The Malta Independent 12 July 2020, Sunday

Farmers still waiting for compensation for damage caused by February storm

Giulia Magri Monday, 20 January 2020, 12:19 Last update: about 7 months ago

Despite a pending court appeal contesting the Central Link project, farmers woke up to find contractors excavating on their farmland at the start of the new year. As heavy machinery moved onto their fields, farmers watched as their agricultural produce which took time, finances and patience to grow, was destroyed. Time and time again, Infrastructure Malta has insisted that the €55 million investment will reduce travel times, improve air quality and is a project for the benefit of the country. Giulia Magri spoke to the founder of the farmer’s lobby group, Ghaqda Bdiewa Attivi, Malcolm Borg to explain that one important section of people are not reaping any benefits from the project, the farmers.

Farmers are being contacted by government officials over the compensation they are to receive for the damage caused to their agricultural infrastructure by last February’s storm, founder Ghaqda Bdiewa Attivi Malcolm Borg told The Malta Independent.

The compensation was promised to farmers back in June 2019, he said.

 “We are not exactly informed about whether we will receive crop compensation or when, but the compensation for the damage to infrastructure is very imminent. Farmers are being contacted and should soon start receiving their compensation,” he said.

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In February 2019, the Maltese islands were hit by an intense storm, with strong gale force winds, heavy periods of rain and hail having caused significant damage to crops and agricultural infrastructure. In June, the finance ministry had allocated €3.5 million to help cover the costs of the damage caused to farmers. The financial assistance will cover up 45% of the damage to rubble walls, stone storerooms, tunnels, water reservoirs and other damage to farms.

Speaking to The Malta Independent, Borg said that whilst he understood that preparing such compensation takes time, he hopes that the compensation plan will remain in place so that if storms cause severe damage again it would not take so long for farmers to be compensated.

 “Farmers are well adapted to working in different seasons, but of course they are afraid of extreme weather, be it drought, lack of rain or too much rain. Any of these things can really damage crops.”

He explained that over the past few years’ farmers have seen more extreme weather due to climate change, which resulted in more damaged produce. “Farmers look at these things all the time, and consider the wasted resources and high risk factors. This makes all farmers more anxious.”

We do not appreciate the bond farmers have with their land

Malcolm Borg described the way farmers were treated in the Central Link Project as ‘shameful’.

“None of them were informed and I believe this is just a rehearsal for what will happen once works begin on the Gozo tunnel,” explained Borg.  “We will lose so much farm land, not for the tunnel itself, but for the road leading to the tunnel both in Malta and Gozo. Many farmers are aware of this and are anxious as they know what will happen. If it’s not farm land, where else will developers construct?”

He explained that the fact that virgin land is taken and used to develop shows that agriculture is not being taken as seriously as it should be, and that many do not see it as indispensible. “I do believe that the Central Link Project was a wake-up call for environmentalist NGOs, and other individuals who realise the important contribution farmers make to Malta’s open spaces and countryside.”

Whilst he saw progress in protesting against developers and lobbying in favour of biodiversity, the fact of the matter remains that the majority of times it is the farmers who are the stewards of the land. “If we do not want the land to be built on, we need to protect the farmer, and that means we must educate and empower our farmer. By doing so we can better appreciate biodiversity.”

“This is not just about our farmers, but also our food sovereignty; which I am afraid we never took seriously, and has never been on the political agenda of any political party,” said Borg.

He explained that the amount of land which is to be taken up by the Central Link project could produce 16,000 grams of wheat grain in year; all cultivated by the dwindling number of farmers left in Malta. “The land being excavated has been worked on for generations, farmers have a strong and personal bond with their land and we have never appreciated this bond.”

He explained that there have been times he spoke to policy makers about issues, who thought he was exaggerating the situation farmers are currently facing. “The situation is dire. We have around 150 active farmers in Malta, and eight of which are large scale farmers. The numbers continue to decrease, and unfortunately many farmers have nobody to take on their work, so we continuously see land being abandoned, and families having to decide whether they will pass on the land to another farmer or give it to the Land’s Authority.”

New Rural Ministry must have an inter-disciplinary approach

The new Prime Minister Robert Abela’s cabinet now features a Ministry for Rural and Fisheries Policy, Animal Rights and Consumer Protection, which Borg believes is a step in the right direction. “It has been a while since we had a ministry; it makes a huge difference when compared to just having a parliamentary secretariat. I hope it will make a difference in the sector, there have been a number of issues which have not been tackled in the past few years, such as the pitkal, land issues and even the ordering of pesticides.”

Borg explained that since agriculture touches on so many areas, it is ideal to have an inter-disciplinary approach in the Ministry. “I think and hope that we can get to the bottom of all these issues and make sure we understand the root of the problem and tackle it. It is not simply about promoting our local produce, but actually protecting the important pillars which form the structure of our agriculture.”

He explained that the important ‘pillars’ are the market, resources and the progeny. “If we are not going to tackle these seriously, and even take unpopular decisions to solve them, we will not have anything to promote. Promotion is good because it has an impact, but I believe we still have a strong misunderstanding about agriculture. So it is good to promote products, but it is the nature and the producers that we must focus on.”

He also explained that this year will see the discussion for European Union Funding take place, funding which will provide for the next seven years. “This funding is extremely important for Maltese agriculture, and I hope that the money is directed to those who truly need it. I hope whoever designates the funds does it properly and understands the main points of concern in this industry.”

On the topic of farmer’s progeny, Malcolm explained that there were some sons and daughters of farmers who would work part-time in the fields, but have a more stable job for a better wage and security. “The majority of farmer’s offspring are not interested in working in the fields, and so it breaks my heart every time I meet a farmer and they tell me how they have no one to pass the land and work on too once they retire. This happens 90% of the time.”

He stressed that it is important that people start taking an interest as to where their food comes from. “We have lost interest and only times we do research our food is when we are diagnosed with something. It is amazing how in this day and age when all the information is provided to you, so many people know so little about food.” He said that food literacy is essential and should be embedded in school curriculums.

Farmers break their backs to produce food for the nation in order to sustain their families

Borg constantly mentioned farmers feeling of anxiousness throughout the interview, and highlighted their uncertainty. He said that the job itself is already very demanding and unpredictable.

“I would like to go up to a government official and try to reduce their salary; of course they would be very annoyed because it is through their salary that they manage to feed their families. This is the same with our farmers. They wake up at 3am, they break their backs producing food for the nation, all to sustain their families.”

He said that this is the reason as to why the numbers of farmers continue to dwindle, and that throughout the course of history, regardless of how adaptable the farmer is, he or she has been abused of. “They are bred to be resilient and to expect the unexpected, but because of this many times they are abused of and are hesitant to trust other farmers.”

He stressed that without farmers, the local identity will be heavily impacted.

 “A local historian once said that if it were not for the local supply, the Maltese would not have survived the war in 1942. So once again this is not just a question about food but also security. We have become so reliant on others, seeing that we import 70% of our food mostly from Italy, could you imagine if something was to happen? Just like the recent accident with the interconnector cable, what would happen if Italy decided to stop exporting food to Malta or if they go through a bad harvest themselves and cannot afford to export? We have lost our sovereignty in our food, and this is very worrying. This is something we must really examine consciously as a country, focusing on our food, identity, wealth and serenity.”

 

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