Sunday, October 13, 2013

Cutting off their noses to spite their faces

Boris Danik's recent piece, "What matters for the EU in Association Agreement with Ukraine," got me thinking about what Yulia and I are doing here in a small Ukrainian village and how it connects with the bigger picture--Ukraine's future as a country.

For those who are not in the loop, Ukraine and the European Union (EU) are scheduled to sign an economic Association Agreement in Vilnius, Lithuania this November. The agreement is a big deal for many different stakeholders.

For the EU, it means adding forty-some million people and Europe's second biggest country (after Russia) to their economic sphere of influence. This will help create a stronger ally on the EU's eastern border, tempering the influence of Russia, Europe's other large economic entity.

For Ukraine, the Association Agreement creates a more formal path to future EU membership. It also gets exclusive trading rights to the EU, one of the world's largest economies.

Russia has been nerve wracked by the prospect of Ukraine signing the Association Agreement. It has created its own economic union called the Customs Union (Belarus and Kazakhstan are the other members of this trade union). Russia wants Ukraine to join the Customs Union. However, Ukraine cannot join if it signs the Association Agreement with the EU.

Danik explains why the EU is interested in signing an economic association agreement with Ukraine. He lists many reasons for their interest. However, the one that I want to discuss involves Ukraine's rich agricultural land. Danik discusses tacit concern in governments over climate change and the damage it will cause to agriculture. He speculates that many governments, including the EU, want access to agricultural land to feed rising populations in their countries. He goes on:
Food shortages are already entering into the calculations of economic planners. Not surprisingly, Ukraine’s fabulous grain-producing capacity changes everything important for Europe in the [next] hundred years or longer and, given some savvy in Kyiv, makes Ukraine a real player and a valuable member in any geopolitical configuration, in one format or another.
This makes me apprehensive. Ukraine's government has already shown that it may be willing to sign away huge portions of its land to foreign governments. Last week a Chinese newspaper claimed that Ukraine may be leasing 3 million hectares (that is, 5% of the entire country--or the size of Belgium or Massachusetts!) to the Chinese government. Other news outlets caught wind of the the story, and it spread like wildfire. It was later revealed that the story was inaccurate, though this may be questionable

Whatever the case with China, it has got me thinking. Foreign occupations, particularly ones that have exploited Ukrainian agriculture, have not turned out so well for Ukrainians themselves. Yulia and I have been watching videos from a project called "Share the Story," which commemorates the 80th anniversary of the Holodomor (also known as the Artificial Famine). In the early 1930s, the Soviet government purposefully starved up to 10 million Ukrainians. The Soviet government targeted ethnic Ukrainians in an attempt to exterminate as many of them as possible (this is also known as genocide). The irony is that the victims were starving while living on land that was producing grain feeding the rest of the world. The "Share the Story" website states that at the height of the Holodomor, 1.7 million tons of grain were dumped onto Western markets.

While I do not think the EU is capable of similarly monstrous actions, it does give me pause.Yulia and I are observing the evacuation of the Ukrainian countryside. Villagers tend to own a lot of farm land, and they are forfeiting this land to local governments when they leave. Yulia and I happen to be interested in buying the land that is being left behind, but it is all but impossible for ordinary people to buy it due to a byzantine bureaucracy. It seems that local governments only understand how to sell these properties to agribusiness.

We have tried buying land directly from villagers, but it has not been easy. Yulia and I were looking for land for two years before we moved into this house. With the rate at which villagers are fleeing to the cities and the plethora of available houses, one would think that buying real estate would be easy and inexpensive. That is not always the case. 

Many people we talked to to asked for exorbitantly high prices for their land. One lady was asking for $36,000 for a collapsed house in a remote area. We know the market to an extent, and similar places go for anywhere between $1,000-5,000. Another elderly man told a friend of ours that he would never sell his house so that a rich person could just "put up some kind of a villa on his land." 

Many villagers are cutting off their noses to spite the faces. They want to show that they will not be taken advantage of by what they perceive as rich city people. In reality they will hold on to their land so tightly that they will never sell it. After they die their land will become government property at no cost to the government, and their families will remain a few thousand dollars poorer. We have seen this exact thing happen. In one area where young people such as Yulia and I were trying to buy land, there was a beautiful spot up on a hill above a natural spring with a run down house. It should have been a cinch to buy. The owner wasn't doing anything with the land and lived in the city. But this particular owner was an older man who refused to sell it to any of us. As I understand, he was quite the curmudgeon and staunchly refused anybody who talked to him. We had all but given up when we learned that he had died and that his surviving grandchildren wanted to sell the place. Yulia and I got in touch with them, and they were quite serious about selling it at a reasonable price. They were quite amiable, in fact. We met with them and were on track to buy the place. They told us they just had to do some paperwork with the village hall and that they would be in contact with us. When they did not call us back, we called them, and they explained that they had lost ownership of the land when their grandfather died. The grandfather did not do some kind of crucial paperwork, and the local government now owned the land. 

Yulia and I see this happening left and right. It seems that it is happening enough that the land is able to be consolidated and sold to agribusinesses for pennies and a flask of vodka to indifferent village mayors. This is troubling. We see what we are doing here at our home as a possible solution to this problem. We think the countryside should be repopulated by people with a fervent interest in the health of their land (and themselves). Firstly, it would be harder for foreign entities or agribusiness to take the land for themselves and potentially exploit ordinary Ukrainians as they do it. Second, if people took an interest in growing their own food, or even took an interest in eating healthier, it would negate the need for planting monocultures of grain in oceanic proportions. People who grow their own food do not need to heavily rely on buying food for themselves. Those who don't grow their own food, but eat healthfully would have no use for the monocultures of wheat, soy, rapeseed, and corn that would be harvested and processed into junk food. A healthy person may eat a little wheat or soy, but would presumably also eat a whole variety of other foods.

We think our recommendations are not only helpful for Ukrainians. People everywhere should be taking back ownership of their land. In this way, the EU (or Russia or China, for that matter) would not have to turn to Ukraine for its grain.

We do not think our recommendations are that hard to accomplish or far fetched. After all, Yulia and I are former urbanites who used to eat a diet based on exploitative agriculture.We made the change, and we think others could do it too.

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