Agricultural land reform

Having lost hope of reforming an existing government department that is set in its archaic ways, the adminstration resorts to the setting up of an Authority that will theoretically do the job better – but that will also be more predisposed for abuse

A proposed law to reform agricultural leases and to ensure landowners earn fairer has just been announced.

Ever since a court decision in 2020 declared that the rural leases law is unconstitutional, a number of farmers have ended up in court, with private landowners challenging the existing agriculural tenements (qbiela) law which protected farmers but was unfair to land owners

Today, rural land is being sold at least for an average of €40,000 per tumolo which is circa 10,000sq.m. But one meets adverts for the sale of agriculural land at incredible prices, even more than double the €40,000 mark. The prices being asked for agricultural land mean that Maltese agriculture has met its death knell, because such prices cannot be sustained from all the agricultural activity possible in the area.

Frankly, such prices do not make any sense to me, but sales go on unabated with genuine farmers being edged out of their leased land.

According to the Government white paper on the issue, “The aim of the proposed reform is to regulate the agricultural land market in the public interest in a legitimate and proportionate manner so as to make it fair to all parties, reduce speculation, protect rural areas and above all support farming in the focus of its importance in the food supply. Several control measures in the field of agricultural land acquisition and ownership are being proposed. Some of these measures bring about changes in pre-existing mechanisms, while others, such as those directed towards the control of the price of the lease of agricultural land, are being introduced for the first time.”

I hope that these will not become famous last words.

Government’s proposals include the setting up of yet another authority, in this case one to be responsible for agriculture land, safeguarding private agricultural land and its tenure is being proposed. This authority will keep a record of sales, rentals and use of private agricultural land, and ensure that agricultural land is worked and utilised in line with its agricultural purpose, and to incentivise the acquisition of private agricultural land by genuine farmers who are currently making use of agricultural land leased to them. All this reflects genuine intentions, no doubt. But the way to hell is paved with good intentions.

The White Paper claims that it is crucially important to define the farmer’s status and to distinguish between active farmers, hobby farmers, and newcomers entering or attempting to enter in the sector. This will help ensure that agricultural land is managed and owned by genuine farmers and avoid abuse of benefits meant only for those seriously engaged and committed to the agricultural sector.

Lease agreements for agricultural tenements shall be for a minimum period between eight and 16 years. The White Paper claims that this should ensure that lease fees are stable and ensure the farmers’ peace of mind so that they can invest in the agricultural sector.

The proposal also proposes a tax on agricultural land that is not being used for its designated purpose – including through the increased sale of such plots for recreational purposes.

Will these reforms solve the problem at hand? Or will it create others?

With the benefit of hindsight on the way political interference is always present in state-owned corporations and state appointed Authorities, I suspect that the reform that is meant to strengthen the agricultural sector will also – sooner rather than later – become a tool to give unfair advantages to supporters of the party in government.

The Housing Authority, for example, was set up, amongst other aims, to ensure that there is no political interference in its work. In truth, no such benefit has ever resulted under any administration – even though some administrations were worse than others in this regard.

Has the Lands Authority done anything that was not possible with a thorough shake-up of the Lands Department? I seriously doubt it.

Solving problems by creating yet another authority continues also to reduce the actual public service that is monitored and controlled by the Public Services Commission (PSC). Expect the creation of more employees that will be employed by the new state entity but not by the public service – and hence with not even have a veneer shield touted to protect them from direct political interference.

In other words, the government is going down a well-known treaded path. Having lost hope of reforming an existing government department that is set in its archaic ways, the adminstration resorts to the setting up of an Authority that will theoretically do the job better – but that will also be more predisposed for abuse.

Persian rumblings

Teheran has been trembling with demonstrations since the death in mid-September of Mahsa (also known as Zhina) Amini, the 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman who died after being detained by the country’s morality police for how she was dressed.

Protests are still cropping up sporadically in various parts of Iran’s capital city each day. At night, a chant that has become a staple of the protests – ‘death to the dictator’ – sounds from the rooftops of buildings. It is a reference to the Ayatollah, Sayyid Ali Khamenei, who was once considered beyond reproach because of his elevated clerical status.

As Supreme Leader, Khamenei is the most powerful political authority in the Islamic Republic. He is the head of state of Iran, the commander-in-chief of its armed forces, and can issue decrees and make the final decisions on the main policies of the government in many fields such as economy, the environment, foreign policy, and national planning in Iran

But Iran’s protesters, and their supporters, are defiant. For weeks, a nationwide protest movement has relentlessly gathered momentum and appears to have blunted the government’s usual intimidation tactics. Slogans against the clerical leadership echo throughout the city. Videos of schoolgirls waving their headscarves in the air as they sing protest songs in classrooms have gone viral.

The unrest poses a grave threat to the priority that has defined Khamenei’s rule – the survival of the four-decade-old Islamic Republic and its religious establishment, at any cost.

Typically, Khamenei has blamed the United States and Israel for the protests that have gripped Iran for more than two weeks, accusing the two countries of trying to stop Iran’s ‘progress’. Last Monday he described the anti-government protests, some of the biggest the country has seen in years, as ‘riots’.

How will this end?