The Cairngorms Climate Backlash

Craig Dalzell

We’ve long said that land reform without local democracy would go catastrophically wrong and I fear that we’re starting to be proven right.

Change is often a difficult process – even if it’s ultimately beneficial, the disruption caused to make that change can be painful. This is only ever more so when the change being made is not being made by the people it is being imposed on. Without local agency and local democracy, resentment and opposition can only build.

The Cairngorms National Park is the scene of just such a protest right now as farmers are raising fears about being locked out of decisions to rewild the park. There are mounting complaints about the rewilding itself following the same pattern of greenwashing that we’re seeing elsewhere in Scotland where the focus is less on climate mitigations as a primary motivation and more using them to cover up the harvesting of carbon credits (which are often bought by very, very rich people so that they can keep polluting). Another primary concern is land competition and the prospect of mass rewilding hampering Scotland’s food security (something we’ve raised and offered solutions to in our paper on rewilding here).

This is one of the concerns that is affecting other climate projects such as the one in my own community where solar panels are being proposed for a site that is some of the best grazing land in Scotland (I’m becoming quite firm in the belief that solar panels should be put on rooftops first, then derelict brownfields before they ever should be considered for crop or grazing land). Again this is a situation where the community feels all but powerless as we have almost no say in the decision and even our Local Authority has been cut out as the project appears to have been pushed up to Scottish Ministers.

The Park Authority has been quick to promote its level of “public engagement” but this only serves to highlight the problem. These engagements are not the same as actual control and direction. Communities are almost always at risk of being ignored or – when changes are made at their request – they take the form of the bare minimum that is required to get the peasants to put the pitchforks down again. It’s not the same as bringing the community to the planning table to help build something that everyone actually wants.

There’s a reason that this kind of public engagement ends up getting a bad name. By bringing a fully formed plan to a community and imposing it on them if they don’t complain hard enough or making minor changes if they do, then it turns community engagement into an act of pure opposition. I’ve written about my own experiences with this too. Campaigning against a bad idea is often a valuable and vital thing but we must remember that when such a campaign wins, all it actually achieves is nothing – that tomorrow will be the same as today. Not worse, sure, but not better either.

When communities are forced to only respond negatively to proposals cast down from above then they never get the opportunity to campaign for something positive. To try to win something that truly will make tomorrow better than today.

To do that, communities must be at the table right from the start. It’s not enough to treat those who must live with decisions as – at best – advisory consultants. They must be stakeholders. They must be leaders. They must be initiators of the development projects that upper tiers of government above them support rather than dictate to. National targets, strategies and regulations are fine, but the principle of subsidiarity dictates they must be met with local action and policies wherever and whenever possible.

In the Scottish independence campaign we often say that those best placed to make decisions are those who are affected by those decisions. If that is true for a nation-state seeking its independence, then it must also be true for a farmer trying to adjust their way of life to a changing climate.

The farmers of the Cairngorms National Park should not be enemies of the changes needed to meet Scotland’s climate requirements but some of the strongest allies and advocates for those changes. To do that, they must be given the power that is currently being withheld from them, and those currently holding that power must learn to let it go.

2 thoughts on “The Cairngorms Climate Backlash”

  1. It needs to be acknowledged that the vast majority of consultation responses were in favour of the proposals. There are competing visions within the community – it’s not simply a case of community vs authority.

  2. Dr Janet Moxley

    The vast majority of the Cairngorm national park area is made up of peatland, arctic-alpine montane habitats and forest of various sorts which are not farmed in any meaningful way. Venison and grouse is produced for sport rather than meat. Therefore rewilding through measures such as peatland restoration, restricting muirburn and reducing deer numbers to allow forest and other habitats to regenerate has no adverse effects on farmers. Rewilding would adversely effect rich people who like shooting things for fun, but I’m not overly upset about that.

    There are some farmed areas on the fringes of the national park which are farmed, but rewilding will not be forced onto landowners, although there could be implications from tenant farmers if their lairds decide that they prefer trees to low-productivity pasture and these need to be thought through. Similarly reintroduction of apex predators and beavers tends to bring shreks of outrange from Scottish Farmer readers, but in practice these animals cause limited damage, could bring benefits with respect to flood damage and erosion and any damage could be compensated.

    While rewilding needs to ensure a just transition for people whose work is associated with existing land uses in the Cairngorms, lets not let the voices of people who farm a few thousand hectares drown out the views of those who want to manage half a million hectares in a way that benefits the entire planet.

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