The morning of July 8, 2021, John Pulis woke up to discover that heavy machinery had pulverised his field in Żabbar.
It was yet another invasion carried out by the ever-efficient Infrastructure Malta, which, yet again, had no papers related to either expropriation or planning to wave about. So, they sent one of their prized lapdogs – a lawyer close to the minister for infrastructure – to convince police officers they had everything in hand. The Old Bill duly tipped their hat.
Other farmers have woken up to similar shocks: from workmen appearing on their property without a warning, to the sight of heavy machinery rolling on to crops, or aggressive contractors throwing their weight and privilege about.
The sight of roads taking up more farmland is indeed heart-breaking. As if the Central Link massacre wasn’t enough, tarmac has devoured more stretches of greenery in, to mention but a few, Luqa, Marsa, Dingli, San Ġwann and the Gianpula area in Rabat, which now looks like the set of a low-budget zombie movie.
While talk of a metro fills the soft air left behind by Clyde Caruana’s budget, fingers are still running along maps of existing or imagined local plans, planning the next gash into the greenery and the next direct order to select tarmac-fed contractors.
See, I’ve always had trouble with romantic visions of farming (or anything, really). Rose-tinted visions of farmers toiling away happily in the sun jar with the realities faced on a daily basis by workers in this sector. As I reread the lyrics to the oft-pimped L-Aħħar Bidwi f’Wied il-Għasel I can’t help thinking of them as a stern warning, relegated to a mere folk ditty by listeners and leaders alike; today, those words ring like an incomplete diagnosis of the sector’s malaise.
A Maltese farmer has many enemies, some of whom he may not even know about. Besides territorial quibbles, rodents, road builders and speculators, this illustrious list includes acts of God in the meteorology department, acts of God’s men (with the Archbishop of Malta and his rector involved in the transfer of arable land to a development company) and, now, landowners.
A Constitutional Court decision of November 2020 had found that the landowners’ right to peaceful enjoyment of their property had been breached by the rural leases law.
The axe swung and landed with a loud thud, as other landowners started moving to evict farmers from their land.
The tragic irony, of course, is that the court case was filed by J&C Properties, who had purchased 5,000sqm of arable land and also neighbouring properties. Something tells me organic farming ranks very low on their business plans.
Other landowners decided to do away with the court process, choosing to arbitrarily bar farmers from accessing the land they had been tilling for decades. In a few cases, farmers were locked out of their workplace despite having regularly deposited their qbiela (lease) as requested by law.
The sight of roads taking up more farmland is indeed heart-breaking– Wayne Flask
It is indisputable that landowners have a right to receive adequate compensation for their lands, even though the same right seemingly doesn’t apply to landowning farmers whose fields have been forcibly expropriated.
Successive administrations have ignored the ticking time bomb of rural leases, allowing it to explode when it was too late. As a result, farmers suddenly found themselves deprived of the most basic resource upon which their livelihood depends, land, without any protection whatsoever from market forces.
The agriculture ministry has the hottest of potatoes on its hands and has yet to make its intentions known. There was an intermediate if very welcome measure to provide farmers with legal assistance and help to deposit their leases. However, this is a stop-gap solution which merely delays the inevitable and will not stop axes from swinging in front of either courts or the lands’ agricultural board.
Sadly, there seems to be none of the government intervention that is crucially needed to rescue a dying sector, at least, none of the intervention afforded to a thriving sector, that of developers and contractors, who get to upgrade their machinery through public funds.
The ‘social budget’ did not cater for farming, other than a much-needed push to attack food fraud and a scheme encouraging organic farming which mysteriously excluded the rest of the sector. This measure excludes non-organic farmers from any protection against evictions but it also belies the scant understanding of the problems faced by farmers. Solutions must go beyond sexy, one-dimensional innovations borne of buzzwords such as ‘organic farming’ and ‘agroforestry’. There are no silver bullets to save the sector, especially if they exclude the majority of farmers from relief.
There is also an impending threat on our own food security. The closure of the airport and harbour due to the pandemic put a severe strain on our home-grown supplies, a lesson we have all but learnt as the government drags its feet in protecting a sector from a multidirectional onslaught.
There are solutions to the leases issue. The government should be looking to guarantee the future of the sector: it should ensure that no more farmland is ensnared by road builders and speculators and forbidding the transfer of farmland to non-farmers. Bogus farmers, such as those who will inherit towers in Paceville, should be weeded out through a thorough audit of the sector.
There’s no time for nostalgia, nor romanticism. A ‘social budget’ needs to forget about the supremacy of the market economy and it’s on the government now to roll up its sleeves and prop up a dwindling, moribund sector that has been left alone, forgotten and taken for granted.
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