“3% of the farms control 50% of the arable lands in the EU”: Kaya Thomas at the FAO workshop on implementation of VGGT

At the FAO Workshop on the Implementation of Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure (VGGT), held in Budapest Hungary, Kaya Thomas from Arbeitsgemeinschaft bäuerliche Landwirtschaft (AbL) /ECVC spoke at length about land fragmentation, collapsing rural infrastructure and contradictory land laws. Here is the full text of her speech that she delivered on behalf of CSOs and social movements.

Dear colleagues and friends, 

My name is Kaya Thomas. I finished my agricultural apprenticeship in the north of Germany and am currently studying law. I am a member of the AbL, which stands for “Working Group on Peasant Agriculture”, the German member of the European Coordination Via Campesina. I work on issues related to land distribution, access to seeds, and support for young farmers.

It is a great honour for me to speak here today on behalf of civil society and grassroots movements (CSOs),  as I will bring to you the concerns, struggles and the voice of the millions of small-scale food producers and family farmers, small scale fisher folk, pastoralists, and indigenous peoples throughout Europe and Central Asia, and the challenges they face in relation to land, forests, fisheries. 

All over the world, people’s access to the natural resources on which they depend for their livelihoods and ways of life is being enclosed by national, (trans)national capital and state predation. This is equally true for the Europe and Central Asia region, where land and water grabbing, regressive laws on seeds and genetic resources, deforestation and the erosion of biodiversity and failure to manage fish stocks, create an adverse environment for the region’s small-scale food producers, fishers and rural peoples. These developments run counter to the vision put forward by the CSOs of the region for whom natural resources are part of the Commons that are an indivisible and indispensable part of their local food systems, living spaces, and territories rather than pure commodities. Securing access and use and effective control over land, water, fish stocks and fish, seeds and forests, is therefore identified as a key priority area for CSOs in the Europe and Central Asia region. 

In this regard, the FAO Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests (VGGT) as well as the FAO Voluntary Guidelines on Securing Sustainable Small-scale Fisheries (VGSSF) are critical tools to secure the tenure rights of the region’s small-scale food producers and family farmers and secure access to fish stocks and fish, given that they are anchored in a human-rights based approach, respect nature and explicitly prioritise vulnerable and marginalised groups. 

In 2015, with support from FAO, the European Coordination Via Campesina, FIAN, TNI and Crocevia organised two training workshops for CSOs, in Rome and in Brussels, on the application of the VGGT in Europe and Central Asia. Despite the many geographical, cultural and political differences of the countries presents, we discovered many common challenges arising in the different countries, such as the very high levels of land concentration and the pressure and competition on natural resources by urbanization, energy projects, real estate, infrastructure and other commercial and industrial developments. 

In some of the so called Post-Soviet countries, the historical collapse of the USSR led to the destruction of the agricultural sector. In the Rome and Brussels’s workshops, we learned how in these Post-Soviet countries, land tenure entitlements have been fragmented through ineffective redistribution; and at the same time, rural infrastructures have been neglected. When the legal frameworks consider the land issue, it is often addressed by laws that are not enforced or are ineffective on the ground. Moreover, laws are overlapping and sometimes contradictory. From an economic point of view, in the 1990s agriculture was no longer interesting to investors; thus land price went down, and governments sought foreign investments and support from international bodies, such as the FAO, the EU or the World Bank. 

Yet, if you think that in the European Union the story is different, the answer is a clear No! Contrary to popular belief, the EU isn’t a problem-free zone in regards to the tenure of land, fisheries and forest. Two main processes are occurring: land concentration in the western and northern part of the EU, and land grabbing in the peripheries of the EU. For example, ın 2010, 3% of the farms controlled 50% of the arable lands in the EU. 

Despite having identified these burning issues in the Region, CSO’s still perceive a bias in which European and Central Asian governments interpret these Guidelines, primarily as an instrument for their “development cooperation” agenda in the global South, rather than something to be applied and translated into public policy “at home”.

The VGGT also address the rights of indigenous peoples and small scale fisherfolk.

Now I would like to paraphrase a Siberian fisherfolk participating in our 2015 VGGT training: 

They are not free to use the land they live upon. The use is legally restricted to hunting, fishing and harvesting. They have no right to generate income and proper economic activity with their natural resources. Furthermore, there are legal restrictions even on the consumption of the fish – to 175 grams a day! At stake is their cultural identity, and key issues of participation and consultation that are affirmed by the VGGT. Like farmers, fisher-folks have a traditional way of living but they are culturally discriminated and marginalized while public policies are often applying the same norms and rules as for the fish industry. There is a clear interest and opportunity to connect both farmers and fishers struggles in order to implement the VGGT in Europe and Central Asia.  

We see a similar pattern in the Saami community in Norway and Finland: 

Indigenous Saami fishers in rivers in Finland and Norway, as well as in the coastal area of Norway, face great challenges with the access to fisheries. In the biggest Atlantic salmon river in Europe, Deatnu, Saami are being forced to stop some of their traditional salmon-fishing methods, which is threatening their food security, culture and economy. In the coast of Norway, big boats are favoured over smaller ones, which in many cases leave Saami without fishing rights. 

We should remember and be aware that the VGGT guidelines are relevant and should be applied to small-scale fisheries (SSF) in Europe and Central Asia for the following reasons:

  • The strategic social and economic importance of small scale fisheries, both marine and inland, should be recognized especially in remote areas,
  • The low environmental impact and low carbon footprint characteristics of some fisheries are important to acknowledge and support to develop as strategic to sustainable natural resource management.  The good practices and systems for self governance/ co-management developed by many small-scale fisheries make an important contribution to the sustainability of the fisheries sector;
  • Small-scale fishing communities are more vulnerable to climate change, construction of dams in rivers and deterioration of the marine and fresh water ecosystem. This should be recognised. 

If we come back to land issues in Eastern Europe: 

In our struggle for land in Eastern Europe we demand the national governments and international institutions to recognize the problems of land concentration and land grabbing and to create policies that stop and reverse these trends. We also demand for more transparency on large scale acquisitions of agricultural lands. In the past few years, another ECVC organisation, Eco Ruralis in Romania, worked hard to identify and map these companies and their harmful practices; to put names and faces behind these companies and to inform our peasant communities about the threats they pose. 

The intensification of both land concentration and land grabbing has major impacts on the Eastern European countryside. Our rural spaces are getting depopulated as peasants either die out of age or are pushed out from farming, migrating towards the cities or in other countries. The historical connection to the land is being destroyed. Thus we lose our culture, traditions and knowledge. 

The development of a new generation of peasantry is also blocked as young people have less and less access to land. Mainly due to the commercial pressure put on land by large scale investors. Our last bastion of viability is getting lost: the commons. As vast areas of common pastoral lands are leased off by local authorities to the higher bidding companies, young farmers do not have the financial capacity to compete on the land market. 

When we talk about the land market, we need to begin with large farms: They empty rural areas because they offer very few job opportunities, especially compared with smaller and family farms, which produce food with a high added value. Next, they tend to over exploit the soil, leaving it devoid of nutrients. This disrupts ecosystems, which must then be compensated by using pesticides and fertilisers, which eventually leaves the farm with little economic viability. Lastly, they contribute to a centralized and specialized agricultural system, which is based on international trade and developed in a way that disadvantages local populations.

With the disappearance of peasant farming a unique agroecological land stewardship system is also being uprooted. Peasants and pastoralists in Eastern Europe produce food while safeguarding natural resources, not depleting them. Nothing compared to the heavily subsidized agro-industrial agenda of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the EU in its member states. These policies must be based on making food producers the main actor of a strong supply chain in a vibrant rural economy. Policies intended to marginalize small scale food producers, pushing them out from the land, from the fisheries, from the forests, must be replaced with polices which place them at the centre of the action. 

We also need European authorities to raise awareness and support efforts to combat corruption related to land transactions; When they speculate with cheap Eastern European lands, are multinational banks and investment funds aware of their impacts on communities? That their land dealers are bribing local authorities to act as real estate agents and that peasants are intimidated and forced to sign the sell-off of their lands to these banks? All in the name of hefty returns on land investments which they say are better than investing in gold!

Unfortunately, we witness these realities are picking up speed in our countryside. The priority needs to be shifted. Peasants and in particular young agroecological farmers need to be granted prior access of agricultural land, especially in our times of growing interest by non-farmers in acquiring agricultural land. 

Moreover, in EU, as well as in non-EU countries in the Region, the construction of huge shopping malls, promenades and golf courses on fertile agricultural lands and river/water basins accelerate land grabs. Thousands of acres of fertile land, via mergers, are cultivated to produce large-scale agricultural food or agrofuels to be consumed in industry, hindering food security and the right to adequate and healthy food for large populations. It would not be wrong to suggest that this is an obvious violation of the 11th article of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations, which recognizes the right of everyone to adequate and secure food. 

The only way to overcome poverty and malnutrition and ensure food security is through a human rights’ based approach that respects nature. Current international trade policies have failed dismally. However they still largely shape our food policies, despite continuous violations of human rights, persistent food and nutrition insecurity, and their dramatic consequences on our Planet.  The only way to overcome this is through a new policy framework based on human rights and food sovereignty.  The current food system is unfair and patriarchal, so for us, it is also a critical priority to develop gender sensitive policies that promote women’s empowerment and gender equality, ensure a fair share of the benefits of our work, guarantee access to natural resources and means of production, and the access to decision-making spaces. 

At the 2nd Nyeleni Europe Forum for Food Sovereignty, held in October in Romania, 500 representatives civil society organisations and social movements from close to 40 countries from Europe and Central Asia converged on all of these issues. Access to natural resources was a burning issue. We developed strategies, campaigns, and actions to implement the VGGT in the entire region of Europe and Central Asia. We call on all civil society and social movements, with the support of key institutions such as the FAO, to join us in our common vision and struggle. 


We hereby request that the FAO Regional Office and Country Offices ın the ECA region to:

  • Recognise, take stock of, and monitor pressing issues linked to land, water, seeds, fish stocks and forests, paying special attention to the tenure rights of vulnerable and marginalised groups, especially the region’s small-scale food producers of the various constituencies.
  • Develop, with full and effective civil society participation, especially small-scale food producers organisations, a robust monitoring mechanism on the implementation of the VGGT in the ECA region.
  • Commit to the full implementation of the VGGTs in the region, with the understanding that the VGGTs are much more than a tool for establishing a land registry- something that can actually promote land concentration- and that they should address all fundamental inequalities in the access to and control of natural entities.
  • Ensure that CSOs in the region (and not simply big donors) are active participants and true partners in the dialogue to identify the pressing issues linked to natural resources and in the implementation of the VGGTs in the region.
  • Communities need access to knowledge and education as a common good. It is important to recognize the value of traditional knowledge, which has been central to food sovereignty for centuries. Traditional knowledge must be valued and recognized at the same level as expert knowledge by governments and the FAO. We need to reinforce a deeper dialogue between these two types of knowledge. 

On behalf of CSOs and social movements 

Kaya Thomas