Today we are all Farmers
A Land Grabbing Story
Cédric Heyraud, Silvia Passetti
Brussels (IHECS Alumni) 09/03/2014

The farmer can smell the aroma of the land as he walks out onto the field. It is four in the morning. His crop is dancing in the breeze and so is his frail future. This local Hungarian farmer knows how to care for his fertile ground and shares a strong bond with it

He works with the non-profit organisation, organic farming and education Kishantos Rural Development Centre in Hungary. The centre was founded twenty years ago by the joint efforts of the Hungarian and German governments. Since then, it has educated hundreds of farmers each year in sustainable agriculture. The centre has two main parts: the Folk High School Centre and a 452 hectares organic demonstration farm. Its main mission is to spread the idea of ecological sustainability and democracy.

Founded by locals in 1998 this grassroots initiative was awarded a land lease valid until October 2013. Rather than renewing it, the Hungarian Land Fund (representing the State as the owner) issued an open call tender for the rent of the lands in ten lots. The Rural Development Centre presented 10 applications, but didn’t get a square centimetre of land.

Kishantos risked losing its land and its Bio Suisse certificate. This meant the end of this centre, where for 20 years the land had been free from chemicals and fertilizers. The local community reacted forcefully and launched a campaign to stop this land grabbing operation. “Save Kishantos”, the slogan of the campaign, spread on the Web. Róbert Fidrich, Program Co-ordinator of Friends of the Earth Hungary said, “Several activists went to show their support… The association refused to give the land to the State and two weeks later the Rural Development Centre reached the constitutional protection, this has been a big victory for us”.

*Stories with a happy ending do exist

Hungary has fertile and cheap lands - like many countries in the East - two aspects that in the past made this country very attractive for foreign investors. According to a report entitled Land Grabbing, Land Concentration and People’s Struggles in Europe, published in June 2013 by the International Peasant’s Movement Via Campesina, in the mid-1990s the price of one hectare of land in Hungary was around 100 times cheaper than the price of one hectare in Austria.

Cases of land grabbing also happen in the South of Europe, where the driving forces are the investments in renewable energy. Soil and wind are key resources in this kind of economy.

Archaeologists are protesting against a plan to build a gigantic wind power plant in Crete. The story was published on the site of Amici Della Terra (Friends of the Earth). Since 2011 authorizations have been given to create a big system of renewable energy to produce 6500 MW. The island is exposed to strong winds. But it is also the cradle of Western civilisation and should remain intact according to history experts.

In Sardinia, an Italian company with Japanese investors proposed a renewable energy initiative. The island, known for the beach of Costa Smeralda, is coveted by investors in renewable energy. In Sardinia there is a package of four solar thermal power plants. We are in Villasor, a village 20 km from Cagliari, in the middle of the countryside of Su Padru-Campu Giavesu. The project will totally change the landscape of the countryside, introducing a big plant to produce energy. This area includes 875 hectares of farmland or wooded pastures and hundreds of small landowners. The associations Gruppo di intervento giuridico (Group of Judicial Intervention) and Amici Della Terra (Friends of the Earth) started a campaign against this project. “Who needs an energy plan of so great extent to the detriment of hundreds and hundreds of acres of agricultural land?” -said a spokesperson for Gruppo di intervento giuridico - “Not Sardinia. It already produces more energy than it needs”.

*"Renewables", the new trend of new Landlords

Other similar land grabs for renewable energy plants are underway in Italy. For instance in Basilicata, where a thermal power plant will cover 226 hectares of land.

Environmental activists say EU renewable energy policies and low-carbon emission targets are leading to new European social, political and economic concerns around land that are usually associated with developing countries. There has been a shift in EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) over time, from subsidies on products to subsidies on production. In other words subsides per hectare of land. This has led to land concentration trends and land grabbing for the production of biofuels in the EU. Under the CAP in 2000, the subsidies on products accounted for €26.6 billion compared to only €4.7 billion in 2011. On the other hand subsidies on production have increased from €2 billion to €50.9 billion in the same period. Also, when looking at the intermediate input and costs of production for farmers, it is clear that the sector of agriculture has become increasingly industrial and dependant on fossil fuels and imported natural resources such as land and water. According to a study made in 2011 in the EU member states, the main intermediate input for the production of crops are fertilisers, plant protection products, seeds and plants, which represent 17% of the total agricultural intermediate costs.

Farming and agriculture provides livelihoods to over 25 million people in Europe. Small-scale food producers are losing their land to large international and European agribusiness stakeholders who use the land to produce biofuels and other forms of energy for EU and foreign markets. Vegetable oils made from soy, rapeseed, sunflower or palm, among many other plants, are used to produce biodiesel used in cars. On 4 September 2013 people gathered in front of the European Parliament to protest against the increasing use of land for biofuel production rather than for food to feed people and livestock. This phenomenon happens in countries like Indonesia, but also in Europe.

The state of land distribution in the EU and its periphery at present is alarming. The increase in the size of holdings by fewer investor groups is not new and has been a trend for the past decades. But the impact of this is killing small farming structures of 2 to 5 hectares, while agricultural estates of over 30 hectares account for most of the regional utilised agricultural area (UAA) such as in Andalusia. While studies show that there has indeed been an increase in the number of farms and arable land in the EU between 1966 and the present day, this is mostly because of the accession of new member states and because the newest members, from Eastern Europe, have large agricultural sectors and available land.

According to the 2013 report by the International Peasant’s Movement, for most EU member states such as Germany, France or Italy, farm holdings fell dramatically from 1,246,000 in 1966 to 299,100 in 2010 for Germany; from 1,708,000 in 1966 to 516,100 by 2010 for France; from 2,980,500 in 1966 to 1620,900 in 2010 for Italy. The accumulation of capital, the increase in intermediate costs and the industrialisation of agriculture, have made it extremely difficult for small farm holdings to compete with large farm holdings. Agricultural production also has to compete on the market and larger estates are more competitive and receive more subsidies than less competitive and smaller holdings. As land becomes more and more concentrated in the hands of fewer but larger investors, the CAP subsidies end up in the pockets of those same fewer and larger investors. To illustrate this trend, let us look at Italy. In Italy in 2010, only O.29% of farms received 18% of total CAP incentives and 0.0001 of these received 6% of all the subsidies. This situation can be observed in many countries across Europe.

In Eastern and Central Europe the situation is more complicated. According to the report by European Coordination Via Campesina, the concentration of land ownership has been particularly marked since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Many farmers lost everything when their country joined the EU and subsidies on agricultural products began to flood the national markets. In the first six years after joining the EU, small farmers were not eligible to apply for agricultural subsidies, which fuelled the sales of farms to large-scale agribusinesses. In some countries, foreign investors started to speculate. Some countries such as Poland and Hungary have measures at national level to protect their farmers but this does not keep foreign investors from buying land and finding ways to circumvent these national regulations.

What is also increasingly noticeable in Europe is the grabbing of land by foreign companies from the Middle East, planning large-scale production of crops. This is the case in Romania.

Many examples of such land grabbing practices can be found in the EU-funded report published in June 2013 by the European Coordination Via Campesina and Hands off the Land network.

*"Revival of Europe" in a grabbed land?

Finally let us look at the current situation. In September last year the European Commission agreed on a compromise for land-based biofuels to represent no more than 6% of the 10% target by 2020 for renewable energy in transportation, as set in the 2009 Renewable Energy Directive. Also the European Parliament decided to start taking carbon emissions produced by biofuels into account in 2020. This leaves doors open to corporate farming in the EU. Experts say the production of biofuels to replace fossil fuel energy sources will lead to food price rises, endanger agriculture livelihoods, cause changes in land use and continue to cause deforestation and climate change.

After three years of intense negotiations, EU politicians approved a large reform of the Common Agricultural Policy in June 2013. Reforms regarding direct payment to support farmers and rural development and conservation, the abolition of quotas and other forms of market support, and finally a greater emphasis on environmental measures are the major changes brought to the CAP. But according to experts and officials the new measures will not be applied before 2015. What is more, policies put in place to achieve the Europe 2020 strategy and the very recent 2030 climate plan, are not helping to stop land grabs in Europe, on the contrary.

On Wednesday 19 February, French President Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel met in Paris to discuss the “revival of Europe”, words said by the President himself. Among the issues discussed was renewable energy. For the occasion, farmers and environmental activists scattered soil and manure to protest against the CAP reforms and unfair distribution of subsidies. The production of renewable energy is causing land grabs for wind and solar energy plants, and intensive farming for biofuels.

According to Via Campesina and other environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace, land grabbing in the name of the environment – or green grabbing – is an emerging phenomenon in Europe.

EU environmental policies and incentives are creating a context for massive land grabbing and increasing corporate investments in renewable energy, which require large-scale acquisitions of land. As a result, this phenomenon is affecting small farmers and their livelihoods.

On the other hand EU official claim recent CAP reforms are there to help small farmers most of all. These represent a third of the European farming population. The reforms aim to simplify red tape and applications for subsidies, allow farmers to spend more time on their land rather than doing paperwork. Emphasis is put on them.

“We thought that the new (CAP) measures would play in our favour, but the devil hides in the details”, said Luc Jeannin, of the National Federation of Agricultural Holders' Unions for the arrondissement of Autun, in France.

People do realise that if we don’t care more for our land, the way we use it and what we grow from it, there is real danger for the future of mankind. But we still eat food from our supermarkets and want to buy at discount prices because our wallets are hungry too. We forget that local farmers work hard to meet our needs. We forget that land and the soil is of great value.

How politicians choose to compromise between financial interests and human interests, how EU decision makers decide to invest in renewable energies, needs to take into account, most of all, the interest of people, because it is for people that policies are made and decisions are taken. Can we sacrifice our land in the name of energy?

A real debate is needed on the way we treat our land, on the way we treat ourselves. Land is not like another commodity on a globalised market. We are all farmers of the land on which we grow. But we do our best to forget it.

Cédric Heyraud
Silvia Passetti

Brussels (IHECS alumni) 09/03/2014

Debating Europe
Executive Master in European Journalism 2014

cc - OJALÁ,Sancho Panza Lab / CAPE SanchoPanza/Perspectives 2013-2014

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