48 Hours in Wales: what I learned about land rights from people who don’t work in land rights
A few weeks ago I had the good fortune to take part in an Aspen UK residential seminar at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, in Lampeter, in rural Wales.
There were 18 of us participating, from all walks of life. There was a diplomat, a journalist, a cardiologist, an Anglican chaplain, a submarine commander-in-waiting, a pioneering youth worker, an author, a local government environmentalist, a feminist movement leader, a philanthropist, a scientific research partnerships manager, and a handful of cutting-edge innovators from the science, technology and marketing worlds. Then there was me, plus one other who worked in international development and another who worked in UK land management. A very mixed bag, and not my usual meeting crowd.
The group was mostly British (mostly English), plus one Russian, one Ukrainian and Australian me. We were there to address the seminar’s theme of Leadership Values and the Common Good through the lens of the Aspen method. Two excellent moderators (German and American) guided us over an intensive 48 hours of textual analysis and discussion under the Chatham House Rule.
There was serious homework beforehand, reading (twice over!) a specifically curated and diverse anthology of materials ranging from Aristotle to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. We read poetry, a Greek play, excerpts from novels, scientific papers, and an email critiquing ‘wokeness’ that had gone viral. Not my usual workshop preparation.
We talked about social media, climate change, cancel culture, Orientalism, the challenges of the (re)turn to authoritarianism globally. All this within a framework of trying to understand ‘What lies behind?’ – what standpoints and perspectives we each had and how those influenced our attitudes to the major challenges of our time. I soaked in everything I heard, listening eagerly to those outside my usual professional network and grateful for the appreciative, tolerant and open-minded dialogue process that was so well fostered by our moderators.
The Aspen Institute was founded in the US in 1949, after WW2 had wrapped up and the Cold War was getting underway. Its aim was to encourage cross-fertilisation of ideas and to train future leaders in respectful listening, lateral thinking and development of moral values. The Aspen method itself is not dissimilar in an academic sense to the Oxford tutorial; the difference being that Oxford undergraduates arrive with very little life experience and the tutorial is primarily learning focused, while an Aspen seminar is a melting pot of multiple equal minds who share insights from their varied backgrounds and life experiences.
I went to Wales with more than 25 years under my belt as a land rights, land governance, land tenure, gender and social inclusion specialist. During that time, I’ve lived and worked at global, national and local community levels in countries throughout the Majority World. I’ve seen myself as part of the broader international development sector, with land governance and gender justice as my niche. I have what I think of as wide-ranging networks within the global community of practice on land – within which the Land Portal plays no small a part – and as a ‘land person’ I am in no doubt that property rights and equitable access to natural resources are THE central foundation of all development. Call it hubris, over-confidence, or just misplaced self-(and sectoral-)importance.
Once upon a time, when I started out in this field, I must have had some sense of why I cared enough to devote my professional life to the pursuit of land rights and gender equity. But somewhere along the way I forgot about the ‘why’ and got caught up in the ‘how’ and ‘when’ and ‘what’. My 48 hours in Wales has been an important reset.
Within the global land space, many of us claim to support ‘equal land rights for all’. We work on programmes of mass land registration or develop policies and laws to support equal access to land for men and women. We assume that everyone must have land, and we implicitly (sometimes explicitly) assume that this land must be owned, if not by individuals or families then by whole communities. We make a lot of assumptions about how important this is for the economic development of countries, and for the health and welfare of children – if their land-owning and newly-empowered mothers are better able to care for them.
The ’What lies behind?’ often goes without saying. Especially the economic arguments that maintain the reigning global development paradigm. But even in the face of climate change – perhaps more so! – it’s the egalitarian assumptions that are taken for granted. Thus friends and colleagues ascribe radical left-wing views to me simply because of the work I do, without pausing to ask why I do it or what I actually believe. There’s judgement everywhere.
In Wales I looked in the mirror and saw my own judgement pointing back at me. In the room were Brexiteer Leavers and Remainers; TERFs, non-TERFs and fence-sitters; and people with widely divergent views on the wars in Gaza and Ukraine. I looked around the room initially and made some assumptions on first impressions but as our time together progressed, I surprised myself by who I was agreeing and disagreeing with. I shared views on many texts with the submarine commander-in-waiting, but not on all of them, and the same with the Anglican chaplain and the Russian tech entrepreneur. I disagreed much more than I expected to with the feminist movement leader. I discovered that I am a Kantian and not, after all, a Utilitarian. That – leaving aside his total disregard for women – there is something about Aristotle’s take on the pursuit of a fulfilled and purposeful life that makes sense from the perspective of a career in international development. That Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has it spot on in her TED talk urging us to avoid ‘single stories’.
And what did I learn about land rights from my time with so many people who don’t work in land rights? That land rights do matter, but not more than anything else. That my job is not more important than yours, whatever you do. That diversity is not just about skin colour, sex or religion but also about the moral values that lie within. That respect, tolerance and mutual understanding are easy to aspire to but must be cultivated and practiced. That my solution to strengthening land rights might not be the same as yours, depending on our different moral values. That change has to come from within and not be driven from outside and above. That the challenges of this world are vast and my little niche in land governance and gender justice is exactly that.
I returned home from Wales refreshed and invigorated, having been challenged to think in a way I have not done for years. Getting out of the land community, however briefly, lets me re-enter it with new energy, insight and perspective on the small but still vital work that we all do.