Since time immemorial, the Maltese have lived off the land. Through toil and perseverance, the social lymph running through our society was agronomic in nature.
No matter the changing historical contexts, the soil was esteemed and the exploitation of our landscape to produce food was our only reassurance. In isolation, farmers tended their fields and animals to feed their families and the nation. In the process, they have taken good care of our countryside, nurturing the quasi-spiritual bond that flickers between farmer and land.
One would be mistaken in thinking that our reminiscing of things gone by is an attempt to pull on the strings of nostalgia. This is an acknowledgement of our roots and how we stand on the shoulders of giants.
However, more than that, it is a reminder that these people still exist, that the farmer-land bond is still being nurtured and that these people are still producing food for the nation. In doing so, farmers are helping to sustain food sovereignty, that is, the ability of the nation to exercise some form of control over its most basic need.
Farmers also help to cut down on carbon miles. The closer the food production site is to the consumer, the smaller the carbon footprint of the food production process. What could be closer to the Maltese consumer than a strawberry cultivated in Mġarr or a bag of potatoes grown in Qrendi?
Unfortunately, farmers are considered second-class producers. Their “workshops”, that is, their fields, are viewed as simple open spaces up for grabs. We can see this unfortunate recurring attitude in the nonchalant way in which fields are taken over for the widening of roads (based on the obsolete transport paradigm that has the private car as its fulcrum), for the building of new residential blocks, for villas in outside-development-zone areas, for industrial estates (as if the open field is not a food production enterprise in its own right but an inconvenience standing in the way of what is euphemistically called “development”).
Unfortunately, in recent months, the plight of our food producers has reached new lows. The courts have been evicting tenant farmers from their land on the request of private landowners.
Such decisions have serious moral, social, environmental, economic and, above all, human implications.
Landowners are hell-bent on taking back this land to put it on the market for sale
The humblest of classes in society – our farmers – are some of the most resilient people our country will ever be honoured to have. Because it is only sheer resilience that makes a human being invest all they have in their land, risking it will be taken away by the weather and knowing full well that no insurance will cover them.
It is sheer resilience that makes a farmer spend four months waiting for produce to grow, only to have the final product outcompeted by imported produce.
It is sheer resilience that makes farmers wake up before sunrise and go back home at sunset, sacrificing time with their family and friends.
It needs sheer resilience to spend a day in back-breaking work under a scorching sun or under torrential rains, from dawn to dusk.
It all requires resilience and our farmers do it every minute of every day. No leave, sick leave, collective agreements, flexible hours, reduced hours – they just march on, finding strength within and only within.
In a capitalist world and a market-based economy, everything has its price tag and its value follows the principle of demand and supply. Whereas land for farmers is the sacred foundation on which their crops grow to feed their families, land for the market is an exchangeable asset to be traded.
Hence, landowners, having little appetite for the farmers’ plight, are hell-bent on taking back this land to put it on the market for sale. For the god of greed is ready to prostitute the sacred on the altar of financial gain.
There is something morally corrupt in such a system, even if it is legally correct.
We contend that a government that wants to live up to its name should go the extra mile to dissociate itself from the tight grip of unbridled capitalism and stand in to rectify the situation. This is not just to be fair with farmers but also to respect part of our core identity as a nation.
Recently, in a similar situation, the government stood in to help families living in rented accommodation following a spate of court decisions in favour of landlords.
We are urging the government to act again with the necessary urgency to protect the land leases of tenant farmers. This for the sake of food sovereignty, food security, cutting down on carbon miles, protecting the rural landscape and safeguarding rural communities and culture.
The stakes are high and there is not much time for ruminating on the next bold step. This is the time to act.
Mario Cardona is deputy principal of Technology and Applied Sciences at MCAST and founder member of Koperattiva Rurali Manikata. Malcolm Borg is deputy director of the Centre for Agriculture, Aquatics and Animal Sciences at the Institute of Applied Science at MCAST and Coordinator of Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi.
Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.Support Us