When Nazzareno and Antonia Pulis were evicted from a Żabbar field they had tilled for 30 years, they also ran out of funds and willpower to continue fighting.
They were already looking into selling their farming machinery, until the Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi – which says some three farmers are threatened with removal every week – stepped in to appeal the eviction.
The five-tumoli field was at the heart of the Pulis couple’s farming, also housing a reservoir and a borehole, which remain the source of irrigation water for other parcels of land they still till.
The two, both in their early 70s, used the field to grow potato for exportation and other vegetables, such as pumpkin, which was sold as recently as May.
“It was like our second home. Along the years, we financed the application for the necessary permits, the building and maintenance of the reservoir and borehole, and also covered expenses for the installation of utilities and repair works on a farmhouse where we store farming machinery.
“We had never been asked to pay higher rent – we would have of course paid it if it meant we could still till the land,” Antonia told Times of Malta.
The Pulis couple were evicted from the field, measuring more than 5,000 square metres of rural land last month, following a landmark constitutional court ruling that said the Agricultural Leases (Reletting) Act breached owners’ rights to the peaceful enjoyment of property.
Purchased in 1982 by J&C Properties, along with another four properties, for the total price of Lm26,000 (€60,000), the land was leased to Nazzareno at an annual rent of €58.
The judgement, which effectively confirmed a lower court judgment, sent alarm bells across the farming community, and proved “traumatic” for the Pulis couple.
“The eviction order last month was the last nail in the coffin. We’ve spent two years in and out of court – our funds have run out and so has our hope. We had just given up and started planning on selling the farming machinery,” Antonia said.
The head of the farmers’ organisation, Malcolm Borg, confirmed the NGO will be funding the appeal and providing the couple with legal expertise.
This is the biggest problem ever faced by the agricultural sector
“The implications of this case are huge. When the organisation realised that the farmers could not fund the appeal, we decided it was too big a case to just give up.
“We are coming across similar cases around three to four times a week, with full-time farmers being targeted as much as part-timers. Landowners do not afford a thought about farmers who are actually feeding their family from that same land.”
Borg believes the eviction of farmers is the biggest problem ever faced by the agricultural sector.
“Evictions will have environmental implications as such land will probably be divided into small parcels and sold for recreational purposes, hence rationalising further our countryside and compromising the landscape.
“It also has social implications, as it threatens farmers’ livelihoods and food security implications: fertile land that is good for growing food is being lost to people that have no energy, willingness or knowhow to grow food. And finally, it is a social justice issue as the public good is being sacrificed for personal profit,” Borg said.
Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi is calling on the government to intervene and help find a solution. Together with other eNGOs it is suggesting revising rent prices so that landowners are more justly compensated.
However, the price should not be based on the land’s market value. Instead, it should be based on the producers’ profit margins, Borg suggested.
Questions sent to the government on whether it was planning a reform in the sector, and to what extent can the government intervene to ensure that domestic food production is not negatively impacted by the continued eviction of farmers, remained unanswered.
Labour MEP Alex Agius Saliba petitioned the European Parliament to address, together with the European Commission, the violation of farmers’ fundamental rights in Malta.
Maltese farmers, he told parliament, were already facing challenges brought about by climatic and geographical limitations. The ruling, he added, would place most farmers who cultivate leased land in a very difficult position.
Farmland, he warned, will be valued according to non-agricultural characteristics, making it impossible for farmers to rent or buy agricultural land.
The ruling will “make it impossible to attract young farmers to the sector, and many will lose their livelihood”.