The great Polish land grab

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Cereal growing in rural Poland. (Photo: Szefu911)
ARC 2020 | 28 May 2018

The great Polish land grab 

by Hans Wetzels 
 
There has been unrest in rural communities across Poland for some years. Land prices have increased dramatically and despite a moratorium on foreign land purchasing, foreign entities have found a way to buy land. Polish farmers are despairing and protesting en masse. Hans Wetzels reports from Poland on land grabbing.
 
It’s a sunny day in the Polish countryside. Farmers are preparing their fields after a long and harsh winter. Jarek calmly manoeuvres his green Mercedes between the potholes in the road. On his own farms he grows potatoes and sugar beet, he explains in broken German. He is planning on expanding his farm, but he can’t.
 
An influx of foreign agricultural capital is putting tremendous pressure on the Polish land-market, driving up prices. Local henchmen are employed to get their hands on the cheap Polish farmland. “It’s getting increasingly hard for Polish farmers to survive,” Jarek says, “Poland has a lot of fertile soil but increasing swathes of that are being swallowed up by companies from Denmark and Germany.”
 
Life in West-Pomerania is quiet. Small villages, churches and birch trees line the hilly landscape. Farmers still sell raw milk straight to customers and meals are mainly homegrown, Jarek says with a sense of pride. But this pleasant quiet is coming to an end.
 
In recent years, in particular since joining the European Union, foreign companies have increased their share of the land of the countryside. At accession the Polish government managed to get a twelve year postponement of the EU demand to liberalize the land market. 2016 marked the end of that moratorium on land and since the years prior, unrest has been sweeping cross the countryside. Farmers put up roadblocks and have been marching on the government in Warsaw. Thousands of tractors jammed the streets in the Polish capital in the biggest ever farmers’ protest in Poland.
 
While the free movement of labour and capital means Poles can work and invest in western Europe, the economic flows go the other way too. Indeed, its about more than just the EU:
 
“Since the European borders with Ukraine opened up, Poland has been inundated with cheap grain from the east while companies from the west are trying to buy land,” Jarek explains, “Polish farmers are unable to compete, lose their land and move to Germany where they end up harvesting onions that are then shipped back to Poland. This agricultural model is completely absurd.”
 
Shockwave
 
In 2015 a shockwave went through the EU when the Polish elections were won by the right-wing nationalist party Law & Justice (PiS). The tensions in the countryside had been a decisive factor in the electoral victory of the populists, analysts argue. One of the first actions of the new nationalist government was to pardon the farmers arrested during the protests and to extend the moratorium on land sales.
 
Edward Kosmal is chairman of the agricultural wing of the influential Polish union Solidarność and has been involved in the protests since the beginning. A small group of union members have gathered in a kitchen in the village of Świdwin. Chickens are scurrying around the courtyard outside.
 
Kosmal is extremely worried about the degree of land-concentration in this area. “A big part of West-Pomerania is already in foreign hands,” he explains. “There is this one Danish pork producer who imports piglets from Denmark and grows them here because they can produce the feed cheaper in Poland. That company alone operates thirty-thousand acres of land. After the pigs are slaughtered the meat is shipped right back to Copenhagen.”
 
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the once collectivised Polish farmland was distributed among villagers. Ever since, foreigners ostensibly could not buy Polish farmland. That was how the government wanted to protect Polish farmers from the firepower of foreign capital.
 
Nonetheless, foreign capital found its way into Poland. Kosmal alleges that agricultural firms from different EU-Member States and the US use all kinds of long-term lease constructions to circumvent the ban on land sales, or use Polish subsidiaries. It is also alleged that payments are made to allow front people to outbid their fellow villagers when the land agency of the government is selling off state-owned land:
 
“That way prices rise and when harvests disappoint, Polish farmers immediately run into trouble with the bank,” he goes on, “Often they can’t pay their debts and have to sell their land. In situations like this foreign investors are always first in line to strike a deal.”

Populism and rural Poland
Jaroslaw Sachajko sits behind a big wooden desk in his office in the Sejm, the Polish Parliament. He is a member of the populist-conservative Kukiz ’15 movement and chairs the parliamentarian agricultural committee. “Poland lies in the heart of Europe. We have much to gain from a strong European Union,”  he stresses, “But we need to stop the impoverishment of the Polish countryside. We can only do that by preventing that even more fertile Polish soil ends up the hands of foreigners.”
 
He places the agricultural reform program his committee presented to the government in early spring on his desk. “This is a list of rural reforms that are necessary for our farmers to become competitive on the European market. We need to focus on production of fresh fruits and organic produce. There is a large market for that in Europe,” Sachajko explains. “Instead we are overrun by foreign holdings growing cheap grain or sugar to sell on the world market while Polish farmers suffer. At the same time the European Commission opens up all borders by signing big trade agreements like CETA with Canada. But the rural economy here can’t  compete with all these cheap imports from across the Atlantic. Poles are not anti-European. They disagree with EU-policies that are promoting this particular model of doing agriculture based on the export of cheap commodities.”
 
EU Accession
In 2004 all new countries joining the EU, from the Czech Republic, Latvia and Cyprus to Poland,  collectively signed a 1.300 page long accession agreement. In the agricultural chapter of that agreement, a list of EU-demands is meticulously spelled out. From that moment on, Polish farmers have a set of new rules to adhere to. They must stick to quota when producing potatoes or onions, semi-dry wine can only be called thus when the sugar content is kept between 33 and 50 grams per litre and to be able to sell their butter on the market, farmers will have to test it in a facility with ‘lightly coloured and non-reflective walls’ that is being kept at a constant temperature of 12 degrees Celsius.
 
Kosmal bangs his hand on the kitchen table in Świdwin. “Small farmers have no way to live up to all those standards,” he says, “There used to be at least twenty milk-factories in this area. Now there are only three. Two of those have been bought by foreigners. You can hardly find any Polish food in the supermarket these days and I blame Brussels for that.”
 
A major chunk of the financial support provided to Poland under the CAP flows to big, often foreign sugar exporters. The accession agreement explicitly states that the desire to ‘restructure’ local farms is not economically viable to better connect them to the European internal market. They suddenly demand investment-overviews and development-plans from farmers.
 
The evening has fallen over Świdwin and the discussions at the kitchen table are heating up. Despite all promises of reform the nationalist PiS-governement has done nothing to help the countryside, the farmers conclude.
 
Andres farms one hundred hectares but steers clear of modern biotechnology, pesticides and other chemical technologies. “We are stuck between foreign agricultural holdings that are after our cheap farmland and EU-demands that prevent us from selling our fresh produce on the local market,” he says, “European policy serves the interests of big corporations wanting to control the food chain instead of helping farmers to grow healthy food for European citizens.”
 
Horticulture and other Polish regions
At the end of the day the Polish countryside still has a lot to gain from EU-membership, argues sociologist Ruta Spiewak from the Polish Academy of Sciences. “Every farmer in Poland receives financial support that simply didn’t exist before,” she says, “that is a direct consequence of EU-membership. I’m not saying there’s no problems with land concentration because there are but the overall picture doesn’t look entirely bad.”
 
Spiewaks research focuses on farmers’ organizations. The average farm size in Poland is about ten hectares, she explains. But problems the farmers in West-Pomerania are faced with are not at all comparable with the thriving horticulturalists in the south of the country.
 
“In 2013 Poland overtook China as the world’s biggest exporter of apples,” she explains, “Farms growing apples have no problem with foreign investors because their enterprises are profitable anyway. The current government tries to present the protests in West-Pomerania as a national problem, which is pure political opportunism. But our research does show how important small farms still are Poland on both the economic and the social level. If the EU wants to prevent more nationalist populism in the future they should start taking this problem of land-concentration a little more seriously.”
 
Conclusion – what’s next for rural Poland?
 
So what must happen next in for all of rural Poland to flourish? On the one hand, the free movement of people and capital, access to export markets in the EU, and CAP supports in both Pillar 1 and 2 have benefited rural Poland. But some – in different regions and sectors – have benefited more than others.
 
On the other hand, the end of the moratorium on foreign land purchases has meant that rapid land concentration has emerged. And while some initiatives in the EU institutions make efforts to curb this (like here), not enough is being down to stem the tide. Moreover, without creative ways emerging, to allow farmers to work and process, package, distribute their food together, the increasing bureaucratic burdens on small producers will see more smallholdings abandoned, to be bought up and turned into more monocultural plantations. And with that, rural discontent will continue to rise.
 
Made possible by the Dutch Postcode Loterij Fonds of Free Press Unlimited
Original source: ARC 2020
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