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Session 2. EUROPE. Presenting the situation and major challenges of the coming decades

Report of proceedings. Workshop WT54. China-Europe Forum 2007

On account of the great diversity of situations and of legal and administrative systems in Europe, as well as the greater number of European participants than Chinese, and the absence of a prior report summarizing the themes of the workshop at the European level, a two-part debate has been proposed.

  • 1. Each European participant is to pick a significant example from his country and explain it to the Chinese participants.

  • 2. Next, these examples are to be analyzed and compared in order to convey the biggest challenges facing Europe.

List of significant European examples:

  • An obvious contradiction exists in France: on the one hand, some public institutions try to explain that rural spaces are of great worth and merit to be preserved, and on the other hand, the agricultural land policies aim to fix the lowest rural real estate price possible. Like in China, the price of urban real estate in France is 100 times higher than that of farmland, yet the cost of servicing the land reaches about the same amount. Therefore, there needs to be a way to penalize the use of farmland for anything other than agriculture in a market economy context. For example, a kind of general tax could be charged for any change in land use, even at a great distance from town, without making the urbanized areas take on all of the cost. The Soviet Union seems to be the only country that has directly tackled this issue in instituting a farm modernization fund, which was fuelled by cities that expanded their territories.

  • Urban sprawl is particularly well managed in Belgium. Since 1975, all of the country’s surface area has been integrated into land use plans. According to these plans, 88% of Walloon territory is dedicated to non-urban uses (forests, parks, etc.). The Urban Code states that in order to modify these plans for the creation of a new urban area, a new disurbanized zone of an equivalent size needs to be created in compensation. Thus any change needs to be thought out carefully. This system ensures that there will always be the same percentage of urban land, which is part of sustainable land management.

  • Beginning in 1991, Albania has been experiencing a wave of privatization of the farmlands that had been distributed free of charge to small farmers. The landowners had the liberty to do whatever they wanted with the land. This political decision has caused immediate consequences. Farmers took advantage of it by selling plots located in the middle of their fields in order to construct buildings and small factories. Now, the legislation has been modified in order to conserve the farming surface area, which has dropped in Albania (2300 m² per capita). It is no longer possible to change the land use in certain areas. As regards to such areas, only the government or the local municipalities are able to expropriate farmers and modify the land use, and only for works of collective interest. Over the past three years, these policies have had good results for the conservation of agriculture and for preventing the brutal building up of rural spaces. If a farmer decides to stop farming, his only choices are to sell or rent his land to another farmer. Farmland takes up only 30% of the national territory in Albania, which ought to be conserved. The other 70% (of which much is mountains) is a sufficient amount for urban expansion.

  • The collective management of the Larzac plateau has been a unique experience. The French State wanted to transform this land into a military terrain. In the end, 6000 hectares were leased to a social company, which is in fact the association of Larzac’s inhabitants. It manages the activities of this territory. All of the rural activities, and not only agricultural activities, are managed by this civil society association. The Larzac affair has survived a legally and economically hostile environment, and symbolizes the primacy of use rights over property rights. The territory is managed in a collective and democratic manner, and the Larzac civil society association is in charge of assigning use rights, which in turn are individualized and private. There is no sale or inheritance of the land. Use rights can be freely transferred, but are always assigned in accordance to the activity exercised by each person.

  • Hypermarkets on the border between rural and urban spaces constitute a symbol of ultra consumption. These structures take up a lot of space and distend the relationship between the urban sphere and the rural sphere. A study done by the ADEME (Environment and Energy Management Agency) shows that going shopping at a small neighborhood grocery store uses two times less energy than going shopping at a hypermarket on the outskirts of the city.

  • Community Land Trusts in the United Kingdom symbolize success in collective management of land resources. Historically, local farmers used to meet up once a year in order to make sure that their animals were going to go to the same pastures since there were no fences. The existence of shared rights can be found again in the Community Land Trusts. Cooperative or community-based farms that hire farm workers and work in a manner that respects nature can be set up. The residents have a meeting, pool their money and can collectively purchase land to be settled by young farmers who had been forced off their land. This kind of farming is respectful of biodiversity, produces healthy food, and maintains a social fabric that is adapted to country living.

  • Romania lost a chunk of its cultural and environmental heritage in its desire to attract tourists. An ethnologic reservation was created with French and Belgian financial support. However, Romania did not pair this foreign money with a cultural policy. In the affected region, there has been a loss of folklore, traditional architecture, etc. Today, tourists have stopped visiting this area because it has lost all value as a tourist destination. The farmers who once lived in this area have since immigrated to Spain to pick strawberries. In the end, tourism can propel the development of rural areas, but only if there are concerted tourism policies, cultural policies, and farm policies.

  • The Spanish example illustrates the role that land policies (or their absence) can play in a context of great economic growth. Between 1960 and 1974, the GNP per capita growth rate equalled the growth rate, and over 5%. Over the same period, the agricultural population diminished: it dropped from being at 40% of the active population in 1960 to only 20% in 1974. The rural population emigrated to the cities and to the rest of Europe. At the beginning of this period, there was a marked difference between very large estates (latifundio) and small farms (minifundio). The very large estates continued along their modernization processes (through mechanization, etc.), but the rural emigration out of the small farms did not further the modernization of agriculture for the rest of Spain. The imbalance was made more pronounced due to the fact that in Spain there are no farm-size regulations like in France for instance. Finally, the structuring of the farm sector is very imbalanced, much farmland has been abandoned, and in the early 1980s it became clear that Spanish agriculture is less productive and less professional than French agriculture. When democracy returned, the first thing that the representatives of the farming sector asked for was an intervention similar to the French farm-size regulations (les politiques de structures).

  • Soil use cannot be reduced to land management. Soils are used for other things than agriculture and industry. They have other functions that concern biodiversity, water management, and the atmospheric state. In order to raise awareness about the importance of soils for the future of the planet, we must teach our citizens. For about ten years now, many educational programs to raise awareness about soils have been developed in France. The education is designed for all levels of society, for adults and especially for children. Currently, the need to promote education about soil is being recognized at the European level. A series of decisions about this are being made in the European Commission.

  • It is necessary to think about the different conceptions of agriculture as complementary rather than as contradictory or hierarchical. If this were the case, there would be better exchanges between farmers, a better relationship between the city and the countryside, and better environmental, economic, social, and food-production strategies. There is no single conception of what farming is, but rather multiple conceptions that need to have a common goal of land conservation, considered as important as water and air conservation.

  • The 27 states that are members of the European Union are finalizing a cooperative system that addresses questions about the sustainability of soil uses (and the use of other resources in general). Soils are the grounds for all activities: we must be concerned about what threatens and potentially degrades our soils. The European Commission recognizes that soils are under threat. There will be guidelines requiring that member States identify any areas of their territory that are under the threat of salination, erosion, contamination, water-sealing, or the loss of organic material. These five threats can happen to all kinds of soils, depending on the kinds of human activities that take place upon them. The challenge in conserving soil quality is related to climate change as well as to water resource management. How might we improve our understanding and our perceptions of soil functions in the different parts of Europe? How can we compile our databases on a European scale?

  • Since 1970, without any population growth, French cities have doubled in surface area. Since 1980, the middle class has been growing, and this is a trend that will soon happen in China. In France there are three kinds of neighborhoods:

    • Neighborhoods where the wealthy and the upper-middle class live. These neighborhoods are becoming less densely populated.

    • Working-class neighborhoods, which are becoming run down and thus are also becoming less densely populated.

    • Neighborhoods on the outskirts of cities where middle class people live in small houses, which is also a type of urban landscape that is rather sparse.

    Money ought to be invested into the rehabilitation of working-class neighborhoods in order to prevent the flight of the middle class. Public works companies are coming up with ways to create pleasant neighbourhoods that are dense and socially mixed.

  • The French experience in land-size regulation policy (la politique des structures) is quite interesting. Actually, France wanted to promote mid-sized family farms, and therefore implemented three kinds of actions:

    • The tenant farming statute

    • Restrictions on farm enlargements (farm « structure » restrictions)

    • A policy for intervening on the real estate market, which was put into effect by the creation of the SAFERs in 1960. In 1960, young farmers asked the government to control the farmland market. The State agreed, as it wanted to prevent large farms from taking up all of the land, and it wanted to restructure the smallest farms. Throughout France, companies were created to buy farmland in order to make a certain number of farms stronger. In 1962, the government and the farmers saw that the price of farmland was rapidly increasing: the SAFERs were then accorded pre-emption rights in order to convey the land to private buyers. Local farmers or their representatives were put in charge of these agencies, which are under state surveillance. Prior to each resale done by the SAFER, the offer is advertised in the local farming newspapers. When the applications have been received, judgements are made locally to determine who should be accepted. Then, a county-level technical committee makes its judgement before the board of directors of the SAFER makes the final decision. Since their creation, the SAFERs capacities have grown, notably in their ecological competences (since 1999).

  • In France, it was deemed necessary to guarantee farmers the possibility for long-term employment without being landowners. Over 60% of French farmland is worked by tenant farmers, and not by landowning farmers. The tenant-farming law was definitively passed after World War II:

    • Tenant farmers are given long-term job security.

    • The length of the lease cannot be less than 9 years, and it is renewed almost automatically, except in extenuating circumstances (if for example, the landowner chooses to return to work the land himself). This right can be conveyed only if the heir becomes a farmer. This right cannot be sold.

    • The amount of tenant farming has been reduced and restricted by the State and producers’ organizations. When the product price drops, the tenant farmers’ lease price tends to decrease.

    • Conflicts between tenant farmers and landowners are dealt with in special express courts.

    In France, it is often more advantageous to be a tenant farmer than a landowner. There is not a heavy income stream transfer, as is the case when the farmer is also the owner of the land. When the landowner sells his land, the tenant farmer has purchasing priority. There are far more rural landowners than farmers (500,000 farmers compared to about 2 million rural landowners), and the tenant is often wealthier than the landowner in the end .

  • There is a divide between the French State’s interventionist policy that seeks to impose a model (family farming where the couple works without employees) and the side effects that this policy had brought about. The formerly illegal practice of lease transfers have been recently regularized. Avoiding the increase in farm size was one of the goals of the French government. In the end, this objective was only partially reached because the number of farms has dropped over the past 20 years.

Summary of Europe’s greatest challenges :

The European experiences have three over-arching themes:

  • Land access, especially for farming. The makeup of the agricultural sector and farm-size regulations.

  • The role and function of soils are not given enough consideration in determining how territories ought to be used. Efforts need to be made to truly recognize the different natures and functions of soils before reaching decisions on how they ought to be used. Yet there are some initiatives for raising awareness about soils and identifying endangered soils.

  • Ways for restricting and regulating territory use (tourism, protected areas, hypermarkets, etc). How might we find ways for the inhabitants themselves (city dwellers, farmers, etc.) to control and manage the territory themselves?

Questions from the Chinese participants concerning the situation in Europe:

  • Europe is quite advanced compared to China. The challenges that China is facing are certainly challenges that Europe has already encountered. China has a high population and limited land resources. At the same time, China needs to solve its food security problems and overcome environmental challenges. What are the European experiences with these challenges? Have they found any solutions? Are there any lingering problems?

  • What is a small farm? Can the French policy be considered as a policy that does not encourage property? If this is the case, how can this policy promote the financing of agriculture?

  • Today, the Albanian government has total control over the lands that were privatized during the 1980s. Have farmers’ incomes dropped in Albania? Doesn’t this cause problems concerning the future of the farming profession?

  • What are the European Union’s mechanisms for soil control? How can we be certain that the surveys’ results are applied in the real world?

  • There are great differences between China and European countries. In China, the number of farmers is much higher, while the amount of available land is lower. The Chinese government has chosen to promote urbanization, especially small and medium-sized cities, while the Europeans try to keep a minimum number of farmers. Why has the number of farmers dropped so much? What role has policy played in this reduction?

  • Why do European countries give preference to small farmers, which, theoretically, are less productive than large farms?

  • Why does the urban population remained constant while the cities increase in size?

  • After World War II, Europe experienced a massive rural exodus and a great urbanization. What measures were taken in order to encourage the settlement of rural populations in urban areas?

  • Is SAFER a State agency or an association?

    • Response to this request for clarification: SAFER is an anonymous company, that means a private firm, but it has a public service mission and is not for profit. It is a weird status, because it is a firm controlled by the government, directed by farm unions, and whose actions are limited by the rural code.

      When SAFER was created, 50% of the company’s expenses were paid by the government and 50% by the appointees. Today, 10% of its expenses are paid by the government, 80% by the appointees, and 10% by other means (communities).

  • Is SAFER’s pre-emptive right exercised upon an imposed price or does SAFER have some sway for negotiating this price? Are there SAFERs elsewhere in Europe?

    • Response to this request for clarification: Most of the time, SAFER intervenes at the price achieved in the sales agreement. If SAFER deems this price too high, it can exercise its right of pre-emption with price revision. It can propose a new price to the seller, who can either accept the price, take the good off the market, or ask that the courts fix a new price.

      Farmland in France is the cheapest in Europe, partly because of the SAFER, which do not exist elsewhere.

      Community Land Trusts (England) also use pre-emption, for example to provide affordable housing, but do not yet exist for farms.

      In Romania, there is an agency that controls the exchange of land (specifically forests), but not yet the sale of these lands.

      In Poland, a national agency has pre-emptive rights over sales of estates over 300 hectares if the buyer is someone from outside the canton.

      In Denmark and Holland, there are farm-size restrictions, but no controls over the real estate market.