Serbian Countryside Struggling to Survive

Photo: Marko Rupena / Kamerades

The eligibility criteria for the public farm lease tender demonstrate a sincere desire of the government to please profit making interest of the large companies. Small independent farmers find it increasingly difficult to survive under the pressure put on by their competitors, which leads to further deterioration of the living conditions in the countryside.

In mid-February 2017, The Ministry of Agriculture and Environmental Protection of the Republic of Serbia issued guidelines for public farm lease. As stated by the Minister Branislav Nedimović the goal of its policy is to create more value in agriculture and food processing industry in the country. Conversely, the way in which the tender was written, its duration and its eligibility criteria were encountered by a major discontent of the farmers in the whole country.

The eligibility criteria in the guidelines included that the farmer is to be a legal entity and invest 500,000€ in development in the first three years, 30% of which in the first year. Taking a mere glance at the tender shows us that smaller producers stand no chance of leasing farmland and that it stimulates big companies or individuals possessing a large amount of capital. Another questionable aspect of the tender is its duration, i.e. the request for applicants to submit all the necessary documentation and a business plan in just thirty days. The mentioned Minister often publicly spoke about how there are lots of enterprises showing interest in land leasing, one of them being Tönnies Lebensmittel GmbH & Co. These statements further demonstrate in accordance with whose interests the tender was written.

Dying out

If we take a look at the window of any souvenir shop in Serbia, we will most certainly see a figurine of a man with a long moustache, proud posture, wearing traditional dress, supposedly representing a Serbian farmer. The majority of tourists who buy this figurine most probably do not visit the Serbian countryside, but even if they do, they can hardly see a proud and smiling farmer who can justify the created image.

The true picture of today’s countryside and its farmers most certainly does not exude pride. Out of 4,700 villages in Serbia, 1,200 are vanishing, and the number of inhabitants is decreasing in 86% of them. In even 230 villages there are no primary schools, in 170 schools there is only one pupil, and 2,760 villages have no nurseries.

It is more than clear that the countryside in Serbia has been dying out for decades. We have to go way back to socialist Yugoslavia in order to look for the reasons young people have been leaving and the villages disappearing. Migration of the countryside population to the urban areas started with the outset of industrialisation in the fifties. Better working and educational conditions encouraged some countryside inhabitants to move to the cities. Since industrialisation required demographic adaptation for the conditions of production in the country, it was expected that it should bring about changes to the countryside, too. Nonetheless, the problems it caused to the rural areas remained without functional solutions having been found.

The wars in the nineties and the so-called transition brought further discontinuity in agrarian production and development of the Serbian countryside. The closing of factories strategically important for agriculture significantly contributed. With recent shutting down of IMT1 and Rakovica2, as well as the complete devastation of domestic chemical industry, the farmers were left at mercy of foreign capital. Financially unsustainable production has forced the farmers to cease producing, which lead to the 600,000 hectares of arable land not being farmed today.

Except during election campaigns, the problem of the countryside receives very little attention. The natural resources, such as rivers, forests and the land are mostly subject to unsustainable exploitation, while the farmers mostly represent cheap labour force in some of the newly opened factories with inhumane labour conditions.

State-farmer-capital

Even though agriculture and related industries have drastically weakened and the farmers left with insignificant income (mostly provided by an elderly member of the family), they can be further exploited. In order to gain income and feed their families, the farmers still need to rely on natural resources they possess, i.e. agricultural production. Without the previous economic system that used to integrate their cooperative farming into larger systems of agricultural production, the countryside is abandoned to the tendencies of the market, which are equally shaped by the state and the capital.

Influence of agricultural chemical and genetic industry is very strong and damaging to the countryside. The state nowadays educates farmers mostly on the use of very harmful chemical products, additives and fertilisers, claiming that farming without them is impossible and denying their bad influence on human health and quality of products.

Consequently, this industry gains significant profit, while the products it sells pollute the soil and the water. Moreover, it causes damage to the beekeepers, as almost all of these products are toxic to bees and other pollinators; hybrid seeds and hybrid livestock damage the adaptability of native species. Hereinafter, ecological sustainability is violated, the quality of the products lowered, while on the other hand the products can be sold cheaper on the market.

This brings us back to the aforementioned farm lease tender. It clearly states that the land can be leased by those who intend to engage in ‘developing the genetic potential in animal husbandry’, which opens the door to companies that breed genetically modified livestock.

Taking into account global tendencies of growing food consumption (most of which ends up in landfills) in economically developed countries, food production will most probably be one of the most important industries in the future. Hence, it is not surprising that there was a major interest in privatising former public agricultural companies. During the privatisation of public agricultural enterprise Jedinstvo from Apatin, Delta M – a business owned by Miroslav Mišković – bought a significant portion of the farmland at very low price in a questionable tender offer issued by the Privatisation Agency. Businessmen such as Petar Matijević (the owner of the homonymous meat processing company), Miodrag Kostić (the owner of MK group) who recently bought PIK Bečej and Đorđe Nicović3 (the owner of Irva) recently acquired ownership of vast areas of farmland with the help of similar dubious mechanisms.

Apart from large companies, even some states have joined in the global purchase of farmland. Serbia will most certainly not be left out of these processes, and its peripheral role in the global economy can even be seen in The Stabilisation and Association Agreement, which will render foreign and domestic legal entities equal when it comes to farm lease from the 1st September. Domestic farmers will thus have financially and technically far more superior farmers, companies or even governments as their competitors. Other countries had similar problems in the process of joining the EU.

Unlike Hungary and some other countries that were in similar situation and that restricted farmland sale (but not the influence of the market and profit-making interests), the Serbian government has not yet made any plan for tackling this issue public. The Minister of Agriculture and Environmental Protection deferred the possibility of changing the Constitution, but he pointed out that Serbia would protect its interests in this domain.

Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) also joined the local market game. The unfinished restitution left many farmers without their allotments, but the SOC got back much of its land. The leased farmland owned by SOC was three times more expensive than those in state ownership.

Given that the productive potential of the countryside is rapidly decreasing, the politicians are more and more inclined to speak of its touristic potential. If we take into consideration ecological abundance and historical capital of the Serbian countryside, it is clear that it has much to offer to tourists. Nevertheless, in order to use this potential, a lot of public investment is required in order to ameliorate its infrastructure and socio-cultural aspects. Some of the main preconditions for developing rural tourism, at least in Europe, are heightened environmental protection and amelioration of transport and constructional infrastructure. The fact that villages without sewerage and a proper system of rubbish disposal still exist in Serbia illustrates how far it still needs to go in order to develop its rural touristic potential.

The last-ditch effort

The strife for farmland ownership can be considered as the last-ditch effort of the farmers’ struggle to survive. Unfortunately, a serious action of the countryside dwellers is still missing. This can be partly explained by aggressive measures taken by the state in order to counter any form of farmers’ acts of self-organising, which is not solely a local phenomenon.

We can recall a big protest of farmers in Belgium in 2015. A couple of thousands of tractors blocked the streets of Brussels because of the fall of the prices of dairy and meat products. In the same year, Serbian farmers tried to occupy Belgrade with their vehicles, demanding that the new Law on Farmland be abolished. But the farmers were stopped by the police and their demands were not met.

Neoliberal politics, putting the interest of capital above all else, by no means contributes to the current situation. The problem of the countryside is also the problem of the city and the whole society. It is the consequence of capital constantly racing to gain more profit, which causes overpopulation of the cities and increases the reserve army of labour. In order to fulfil their needs, the farmland and the countryside are rapidly exploited, which endangers their survival and sustainability of agriculture. It is more than clear that the struggle to preserve the countryside must go hand in hand with the fight against capitalism.

Translation from Serbian: Ivana Anđelković

  1. Industry of Machinery and Tractors, IMT (ser. Industrija mašina i traktora) was one of the largest producers and vendors of tractors and agricultural machinery situated near Belgrade. It was founded in 1947 and closed in 2015 (translator’s note).
  2. Industry of Motors – Rakovica (ser. Industrija motora Rakovica) is the only remaining large producer of tractors and agricultural machinery in Serbia, still exporting to Egypt and the Middle East. Nevertheless, it went bankrupt in April 2017 (translator’s note).
  3. All of the mentioned names are those of tycoons having been close to the governing political parties in the past decades, thanks to which they acquired significant capital (translator’s note).
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