The Malta Independent 24 September 2021, Friday

TMID Editorial: Agricultural leases - Government needs to offer a solution

Thursday, 9 September 2021, 09:32 Last update: about 15 days ago

Much has been written about the agricultural sector as of late, with the common underlying notion being that farming, in the most general sense, is facing a challenging period – particularly when it comes to leases.

As things stand, many fields are rented out to farmers on the basis of protected agricultural leases.  These leases cannot be terminated or have their fees adjusted by the landlord save for very particular circumstances – but as was the situation with pre-1995 housing leases as they started to go to court, the legal sphere has now caught up with these age-old contracts.

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The precedent was set in a landmark judgement which found that the occupation of a tract of agricultural land in Zabbar on a protected lease was in breach of the landowner’s fundamental rights and also forced the farmers to vacate the land.

That set the ball rolling and brought the issue to the fore.

Indeed, this newsroom has carried multiple stories shedding light on both sides of the issue: that of the landowner and the farmer.

In last weekend’s The Malta Independent on Sunday in fact a landowner who himself works in the agricultural business told this newsroom of his struggle to get his own land back from farmers who occupy it – farmers who in the most part, he said, aren’t actual farmers, but only plant animal fodder for the sake of holding onto the land.

On the farmer’s side meanwhile in reaction to this newspaper’s article, Ghaqda Bdiewa Attivi said that while the landowner in question said he would not even think of evicting full-time farmers who make a living off the land, that was not the case for many other landowners which they are dealing with.

Let’s make no mistake: this is a delicate issue.

On the one hand you have landowners who are, as per decision in Malta’s and Europe’s courts, having their fundamental rights breached.  In a European country, the enjoyment of one’s property is sacrosanct, and that’s not possible in the current situation.

What makes the matter all the more unjust for landowners is that they are faced with cases where farmers simply do not properly use or maintain the land and any buildings it has conjoined to it, and then have to face huge succession duties in the case that the land they own is inherited to them because the duty is based on the commercial value of the land, not on the lease they are receiving.

On the other hand, however, you have the farmers themselves – real farmers who are making a living off the land. The farmers’ lobby group admitted that there were cases where people claimed to be farmers, and planted animal feed just for the sake of keeping hold of the land, but warned that landowners such as those interviewed by this newspaper, who would allow real farmers to continue to work the land, are few and far between.

Indeed, the infamous court judgement cited earlier was between two farmers and a real estate agency – hardly comparable to a landlord who operates (or even cares) about the agricultural sector.

So, where’s the solution?

We wish we could tell you.  The government has been silent on the issue ever since the first court judgement last November (where it said it was “discussing” the way forward).  This newspaper has carried a number of stories as per above in recent weeks, and even another editorial on this topic a month ago – and yet there has been no reaction. 

Not even a peep to say, “yes, don’t worry, we’re working on something.”

But for every day that the government remains quiet on this issue and without presenting a solution, it’s another day of injustice for landowners, and another day of real farmers living with their livelihoods finely balancing underneath a guillotine.

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