Proposals to reform agricultural lease laws are not far-reaching enough and will lead to more harm than good, farming NGO Malta Youth in Agriculture and Moviment Graffitti fear.

The two civil society groups listed a number of concerns with the proposals that are to be tabled in parliament, most notably its failure to define key terms used throughout.

The NGOs are worried that the draft laws make reference to key terms such as “bone fide” farmer, “agricultural lease” and “affordable” market rates but fail to define them. They are also worried that parliament is discussing a reform of the sector while an appeals judgement on what could be a landmark case for the sector remains pending. 

Lawmakers will soon be presented with a draft law that seeks to revise a long-standing agricultural lease law that a court deemed unconstitutional in 2020. That draft law has been titled the Agricultural Leases (Reletting) Act, 2022. 

Somewhat oddly, the new law was tabled in parliament on the same day that a White Paper focused on reforming the sector was presented for public consultation. That consultation period ended on Monday, meaning public feedback about the plans is unlikely to feature in the parliamentary debate.  

Agricultural leases are often fixed at historically low rates and are inherited by the next of kin of leaseholders. Landowners say this means they are effectively unable to earn a fair rent for their land. Farmers counter by saying market rates are unaffordable and that forcing them to pay them means effectively forcing them off the land they farm. 

Following multiple reports about farmers facing mass evictions, the government announced plans to revise agricultural lease laws, releasing the aforementioned White Paper. 

Meanwhile, another court judgement has cast further legal uncertainty on the current situation. In a December 2021 decision, a court ruled that the existing agricultural lease law created a fair balance between farmers and landowners, throwing out a claim for additional payment by a landowner.

The landowner, Vincenza Magro, has appealed that decision. An appeals decision remains pending. 

In its statement, issued on Wednesday, Malta Youth in Agriculture and Moviment Graffitti flagged multiple concerns with the reform plans as presented by the government. 

The entire reform, they said, should be put on hold until the appeals court in the Magro case provided some legal certainty for the sector. 

The two NGOs also flagged a series of concerns in the reform proposals.

They said the plans make reference to “genuine” and “bone fide” farmers but do not define those terms, and also fail to define what is meant by “affordable” market rates. A reference to a “board of experts” does not explain how these experts will be appointed, either. 

Similarly, the White Paper lacks a proper definition of “agricultural lease”, makes no mention of how the new Authority’s provisions will be enforced, and leaves young farmers out of the equation, the NGOs said.   

Another concern by the NGOs is that the proposed new laws suggest valuing land based on current market rates. The civil society groups believe that land should be valued based on more objective criteria, such as water supply, the size of the land, soil fertility and proximity to access. 

“While we feel the proposed White Paper is a much needed step in the right direction, the document is rather vague in its definitions and leaves space for loopholes that can cause more problems than solutions in the local agricultural sector,” the groups said in a joint statement.

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