Crofters in renewed call for indigenous status

1 July 2011

An edition of Radio 4's Food Programme broadcast last year was an unlikely place to raise the issue of crofting politics. When the programme reported from the annual Indigenous Terra Madre event, the subject of sustainable food culture and parallels between Scottish crofting culture and other minority cultures across the globe made for fascinating radio. The Scottish crofting community was again represented at this years Terra Madre event, held in Sweden and hosted by the Sami people of Northern Europe.
The festival celebrates indigenous food culture and 'slow food' – based on the principles of locally, ethically and sustainably grown food. With crofters having grown and eaten their own food on their land for generations, the link is clear, and delegates from the Scottish Crofting Federation made the journey to share ideas with people from 50 indigenous communities around the world.
Terra Madre and its constituent participants represent 31 countries worldwide and often share many characteristics with crofters –often not owning their land, and historically being marginalised and seen as a backward and dying community whose future was irrelevant to the future of rural areas. In one respect, this event could be seen as part of a wider trend that promotes small-scale agriculture and connecting people with the land as an increasingly attractive way of life, and one that more and more people aspire to.
But to put this down to a lifestyle trend ignores the very real issues that have been faced by the communities at the event. In a report compiled by Iain Mackinnon published by the Federation in 2008, the diverging fortunes of both the Sami and crofters were highlighted. Both had the national education system used as a weapon of stigmatisation and ultimately, a tool for eradication. Both had their lands colonised. But a campaign of civil disobedience got the Sami recognition when their reindeer grazing was flooded to make way for a hydro scheme. The Sami now have their own elected parliament to give them a platform at government level. It is only now as part of crofting reform that an elected element is to be introduced to the Crofting Commission, and the framework and reach of these proposals remain to be seen.

The suggestion that crofters might be categorised as indigenous could raise a few eyebrows but there is nonetheless logic behind it. There have been calls for crofters to be recognised alongside other indigenous populations which would give them further rights under international law. SCF former chair Ena Macdonald states, "If we can get accepted as indigenous it will mean that our own customary rights to the land must be recognised when we are in discussions with landlords and the government." Whilst Gaelic as a language has been recognised by the UK in the European Charter on Regional and Minority languages, it has not ratified UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – it believes there are no indigenous people in the UK. Whilst politically the designation could have a powerful impact, legally, crofters have never been in such a strong position, with the prospect of an elected representative voice and the community right to buy putting the issue of rural Scottish land ownership at the centre of the land ownership debate 


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