Nature is healing: how radical gardening offers a future free from land exploitation
A new approach to tending green spaces is taking root, and it's regenerative, rule-breaking and welcoming of us all.
31 Oct 2021
It was for good reason that farmer and food sovereignty activist Leah Penniman began her  book Farming While Black with the Malcolm X quote: “Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.” During the pandemic, the privilege of access to green spaces where you can learn, grow and breathe was thrown into sharp relief. But for the most marginalised in society, especially Black people and people of colour, struggling to find green spaces is nothing new. Nor is it an accident.
In Britain, Black people and people of colour’s ability and desire to connect with the land is complicated. The very landscape of this country, the rich green pastures that make up the wealth of estate owners and heritage organisations, was funded by colonialism and enslavement.
For some, Covid-19 temporarily obscured the urgency of the climate crisis. But, like lack of access to green spaces, that too is bound up with structural racism and the inequalities it creates. Both issues are anchored by capitalism, which treats land as a resource to be exploited – often for the benefit of the white and wealthy.
If the pandemic exposed the green space gap, it also highlighted health inequalities, with Covid-19 mortality risk higher among BAME people, according to Public Health England. The reduction in air pollution and boost to our mental and physical wellbeing that nature brings is not equally enjoyed by Black people and people of colour – in the UK over 90% of whom live in [densely-populated] urban areas. In 2013, Ella Kissi-Debrah, a nine-year-old Black girl from Lewisham, south London, became the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a cause of death. A July 2020 study of more than 400 COVID-19 patients admitted to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham said that “patients of BAME ethnicity are more likely to be admitted from regions of highest air pollution, housing quality and household overcrowding deprivation”.
With little hope offered by our leaders, who sign pledges and make statements but refuse to take the necessary drastic action, who can we look to for encouragement and inspiration? And is it time to take things into our own hands? Thankfully, there are radical groups and individuals taking action in the UK, scattering seeds over bare patches of earth, providing spaces for people like them to grow, and fighting for oppressed communities to have access to the green spaces they desperately need and deserve.
“If the pandemic exposed the green space gap, it also highlighted health inequalities”
Amid the George Floyd uprisings in 2020, organiser and artist Amahra Spence launched the Black Land and Spatial Justice Fund as a way to redistribute resources and help Black people redefine their relationship with the land. For her, land justice underpins pressing social issues. “I couldn’t think of any type of challenge without thinking about land, property, its connections with capitalism and how this country has been built on entitlement to land which was preserved for the white and wealthy,” explains Amahra. “We’re not simply talking about land as a racial justice issue – it’s also a climate justice issue, a gender justice issue, a health outcomes issue.”
But for Black people and people of colour, how can we develop a relationship with the land when it’s a site of historical trauma? Josina Calliste, co-founder of Land In Our Names (LION), a Black-led collective championing land justice, feels it’s important to distinguish the actual land from the violence that’s happened on it. She cites Leah Penniman’s reasoning that “the land might have been the scene of the crime, but she was never the criminal”.
LION is committed to reparations, which it defines as “conceding power and resources in order to give space to BPOC to repair and heal.” In practice, “conceding resources” would involve giving land (Josina half-jokingly suggests golf courses as a starting point) over to the care of Black people and people of colour. But Josina details why the latter part of LION’s definition is so vital for a truly effective reparations process. “The word reparations, the root of that is repair,” she explains. “The land needs healing and [for] humans who are descended from people who were enslaved, who lived under colonialism, people who carry traumas of migration [or] seeking asylum, land can be the source of healing.”
Still, she believes healing can’t happen without first addressing what has happened to people on the land. Amahra agrees: “We need to be living within a society that acknowledges the impact of harm, how that is racialised, how that is harmful to people and planet. There has to be some recognition of systemic intent to harm Black people and deny them access to land.” There have been positive signs of change in recent years: Josina cites Landed, a podcast series she recently worked on, which saw land-owners in the Scottish highlands reckoning with the colonial history of Scotland, as an example.
“There are radical groups and individuals taking action in the UK, scattering seeds over bare patches of earth, providing spaces for people like them to grow”
But, if you feel disheartened by the prospect of waiting for justice, it could be time to fight for it yourself. “Even through oppression, Black people have continued to pioneer, organise, and root into radical structures of wholeness and community,” says Amahra. She believes Black people’s cultural heritage and ancestral traditions contain lessons for a relationship with the land that doesn’t “replicate patterns of harm”.
In fact, as Josina explains, the source of a lot of the sustainable wisdom that’s gaining ground today can be traced to indigenous practices, which were “repackaged for white men to be able to claim and sell back”. Even LION’s emphasis on stewardship rather than ownership is inspired by spiritual wisdom: “There’s an ancient belief, which I think is quite common in West Africa, that you can never own land – you’re merely tending to it for the ancestors and the generations yet to come… It’s a beautiful thing to think I have responsibility to the land I tread on, [that] I need to walk gently on the earth.”
If traditional horticulture’s ideas about the “right way to garden” are off-putting, garden designer and educator Hafsah Hafeji advises forgetting about rules. Her work focuses on “greening up” urban areas through guerrilla gardening, which sees people grow whatever they like wherever they like without waiting for permission from the land’s legal owner.
Hafsah, who studied horticulture at university, having grown tomatoes with her father as a child, explains that the idea that there was a right way of doing things “stifled” her when she first began her career. “I didn’t feel very equal to the people I was working with,” she says. “But as I began to learn more about plants, I learned how there is no steadfast rule. By creating your own version of doing something you empower yourself and make that space yours.”
“There’s an ancient belief, which I think is quite common in West Africa, that you can never own land – you’re merely tending to it for the ancestors and the generations yet to come”Josina Calliste
But, as Sandra Salazar notes, reconnecting with land doesn’t have to mean you have to get your hands dirty, “just going to a park and walking, going to a forest and looking at the trees, or even looking at the clouds” is enough. As the founder of community gardening initiative Go Grow with Love and growing project Women Leading With The Land, she invites women of African and Caribbean heritage to connect with the land and reclaim it, whether through learning about the soil, sowing seeds, or sharing intergenerational stories.
Where traditional gardening is exclusive, Amahra, Hafsah, Josina and Sandra are among those who are taking a radical and inclusive approach to land access and growing. Where land ownership and commercial farming is exploitative and depleting, they are nurturing and regenerative; their approach is communal instead of private — requiring and welcoming of us all. It’s not about waiting for permission, but about breaking traditions and doing things your way.
The land has been a site of exploitation for far too long. With the climate crisis threatening lives and livelihoods, now is the time to create a new relationship with nature – one that will support and sustain the planet, our communities and ourselves.
Looking to get into radical gardening? Here’s how to get started:
On growing: “Just get up and do – don’t feel no way. If you need to go and cut down the grass and plant some edibles, do it. You can have your babies growing in your kitchen, in your bathroom. Do what you can.” – Sandra
On guerrilla gardening: “Find somewhere you can easily access on a daily walk or commute, so you can water it. See what’s already growing there. If it’s completely barren [with] poor soil, perhaps put some wildflowers in the area using seeds… In autumn, planting bulbs [for spring] is really great. I plant lots into tree pits. It’ll rain plenty over winter and you don’t really need to worry about them.” – Hafsah
If you don’t have space at home to grow? “Find your local community garden. They always need volunteers.” – Sandra
And if you’re not green-fingered? “Radical growing doesn’t mean just growing food – you might be good at drawing up posters, designing, or coming up with ideas. Try it.” – Sandra
On starting your journey with land justice activism: “Speak to elders in your family who live around you. I [also] recommend the documentary Kiss The Ground – it will turn you into a soil nerd.” – Amahra
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