The value of land is not measured only in euros | Mario Cardona, Malcolm Borg

A law protecting tenant farmers from eviction was recently declared ‘unconstitutional’: sending shockwaves through Malta’s tiny farming community (most of whom rent their fields from private owners). MCAST lecturers MARIO CARDONA and MALCOLM BORG – of ‘Kooperativa Rurali Manikata’ and ‘Ghaqda Bdiewa Attivi’ respectively – argue that Malta must start acknowledging its own cultural debt to agriculture

Mario Cardona (left) and Malcolm Borg (photo: James Bianchi)
Mario Cardona (left) and Malcolm Borg (photo: James Bianchi)

Last November’s Constitutional court-ruling – which overturned a ban on land-owners raising ‘qbiela’ [tenancy fees] for farmers – has ushered in a period of uncertainty for Maltese agriculture. First of all: what are the implications of this ruling? And what effects has it had, in the past 10 months?

MALCOLM: One of the main effects is that, following this ruling, other land-owners have also opened court-proceedings to evict their own tenant farmers. There are in fact, now dozens of such cases before the law-courts.

But while the situation is unfolding now, it has been a long time coming.

In the past, there were many attempts by landowners to evict tenant farmers. But with last November’s verdict, the Constitutional Court ruled that the law which was there to protect farmers was ‘unconstitutional’… and that is what really started everything.

In a nutshell, this sentence ruled that this law - which prevented landowners from reclaiming their land, and also from raising the ‘qbiela’ - was denying landowners the fundamental human right to enjoy their private property. It was practically the same argument was that was used in the case of the rent law reform…

Excuse me for interrupting: but if the arguments were the same as in rent-law reform – which most would agree was necessary to correct a historic injustice against landowners – why should this case be treated differently?

MALCOLM: Mostly, because it’s not a like-with-like scenario. For example: in last November’s case, the court decided that the value of the ‘qbiela’ should be set at a percentage – somewhere around 1.5 to 2% - of the ‘value of the land’. But what happened? The court appointed an architect to value the land in question.

Now: the formula this architect used, to estimate the land’s value, was exactly the same as it would be for any commercial plot. And because the public demand for agricultural land is so high at the moment, the laws of supply and demand dictate that the worth of this particular plot of agricultural land would also be high. So high, in fact, that the farmer couldn’t possibly afford to pay 1.5 to 2% of it in rent…

But surely, the commercial value of a plot depends on what it can actually be used for. What generally pushes up the price of any property is the potential worth of all the flats, garages, etc., that can be built on it. Here, however, we are talking about a plot that is presumably ODZ: so why such a high estimation in the first place?

MALCOLM: There are two aspects to this. The first is that even non-developable land – a plot in ODZ, for example – is in very high demand today, just for recreational purposes. I was talking to a real estate agent recently; and he told me that today – especially after Covid, with all its lockdowns, etc. – the demand for a private, open ‘getaway’ space, somewhere in the country, has suddenly exploded.

The second is that the planning regulations themselves are full of loopholes, which facilitate development even in non-developable areas. For example, an application for a ‘storehouse’, or a ‘tool-room’, that will end up being neither of those things. Or the even bigger loophole about ‘stables’: which resulted in people first pretending to have horses; then pretending to need a stable for those horses; then eventually turning their ‘stables’ into private swimming pools…

Another example concerns ‘demmiela’ [storage for manure]. They start off as applications for ‘demmiela’, yes… but then they become private cabins. The same goes for ‘reservoirs’… in fact, there are so many of these loopholes, that people are now starting to register themselves as ‘farmers’ just to avail of them all. And it is very easy to do that, on paper: all you have to do is go to JobsPlus, and say: ‘I am a farmer’...

And because of all this, people have come to look at ‘open spaces in the country’ – including agricultural land – only as an investment opportunity. And this obviously pushes the price of land up…

I see what you’re driving at; but then again, what other formula could the court-appointed architect possibly have used? If he based his evaluation only on the potential profitability for purely agricultural purposes…  and Maltese agriculture now struggles to compete with products from other EU members states; sold very cheaply at supermarkets like LIDL – wouldn’t he inevitably conclude that the land is technically worthless?

MARIO: It’s all depends on what we mean by ‘value’, really. In this case, there is also a question of social justice; and that has a value too.

For example: in that article you mentioned earlier, we made two arguments that – in our opinion – justify the government using the same approach it used with the rent-law reform.

In that case, government couldn’t afford to have all those people, previously with a roof over their heads, suddenly kicked out onto the street. Even if just because it would have created a bigger problem for government itself: which would have had to somehow figure out what to do with them all.

So the government took the decision it took: and I think it was a good compromise. Not only was it a very necessary social justice measure, to avoid what would have been a massive homelessness problem; but it also respected, up to a point, the rights of the landowners.

Because when you place everything on the weighing scales of justice: what’s more important? That people have a place to live; or that land-owners make as much money as possible? The right of people to have a dignified life; or the right of capital to make more capital out of itself…?

Fair enough: but the rent issue was ultimately about an archaic law that fixed actual rent prices at post-war levels… translating into tenants paying almost literally a few cents a year, for a property worth hundreds of thousands…

MARIO: Malcolm and I believe that this case is not all that different. The State should protect farmers, in the same way as it protected tenants, for at least three reasons that immediately spring to mind. The first is the contribution of agriculture to our rural landscape.

Malta’s landscape is part of our national heritage; and farmers are, undoubtedly, the real guardians of this heritage. Whatever others may say, most of our rural areas can be enjoyed and appreciated today, because of Maltese farmers who – over the centuries – took care of the land, and shaped it into the typical Maltese landscape we now know and recognise. Rubble walls, giebjuni [reservoirs], terraced fields… all that is the result of centuries of hard work by farmers; and even if the work was done for purely practical reasons, related to their profession… it still all comes together to form a thing of beauty, that we all love and identify with.

We argue that this, too, should be considered, when it comes to giving agricultural land a value. Because our national heritage – and the quality of life of our citizens – also has an intrinsic value of its own.

The second reason is environmental: the issue of ‘carbon miles’. And it also ties in with the European competition factor you mentioned. It is true that, ever since we joined the EU, the market for local agriculture has become very precarious. Ironically, when the State invested so much (rightly) in creating a good, direct sea-link between Malta and Sicily… it resulted in a blow to Maltese farmers.  Because if you want to influence, say, the price of ‘qarghabaghli’; all you have to do is go to Sicily, flood the local market with Sicilian ‘qarghabaghli’, and… from one day to the next, the price plummets.

Now: it is also true that the consumer has benefitted from this, in terms of more variety, and better prices… but it all comes at an environmental cost. The further away you import your fruit and veg from, the more transport is involved in getting them here: and that means more carbon miles. And this is something we have to be far-sighted enough to be proactive about.

The third reason is the issue of food sovereignty. Even at the best of times, it would be unwise for a country to become totally dependent on importation – and only importation - for something as essential as its food supply. What would happen in the event of a national emergency? Like, for instance, the crisis we came close to experiencing during Covid: when several harbours, on which we usually rely for food importation, were temporarily closed…?

MALCOLM: Finance Minister Clyde Caruana himself admitted that he had difficulties sleeping last year, worrying about a possible food scarcity crisis…

MARIO: Precisely. So under these circumstances: wouldn’t it be wiser to have an agricultural sector that is sufficiently resilient, to be able to guarantee a food source for the population even in times of emergency?

Do you mind if I add a fourth reason? Quality. Maltese fruit and veg – our grapes, our peaches, our potatoes, etc. – are often acknowledged to be superior to most imported products. We even have indigenous varieties, like ‘tadam catt’ [flat tomatoes], that you can’t find anywhere else. Why, then, does Maltese produce struggle so hard to compete with imported varieties? And what, if anything, is being done to preserve our unique products?

MALCOLM: Unfortunately, the truth is that we’ve already lost most of those unique products you mention. Take the ‘bambinella’, for instance… which happens to be in season right now. It is so unique, it is even known in English as ‘the Maltese pear’. You can go anywhere you like in the word; but you’ll never find it anywhere else but here.

But today, you will hardly find ‘bambinell’ here, either. It has been all but completely wiped out …

So, just as we (rightly) make a big fuss about the ‘qabru’ [Maltese freshwater crab]… and all the other indigenous species, that are unique to these islands – shouldn’t we also make the same fuss about our indigenous foodstuffs, too? Is it possible that we don’t have the national pride to appreciate those truly Maltese products: the things that our grandparents, and great-parents, were brought up eating; and which were passed down from one generation to the next?

Coming back to the issue of tenant farmers: your own agricultural co-operatives are two of 18 NGOs that have petitioned the government to “urgently intervene with a solution that would be fair for everybody.” What sort of response have you received so far? And what sort of solution do you have in mind?

MALCOLM: First of all, we must acknowledge that – from government’s perspective – all this cropped up at the worst possible time. There is an election coming up; so it’s not really an ideal moment for government to intervene in an issue as controversial as this: which may touch upon the price of property; and where many farmers have their livelihoods threatened.

Having said this; there are indications that government is willing to protect farmers. The question therefore becomes: what can it actually do?

This is not, at the end of the day, a uniquely Maltese issue. The issue itself may be more problematic here, because land is so scarce. But other countries have faced the same problems; and they came up with their own solutions.

In Italy, for instance – and similar systems exist in Spain, France, etc. – they have what is known as ‘catasto’. It is a system of land registration, introduced in 1866, which attaches a monetary value to [agricultural] land, based specifically on the productivity of the earth. So the worth of every parcel of farmland, is pegged to how much that land can actually produce.

The value itself is not fixed; it fluctuates according to demand, the cost of living etc. But the system prevents any speculation from taking place. So if I was a landowner, and you were a buyer offering a higher price than the ‘catasto’… government would intervene. You’re not allowed to do that.

Now: is that an infringement of the landowner’s rights, to reap the benefits of his own property?

I would say ‘no’: because that right has to be offset by the government’s prerogative to have a strong, sustainable and functional agricultural sector. And with ‘catasto’, the Italian government simply set parameters within which agricultural land could be protected, while at the same time, the owners could still reap benefits…

MARIO: Ultimately, our argument is that the benchmark to be used, in evaluating agricultural land, cannot be speculation. It has to be based on the agricultural worth of the land – in all the senses we’ve been talking about: not just the commercial value of the products themselves, but also its contribution to our cultural heritage.

Because again: when you place everything on the scales of social justice… what is really more important? That some people have a little open space in the country, to use for their Sunday outings: maybe setting up a makeshift barbecue, and a couple of deckchairs? Or for the country as a whole to have its own food supply? To protect our beautiful landscape? And for people to earn an honest living, by producing food for others to eat?

That, at the end of the day, is the question what we are asking…