Dozens of farmers are being threatened with eviction from Marsaxlokk land that their families have tilled for generations, while being told the arable land will be sold at exorbitant prices.
They join several other farmers for whom time is running out as they wait for the government’s promised legal protection.
Malcolm Borg, who heads Għaqda Bdiewa Maltin, is now being approached by around five farmers every week claiming they are being kicked out of arable fields.
Ever since a court last year declared that the rural leases law is unconstitutional, tens of farmers have ended up in court, with landowners challenging the so-called qbiela law.
The case in Marnisi, off Marsaxlokk, is the biggest yet, while similar ones are cropping up in Għajn Tuffieħa and Mtaħleb. Around 20 farmers who met Times of Malta on site estimate the impacted agricultural land in Marnisi measures at least 300 tumoli, and there are dozens more impacted by the threat of eviction.
“We have been approached by a man who is claiming he bought the land – but whom we believe is still in the process of buying it – asking us to either buy the land we till for €65,000 a tumolo, accept a couple of thousand of euros to leave, or open a court case against him,” one farmer said.
“When he told me this it was like hearing thunder on a bright sunny day. I couldn’t believe him and just kept staring at him. Eventually I spoke to others and soon realised they had also been approached with a similar offer,” he added.
Not all have been offered money to leave, but the €65,000 price tag was a recurrent figure by the farmers.
Last February, an exercise carried out by Times of Malta in collaboration with farmers found that one tumolo of land was being advertised for at least €40,000. With an average of 12 tumoli needed to start a full-time agribusiness, young farmers are expected to fork out half a million euros in land, over and above their investment in cultivation machinery and tools. This very conservative estimate was already three times the price of arable land five years ago.
When Times of Malta this week asked farmers for a fair price per tumolo, one said he might be able to afford land at €20,000 per tumolo, but it would take years for him to start seeing any kind of profit, considering the investment needed to grow crops. Another farmer claimed he would not even turn a profit of €65,000 from one tumolo throughout his lifetime.
Most of those who spoke to Times of Malta said that while they were not against a fair increase in the rent, they would never be able to buy agricultural land.
“If we did afford buying land at such a price, we would not be tilling it, but would live in a palace and tend to plants around it. Farming is an extremely labour-intensive job you would only be willing to do if you were born in it and grew to love it,” one farmer, in her seventies, told Times of Malta.
What will I do with the animals? Send them to Castille?
‘Farming is not a hobby’
The woman inherited the farming skill from her parents and has passed it on to her children.
“Taking a field away from a farmer is equivalent to ripping their heart out. Farming is not a hobby. It’s our livelihood and passion,” she added.
“Farmers deserve more respect and I believe that deep down, someone in power is willing to help us and hear our pleas.”
Another man, whose farming heritage dates to his great-grandparents, grows food for animals that he rears in the same fields.
“When he asked me how much money I wanted, to give up the fields, I had no idea what to tell him. How can I leave? Is this the Malta we want for our children? What will I do with the animals? Send them to Castille?”
A young farmer argued that evicting farmers from arable land to sell it off for recreational purposes – a trend that became quite popular recently – will have a negative ripple effect on the rest of society.
“Apart from the negative impact it will have on our eco-system, the loss of arable land does not only strip farmers of their livelihood, but also kills off market competition.
“A drop in local produce, and therefore low prices, will just see an increase in prices of produce imported from abroad.”
When Times of Malta contacted the man buying the land, he confirmed he had signed a promise-of-sale for some 300 tumoli, adding that he had already reached some agreement with farmers over a third of the land.
He confirmed he wanted to buy the land to sell it to others and justified the €65,000 price tag by saying agricultural land elsewhere was being sold for much more. He said he was willing to lower the price slightly.
Noting that right now the farmers were paying a pittance in rural lease, he claimed some were not working the land but renting it to others for recreational purposes.
“I’m going to them in good faith. There are ways to reach a compromise that avoids taking the matter to court. I treat several of them like family,” said the man, adding that he was a full-time farmer himself.
The lawyer representing the current landowners meanwhile said change in ownership would not impact farmers’ current rights.
Time is fast running out
Għaqda Bdiewa Maltin and Moviment Graffitti have joined forces, urging the government to immediately implement promised legislation that would protect farmers.
“We don’t have the luxury of time. We are witnessing the loss of livelihoods every day,” Borg said.
“I used to receive calls from one or two despairing farmers every fortnight… nowadays I receive around five such calls every week from farmers fighting for land that their ancestors tilled.”
In most cases, the farmer is given three options: vacate the land, buy it at exorbitant prices, or pay a much higher rent. These options twist most farmers’ arms, with most cases ending up in court.
Wayne Flask, from Moviment Graffitti, said the issue had snowballed over the years, forgotten by consecutive administrations.
“We understand that landowners deserve fair compensation, however, if by this they mean increasing prices to exorbitant levels, then farmers have a right to ask for the government’s support.
“The government owes a solution not only to farmers, but to the rest of society by ensuring national food security.”
Questions sent to the government remained unanswered.
Can someone sell land they don’t own yet?
The farmers were told that the land transfer from the current owners to the man who is threatening them with eviction is not complete and is still in the promise-of-sale phase.
Despite this, they were aware that he is already working on selling the land (which he does not yet own) at high prices.
Some of the farmers themselves have been offered to buy the land they till at €65,000 per tumolo, while one has also spotted adverts on social media selling agricultural land in Marsaxlokk for the same price.
Legal sources told Times of Malta this was common practice and could happen under at least two scenarios.
While the man who is threatening farmers with eviction would have entered into a promise-of-sale with the current landowner (whom the farmers still pay rent to) he himself enters into another promise-of-sale with people who would like to purchase the land that he does not yet own.
This second promise-of-sale would be subject to the one he entered into with the current landowners.
This means that if the first sale goes through, so will the second one, and he pockets the difference.
There is also another scenario, known as the assignment of rights on the promise-of-sale agreement.
In such a case, the man who is threatening farmers with eviction would grant his rights in the promise-of-sale with the current landowners to prospective buyers. But this would be done at a fee.
This way, he acts like a middleman who pockets the fee if the sale goes through, but the land would be transferred from the current landowner directly to the prospective buyer.
Young farmers express concern
In a statement on Sunday, the Malta Youth in Agriculture (MaYa) society said land use issues have been hindering progress in the local agricultural sector for decades.
They insisted that farmland should be maintained and used for food production,
"Rural areas are the only green lung of our islands and land needs to be protected in all possible ways, including a change in legislation," they said pointing out that Malta is the most densely populated country in Europe.
"Legislation should be enforced and changed for better protection of farmland, if the authorities do not want to turn Malta into a barren island," the young farmers said.