Does it feel as though the amount of countryside we can all enjoy is getting smaller and smaller? Are you concerned that more and more rubble walls and Keep Out signs are blocking the public off from nature?
Unfortunately, it’s not just a perception but a new reality that could soon start to get a whole lot worse, accelerated by changing demands due to the pandemic.
Lovin Malta spoke to Malcolm Borg, coordinator of Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi, about the implications of a recent constitutional case on farmers and the general public alike.
So what’s the problem?
It all boils down to the Agricultural Leases (Reletting Act), an old piece of legislation dating back to the late 1960s which grants farmers who rent their land from private landowners an indefinite right to renew their lease at the same value and even pass it on to their heirs.
As the value of land has exploded in the past decades, landowners have been left aggrieved at being forced by law to accept minimal fees.
If you’ve been following the recent developments about the pre-95 rent law, you can see where this is going.
Real estate firm J & C Properties had been leasing 5,000 square metres of rural land in Żabbar to a farmer at an annual rent of €58.23. The firm filed a court case, warning the law was unconstitutional, and last November judge Joseph Zammit McKeon ruled in its favour.
Similar to the rent laws, this judgement has opened up Pandora’s Box and has opened several farmers up to eviction.
To put it in some perspective, Borg estimates that agricultural land is valued at around €80,000 and €100,000 per tumolo (1,000 square metres), which he warned is the most expensive rate in the EU by far.
“Everything is a bit chaotic and we can see a lot of landowners asking farmers to leave their land,” he said. “Developers either want to develop their land or use it to support their operations, such as to park their trucks, or other landowners want to sell their land because there’s a huge demand for agricultural land for recreational purposes.”
He attributed this demand to COVID-19 restrictions, which have put a damper on holidays overseas and have limited entertainment options in the nation.
“Due to COVID restrictions and lockdowns, people wanted somewhere where they could enjoy the outdoors. I was talking to a real estate agent and he told me that since last year, the demand for agricultural land has exploded.”
“People can’t go on holiday and there’s nowhere to go but they had two options. If they had money they could buy land, if they didn’t they could go for a walk in the countryside, so this split has become very explicit now. It is a recent phenomenon due to circumstances but it has dangerous implications.”
The implication is that countryside which is accessible to the public will become much more limited, that landowners will get to enjoy nature by themselves while everyone else finds themselves squeezed into tighter and tighter places.
“It’s becoming a kind of battle between the haves and the have-nots and farmers prevented that from happening because their interest was to work the land, earn a living and produce food,” Borg said. “Nowadays, because of this phenomenon, that is changing.”
He urged the government to intervene before more farmers end up losing their land, which would land a further blow to food security and sovereignty.
“We have to at least decide what we want to do with our land. The first question we must ask ourselves is if we want to trust it in the hands of farmers to grow our food. If the answer is no, then it’s useless talking about the rest.”
“If the answer is that we should give everyone a piece of land so they can have their own garden, that’s one thing, but if we want to prioritise food supply and security we have to trust our land to farmers.”
“Without government intervention, we risk having all our privately owned agricultural land negotiated to real estate and that’s the worst thing that can happen to agricultural land.”
Are you concerned about this situation? Comment below or reach out in confidence at [email protected]