Lithuanian agriculture land debates tilt towards farmers

  • 2000-06-01
  • By Peter J. Mladineo
VILNIUS - The effort to allow foreigners to buy agricultural land has picked up some momentum - and some opposition.

To allow foreigners to buy agricultural land, article 47 of the Lithuanian constitution would have to be changed. So far, the proposal has received hefty support from politicians, promising increased investment into Lithuania's struggling agriculture sector, although not everyone is eager to do this so soon. While the measure is enjoying wide support in Parliament, the Labor Democratic Party, representing the remnants of the former Lithuanian Communist Party, and the Christian Democratic Party, has voiced opposition to the bill.

Ceslovas Jursenas, the LDDP's leader, stressed at a news conference last week that the constitution shouldn't be amended hastily.

"Is it appropriate to adopt such papers before the expiry of (Parliament) term and amid election season?" Jursenas asked a news conference on May 22.

Povilas Gylys, the LDDP's first deputy head, called for a wider public discussion on the subject.

"We didn't make a final decision on the issue," he said. "We certainly have in mind the EU vis-a-vis national legislation. Both issues are extremely complex and sensitive to the public. We think that we have to give people more time to consider all the arguments and to make a democratic decision on it."

Gylys echoed a sentiment behind the 1992 inclusion of Article 47 into the constitution, that, once permitted, foreigners will come streaming into Lithuania to buy up cheap farmland.

"There are big hesitations that we have an appropriate situation where land is very cheap and that foreign landlords will buy this cheap land for almost nothing. So many people, especially agrarians, think that the time will come to do it, but today it is too early," he said.

Audrius Rudys, an economic consultant for President Valdas Adamkus, an initiator of this latest move for agricultural openness, disagrees.

"The situation differs from the one in 1992. Lithuania now has a big need for foreign investment," Rudys said.

Gylys suggested a referendum, but admitted the drawbacks on such a move.

"In my opinion we shouldn't create barriers on integration to the European Union and in case of a negative answer in the referendum, we would be trapped - so there are no simple answers to this complex issue," said Gylys.

However, support for the bill seems to be considerably more confident. A clear majority in the Seimas favors the bill - even Gylys admits this. Currently, the opposition consists of 13 MPs in the LDDP, and 7 in the LDDP-allied Social Democratic Party. There are 141 seats in the Seimas.

Foreign Affairs Vice Minister and chief negotiator for EU membership Vygaudas Usackas told reporters on May 24 that the constitutional amendment would drive up land prices.

"Because of a bigger demand for land, the price of land will rise and sellers of land will receive additional finances for the reconstruction of their economic activity," he said. "No danger exists that, once foreigners are allowed to purchase land, the balance between the Lithuanian population and foreigners would be violated."

The biggest supporters, however, seem to be the foreign farmers themselves. Per Christerson, is a Swedish farmer who operates rented farmland in the northern Lithuanian town of Linkuva for the AlfaAgro company. In Sweden, Christerson reports, a similar law was taken off the books a decade ago.

"There was a fear that the Germans would buy up all houses in the countryside. Instead you actually brought up the infrastructure in the outskirts. Suddenly a few people from Germany were investing in these small houses. The cultural heritage was actually promoted," Christerson said.

The most important aspect of such a change, Christerson maintains, is the increases in efficiency and reinvestment foreign ownership would bring to Lithuanian agriculture.

"[If able to buy land] we could make the investments, we could improve the output of the land. We could also make longer-term investments in machinery, in houses, in roads, in improving the fields. Once you're granted an ownership you can take a very long-term commitment and secondly, once you're able to purchase you will get a market. Today there is not a market for land because no one can invest in land."

With a more open agricultural ownership structure, Lithuania would get "lifetime commitments" from foreign farmers to build up the agrarian infrastructure - not, as some opponents still contend, hordes of western European farmers looking for a quick buck.

"The farming community is very conservative. To move into another country, that's a decision of a lifetime. It's not like investing in a building in Vilnius," Christerson added.

There is, however, an element of opportunism in moving to Central/Eastern European countries to take advantage of underdeveloped agricultural milieus. As chronicled in the Scottish Daily Mail, a British farmer Colin Erick migrated with his wife from Aberdeen, Scotland, to Lithuania to start a joint venture called GoJoris.

He told the newspaper about the possibilities of Lithuanian agriculture. "We are confident that we can produce cereal and other oilseed crops for significantly less than most of Western Europe, now and into the foreseeable future. This will ensure a good return on the investment. I am sure it will do better than a lot of pension schemes."

He was most likely joking.