unable to speak Burmese, just six months to complete a Kafkaesque process of claiming land they already consider their own.

According to a survey conducted by the Mekong Region Land Governance Project, in the month before the deadline, 95 percent of people living on so-called VFV land had no knowledge of the law.

Han Win Naung’s family outside their home in Myanmar’s southern Tanintharyi region [Han Win Naung/Al Jazeera]

‘Torn up’

As the deadline approached, local land-rights activists jumped into action, sending petitions to the government demanding that the law be repealed.

In November, 300 civil society organisations signed an open letter denouncing the law as “an effort to grab the land of ethnic peoples across the country”, especially land belonging to hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people who have no ability to apply for permits.

In December, the Karen National Union (KNU), a powerful ethnic armed organisation that had recently withdrawn from the national peace process, called for the VFV law to be “torn up”, raising the spectre of future conflict.

But these petitions fell on deaf ears, and as the deadline expired, millions of people, many of whose families had been on the same land for generations, became trespassers.

Saw Alex Htoo, deputy director of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), blames the NLD’s pursuit of foreign investment for the policy.

“The NLD is pushing for investment to come into the country without really looking at what’s happening on the ground,” he said. “That’s the only way they could support this VFV law, which is inviting conflict and will displace millions of farmers across the country.”

When asked why the party would pass an amendment that could harm so many people, NLD spokesperson Myo Nyunt said that while land disputes might arise, the purpose of the law was not mass dispossession.

A sign on what was Han Win Naung’s family farms warns against trespassing, while a drug rehab facility and agricultural training facility are being built there [Han Win Naung/Al Jazeera]

“The purpose of the law is to promote the rule of law,” he said.

“When we implement the new law, those affected have the responsibility to understand and follow it. If they have grievances, they can report them to the relevant committee addressing land grabs. There will be some people who are affected negatively by this law, but that is not the intention of this law.

“The government is working to improve the livelihood and quality of life in Myanmar and the rule of law.”

Ye Lin Myint, national coordinator for the Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability (MATA), said enforcement of the VFV law actually calls the rule of law into question because it contradicts several earlier government commitments, including the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) between the government and eight ethnic armed organizations.

“The NCA clearly states that during the peace process, there should be no land seizures,” he said. “This law will start a domino effect of ethnic conflict.”

Conflict over the VFV law has already begun. At least one activist has been arrested for protesting against it and observers say the NLD’s role in generating conflict risks a backlash in next year’s election.

“The ruling National League for Democracy party are really shooting themselves in the foot with the VFV law,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “This will be a human rights disaster that goes to the doorstep of millions of farmers across the nation, and it’s a fair bet they will punish those they consider responsible in the next election.”

Han Win Naung attests to this. Since he was sued, his 80-year-old father has stopped eating and cannot sleep. His children, nieces, and nephews are embarrassed to go to school.

“People like us have been suffering since this government came to power,” he said. “We don’t think we will be voting for the NLD in 2020.”