Land grabs are continuing long after Tryweryn

Julian Rosser says we should learn the lessons of what happened in Capel Celyn 55 years ago

It is now 55 years since Parliament passed an Act allowing Liverpool City Council to evict 48 people from their farms and homes in and around Capel Celyn village in Cwm Celyn, Gwynedd. The aim was to dam the valley, damn the local population and build the Tryweryn Reservoir. The case sent shock waves around Wales and beyond, spurring calls for more devolution of power and protection for threatened Welsh speaking communities.

But we still haven’t learnt the lessons. Tryweryns are still happening every day around the world. As with the people of Capel Celyn in the 1950s, similarly exploited communities feel that they are powerless, overlooked and under-represented. Many governments and élites in developing countries are offering up large swathes of land at rock bottom prices for large-scale mechanised farming, the production of biofuels, or other purposes with scant regard for the lives and livelihoods of those who may have farmed the land for generations.

The scale is truly breathtaking. Oxfam research demonstrates that in poor countries, an area of land the size of Wales has been sold off to foreign investors every 37 days over the past ten years. And the rate of the sell-off has been accelerating. A big increase in global food prices in 2008, plus rich countries’ encouragement of biofuels production, has made agricultural land an even more attractive investment proposition. South Sudan, the world’s newest country, was only established last year but already ten per cent of its surface area has been flogged off.

The World Bank is supposed to be the world’s leading anti-poverty organisation, funding development and poverty eradication programmes around the world, with a significant contribution to its funds coming from the UK taxpayer. Yet its Independent Evaluation Group estimated in 2010 that at any one time, around one million people are being displaced from their land and homes as a consequence of World Bank funded projects. Bear in mind, though, that the World Bank is only one of many players providing this type of finance, so the true figure could be even larger.

So what is the problem? People buy and sell land all the time, don’t they? The problem is that, all too often, the land is sold from under the feet of communities without their consent and without compensation. Buyers have been known to use violence to take possession of land. Traditional and communal land rights can be difficult to defend in court, especially for subsistence farmers or pastoralists with no disposable income to pay lawyers.

It is these transactions that Oxfam describes as ‘land grabs’. They are the land deals in which those who live on or make a living from that land are not consulted, treated fairly or properly compensated by the organisation, country or individual which buys the land. Just like Tryweryn, decades later the world has not learnt the lessons of the damage being done daily to communities all over the world.

Land grabs violate basic human rights and flout the principle of free, prior and informed consent of the land users, and are often underpinned by the obscene and unequal balance of power between buyers and those who live on the land.

Millions of poor families depend on their land to grow crops or rear livestock which they use to feed themselves or sell to earn a living. But without access to land, these activities can’t happen. Without their land they will simply struggle to survive.

The underlying consequences are far deeper, and affect an even greater number of people. The World Bank’s own research demonstrates that having secure access or ownership of land, free from threat of eviction, significantly reduces hunger and poverty. That is why Oxfam sees land grabbing as a key driver of hunger in a world where nearly a billion people go hungry every day. The irony is that so much good farmland is being sold off in countries often the worst affected by food shortages or famine. Many of these deals are not bringing investment in agriculture which will help local people eat.

Oxfam’s research in Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali, Mozambique, Senegal, and Tanzania has revealed that the majority of agriculture-based land deals in Africa are for export commodities, including biofuels and cut flowers. In Mozambique, where approximately 35 per cent of households are chronically food insecure, a mere 32,000 out 433,000 hectares approved for agriculture investment between 2007 and 2009 were for food crops – that’s less than ten percent.

We urgently need to see investment in agriculture and food production in developing countries. Oxfam has 70 years experience of working with people in poverty in over 90 countries and believes we should be investing in small-scale farmers. Investment in co-operatives, food transportation, storage and processing can build resilient communities able to invest in education and healthcare. These are communities able to develop sustainable livelihoods.

All of this is why I took a journey in the rain this week. Not to Tryweryn but to Llanrhystud just south of Aberystwyth, home of the iconic Cofiwch Dryweryn mural, a memorial to a local Welsh protest against land grabbing over five decades ago. We wanted to remember that injustice, and highlight the new injustices going on today all around the world.

Oxfam is launching a global campaign to persuade the World Bank to freeze investment in large land deals for six months while it reviews its policies to prevent land grabbing. The World Bank can ensure that investments help not harm poor communities. Investment should be good news for developing countries, not lead to greater poverty, hunger and hardship.

Oxfam wants the World Bank’s freeze to send a strong signal to global investors to stop land-grabbing and to improve standards for:

  • Transparency – ensuring that information about land deals is publicly accessible for both affected communities and governments.
  • Consultation and consent – ensuring communities are informed in advance, and can agree or refuse projects.
  • Land rights and governance – strengthening poor people’s rights to land and natural resources, especially women, through better land tenure governance as set out by the Committee for Food Security.
  • Food security – ensuring that land investments do not undermine local and national food security.

As with so many banks these days, we own the World Bank. As a major investor the UK has a crucial role to play in influencing its policies. Oxfam is working with campaigners throughout the world to put pressure on our government to reform the system which makes some people very rich while depriving others of food. We need to make sure that we have truly learnt the lessons of Tryweryn by putting an end to land grabs the world over.

Julian Rosser is Oxfam Cymru Campaigns Co-ordinator. To find out more about the campaign visit

8 thoughts on “Land grabs are continuing long after Tryweryn

  1. According to Savill’s 2012 Rural Agricultural Land Review, there is a mere 7,100 acres of available agricultural land in Wales, down 50% on the previous year. Research leads me to conclude that tourism contributes significantly to this problem. In the first instance tourism has devoured much of our coastline, defacing the landscape, creating low pay seasonal work, and bringing with it many social and economic problems to coastal areas such as Rhyl. Not satisfied with the desacration of our coastline, the industry has now turned its attention to the hinterland, where the now unfashionable ‘caravan development’ has morphed into the more socially fashionable ‘chalet development’. Government’s slavish commitment to ‘Tourism at any price’ continues to deplete our finite land resorces, agricultural heritage and community viability.

  2. Low pay seasonal work beats no-pay no work at all. And Rhyl’s problems are not the consequence of tourism but stem from the collapse of its tourist trade and its boarding houses becoming parking places for social security recipients.

    Those deserted and derelict smallholding dwellings scattered across Wales were there long before tourism became a feature. Wales is marginal for most forms of farming and Welsh farmers are inevitably poor unless heavily subsidised. Isn’t this just a question of economics? If tourist businesses on a piece of land make more money than a farm on that land why would you want everyone to be poorer by keeping the farm?

  3. That 2012 figure is very shocking. Such a dramatic decline brings to mind the Welsh Government’s policy of reclassifying agricultural land to make room for all the houses being imposed under Local Development Plans.

  4. Just to be clear, the Savills figure relates to agricultural land available for sale rather than the total stock of agricultural land in Wales…

  5. Mary Jones has made a very valid point.
    There is evidence that there has been a specific land acquisition in Pembrokeshire to effect the transfer of land from one person to another using the pretext of highway realignment.
    Regarding Tryweryn absolutely nothing has been done to remedy this injustice and in my experience approaches to the County Council, The Welsh Office, The High Sherriff aka the Crown, The Land Registry, and Dyfed Powys Police have all met with a blank refusal to address the problem referred to.

  6. Small scale land grabs in Wales.
    Between 1953 to 1956 Gwalia Brickworks Cogan Penarth & Dinas Powys S WALES was developed into housing estates by Lucas & Madley following the decease of Frederick Fenby Miskin Fellow Institute of Chemistry & Fellow of the Geological Society the Managing Director & largest shareholder of Gwalia who had intended his son to be his heir. One firm of solicitors involved was Phoenix Walters cardif.
    In 1998 to 1999 Elm Cottage Heol y Parc Pentyrch Cardiff CF4 8NB was acquired by Allen Nicholas Renwick Cowbridge & his mother both architects, after the death of FF Miskin’s widow in 1996 who together with Ann Fenby Miskin,had rented the property. One firm of solicitors involved was Burgess Salmon Bristol.In 1994 Renwick admitted to having no Title Deeds for the 1910 cowman’s cottage & described the law as ‘an ass’.
    Between 2005 to 2015 members of the Beulah Community Council Ceredigion have allegedly attempted to obtain Bryngobaith Capel Tygwydd SA38 9PF now owned by Tai Ceredigion Cyf Housing Association Lampeter.It is tenanted on the basis of a Secure Tenancy by Ann Fenby Miskin since 1999.
    In each case there has been severe bullying of the family of FF Miskin the grave of whom in St Pedrog’s Church Ferwig Cardigan has been damaged without the perpetrators being brought to justice by the Dyfed Powys Heddlu.
    Ann F Miskin BA Hons [Philosophy] LCST

  7. If your organization expects me to approve what has happened to my family in the last half century then this would be a misjudged expectation.
    In 1802 Freemasonry was banned in Russia but re-established itself. Would a similar course of action help in Wales to inhibit controversial Small Scale Land Grabs as experienced by my family?
    My maternal grandfather was a Grand Master of the Freemasons. Lucas Burma Star examined my grandfather’s Masonic regalia at the request of HRH Duke of Kent in 1989.
    AF Miskin

  8. Gratitude for your indulgence in reading my comments & suggestion as to how Small Scale Land Grabs in Wales might be inhibited.
    One must always try to go to the root of a problem.
    In this case is it associated with networking by the Welsh Business Fraternity commonly teased as ‘Taffia’?

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