Crofters fight for rights of indigenous people

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The Independent Online

Australia has Aborigines, New Zealand has Maoris and the US has Native Americans. Now Scotland could soon have its own group of indigenous people, in the shape of its crofters.

A report by the Scottish Crofting Foundation (SCF) is calling for the Government to recognise Scotland's 13,000 crofters as indigenous to the country in the same way that Australia, New Zealand and the US does with their ethnic groups. It suggests that, not only should the crofters be recognised as indigenous, but that they should be given the power to govern themselves through their own crofters' parliament.

The report states that the Government must "recognise crofters as indigenous people of the Highlands and Islands, respect the growing body of international law on indigenous peoples, and devolve power and decision-making on indigenous issues to the people who maintain the indigenous cultures of the Highlands and Islands."

The Government has refused to accept that the country has any indigenous people, so, should it act upon the report's recommendations, the crofters – essentially farmers who rear animals on small, rented pieces of land – would become the UK's first group of indigenous people.

Patrick Krause, the chief executive of the SCF, says that his organisation decided to seek the indigenous status after becoming disillusioned and worried by decisions taken on behalf of the crofters by a government in Edinburgh which he says "knows very little about crofting".

And he added that the crofters could even follow the example of the Sami people of Norway, who after decades of cultural repression established their own parliament in 1989.

Mr Krause said: "Indigenous-people status would recognise crofters as a people that has its own unique culture and who deserve a certain amount of autonomy. In the past, central government has called all the shots – but they have always used a central belt benchmark.

"What we are saying is that the Highlands and Islands are different and have a distinct culture which should be recognised as different. Urban people making rules for rural people doesn't work. There is a risk that cultural values can be swept aside in the name of progress."

He added: "Crofters have always had a very strong and unique cultural identity. Many crofters speak a different language [Gaelic] and our whole culture is based upon the land and our livestock. We sing about it in our songs and tell about it in our stories. The Government in Edinburgh knows little about our culture, so why should they be making decisions about our lives? We are capable of making them ourselves. The first step away from that would be to be recognised as indigenous, but the ultimate aim would be to have our own parliament."

The report is due to be presented to the United Nations in April next year, in the hope that it will pave the way for crofters to be given more rights under international law. The UN already has a draft declaration on the rights of indigenous people, which says that indigenous people should be free from discrimination and their rights should be respected and promoted.

The draft goes on to say that the only way this can be done is by those people "exercising control over the developments affecting their lands and resources based on their needs".

A copy of the report has also been sent to the Inverness-based government body, the Crofters Commission – which the report says should be abolished.

Drew Ratter, chairman of the commission, has agreed to respond to the report, but he has already said: "I remain to be convinced that this indigenous people's thesis they are developing is the right one."

Indigenous people of the world

*The Sami people are thought to number about 100,000 and have inhabited parts of Scandinavia for 2,500 years. They were almost wiped out in the 1940s, but now have their own parliament.

*The Aborigines have populated Australia for 40,000 years and their number is said to have topped 750,000. But by the end of the 20th century, after British settlers arrived, there were just 190,000.

*The Native Americans were first encountered by Christopher Columbus in the 1400s but after European colonisation of the US were nearly wiped out by the 16th century. Now there are two million.

*The Maoris settled in New Zealand in the 1300s, but were outnumbered by European settlers in the 1800s. They lost much of their land and went into a cultural decline, until a revival in the 1960s.

*The Basque people are thought to be the earliest inhabitants of western Europe. The region, known as the Basque Country, comprises three Spanish provinces which are self-governed.

*The Guanches were the first known inhabitants of the Canary Islands, arriving there in 500BC. Now though, their culture has all but died out after the island's colonisation in the Middle Ages and their language is virtually obsolete.