Abandoned farmland spans size of 700 football grounds

Over 500 hectares of land in 2016 consisted of untilled agricultural land where “no tillage, no cutting of grasses and no cultivation” took place

Over 500 hectares of land in 2016 consisted of untilled agricultural land where “no tillage, no cutting of grasses and no cultivation” took place
Over 500 hectares of land in 2016 consisted of untilled agricultural land where “no tillage, no cutting of grasses and no cultivation” took place

Malta’s area of untilled agricultural land is as large as 700 average-sized football pitches, according to a policy document on which the island’s agricultural policy for the next 10 years will be based.

Over 500 hectares of land in 2016 consisted of untilled agricultural land where “no tillage, no cutting of grasses and no cultivation” took place.

This figure is considered “worrying” since abandoned agricultural land amounts to 5% of the total amount of cultivable registered land. “This indicates that 5% of potentially cultivatable land is being left untilled whilst there are active farmers requesting farmland consolidation and field rotation to produce healthier crops.”

The policy indicates that this may have its ecological advantages as marginal areas that were left untilled are colonised by flora and fauna, therefore regenerating the habitat for biodiversity, which can present an opportunity for eco-tourism and organic farming practices.

But in other cases the availability of tracts of unutilised farmland increases pressures for development.

For example, all recent applications for petrol stations outside development zones involved tracts of abandoned agricultural land. So is most of the land earmarked for the American University of Malta campus at Zonqor.

The problem is interlinked with land ownership patterns. Maltese farmland predominantly consists of government-owned land leased to farmers through agricultural leases (qbiela) that are renewed every year. Such leases were determined many years ago based on the cultivation of land at a rent of a few cents per tumulo.

Land inheritance through ‘qbiela’ passes from parents to siblings and not between siblings. So one major problem partly addressed in changes made in 2012 and 2017 is that when one of the children chooses to transfer his or her share of the farmland to a sibling, this can only be done by first relinquishing that share back to the parent. That way, farmers who do not have offspring cannot transfer the title of their land to other farmers.

The actual physical size of parcels is just one aspect of land fragmentation and most farmers have become accustomed to tilling a number of separate small fields located in the same area.

The fragmentation of agricultural land further increases the number of access paths and other facilities in the countryside, which degrades the surrounding landscape.

In 2012, the law was changed to allow land transfer between siblings in cases where the recipient is a full-time farmer with a minimum annual turnover of €20,000. Then in 2017 land transfers of agricultural land to bona fide farmers were allowed, subject to the approval of the Lands Authority’s board of governors.

The legal notice also caters for agricultural students by providing land on lease at a favourable rate for the first five years. Moreover, the LA can issue agricultural land through a tendering process.

But the policy document now says this process has often failed to distinguish between the different uses of agricultural land. Instead it encourages the consolidation of farmland by giving priority to active farmers, farm-entrepreneurs and young agribusiness graduates “who have a clear business direction in the sector even if the total number of farmers declines”.

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