Ukraine's most undervalued resource, rich black soil, becomes focus of growing battle over land

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Aug. 13, 2009, 9:09 p.m. | Op-ed — by Hanna Hopko
Nation should secure a prosperous future by ensuring that small-scale farmers control the land. Ukraine is a rich country, no doubt about it. But Ukraine is a rich country with poor people.

Apart from a handful of oligarchs who got obscenely rich on natural resources, the other 46 million people are screaming for improvement. Ukraine’s agricultural sector has the potential to be the answer. It can also feed Europe and to stop village degradation.

However, Ukrainian politicians do not concern themselves with strategic planning and development of the state. They are too busy with their sacred war – the 2010 presidential election. Disappointed and pessimistic, most citizens do not think about or do not have the resources to do anything with the beautiful nature and fertile soil. But if you don’t exploit opportunities, competitors will.

So, in the end, who will profit from Ukraine’s famously rich black earth?

The global battle for this resource seems to be accelerating. One recent article in London’s Guardian newspaper was headlined: “Fears for the world’s poor countries as the rich grab land to grow food.” A map with the story showed poor countries, including Ukraine, where foreigners are buying, attempting to buy or leasing the land. In Ukraine, it is illegal for foreigners to buy agricultural land. But leasing rights are allowed, and competition over land use is a major source of government corruption in Ukraine.

The author, environment editor John Vidal wrote: “The acquisition of farmland from the world’s poor by rich countries and international corporations is accelerating at an alarming rate, with an area half the size of Europe’s farmland targeted in the last six months,” citing reports from United Nations officials and agriculture experts.

“New reports from the UN and analysts in India, Washington and London estimate that at least 30 million hectares are being acquired to grow food for countries such as China and Gulf states who cannot produce enough for their populations. According to the UN, the trend is accelerating and could severely impair the ability of poor countries to feed themselves.”

Vidal calls the trend “land-grabbing” and “neo-colonialism.” Some of the latest cases of land-grabbing include “Saudi Arabia’s purchase of 500,000 hectares in Tanzania. The Democratic Republic of the Congo expects to shortly conclude an eight million-hectare deal with a group of South African businesses to grow maize and soya beans. India has lent money to 80 companies to buy 350,000 hectares in Africa. Other countries that have acquired land in the last year include the Gulf states, Sweden, China and Libya. Those targeted include not only fertile countries such as Brazil, Russia and Ukraine, but also poor countries like Cameroon, Ethiopia, Madagascar, and Zambia.”

The report predicts that land prices will rise. Some of the world’s largest food, financial and car companies have invested in land. Alpcot Agro of Sweden bought 120,000 hectares in Russia. South Korea’s Hyundai has paid $6.5 million for a majority stake in Khorol Zerno, which owns 10,000 hectares in Eastern Siberia. Meanwhile, Morgan Stanley bought [leasing rights to] 40,000 hectares in Ukraine.

“According to a U.S.-based think tank, the International Food Policy Research Institute, nearly $20 billion to $30 billion a year is being spent by rich countries on land in developing countries,” the article concluded.

A recent World Conference of Science Journalists in London devoted a whole day of debates to the global food crisis and stability. To summarize dozens of speeches, it suffices to say that the global food crisis is only in its infancy. A full-scale war for food will start very soon.

According to the United Nations, grain requirements will increase by 50 percent by 2030 and by 100 percent by 2050. Most experts in high-profile organizations forecast the global population will reach 9.5 billion in the mid-21st century. Even today, with merely 6.5 billion people, nature is experiencing tremendous pressure. There is a shortage of land and water and global climate change.

Professor Ian Crute, director of Rothamsted Research, said: “Historically, Ukraine has been one of the world’s breadbaskets, for it is the most fertile land in Europe. Prospectively, Ukraine is becoming an important source of food supplies. Yet the productivity of Ukraine’s agrarian sector is only 50 percent of what it could be. This can be explained by organizational problems, climate change, and soil fertility. I would not like to be a political adviser for Ukraine, but one of the most useful things to do could be consolidation of small-scale landowners into large collective associations, where the main investment could be focused on the mechanization of production, capitalization, learning skills and land management.”

In Israel, where the state owns agricultural land, there is a well-developed system of assistance for farmers. Have you ever seen any state or central bank loans in Ukraine at fair interest rates to help Ukrainian farmers in villages to buy tractors? Quite the opposite: State policies look like they were specifically designed to destroy life in the villages and famers altogether, and they are succeeding! However there are exceptions as rich and promising Ukrainian farmers arise, renting thousand of hectares, and supplying people at the villages with work.

But the real fight for land is heating up. It began some time ago, and was somewhat dampened by the moratorium on agricultural land sale. It will continue with a renewed force if the moratorium is lifted. Rich multinational corporations will buy, and it will be legislatively impossible to strip them of lands that could be used for feeding Ukrainians. There may emerge a situation when Ukrainians will be starving in spite of having the most fertile black earth.

The late James Mace, a well-known researcher of Ukraine’s Holodomor of 1932-33, warned about ill-considered land sales in the article headlined “Tragedy in the Making.”

“The villagers, essentially turned back into serfs according to Stalin’s version of social justice, were left with nothing. And now, it seems, they are being prepared for eviction from the land that fed them and their forefathers. Is the writer of these lines the only person in Ukraine who is ready to scream bloody blue murder?” Mace asked.

Ukrainian scientists have long been speaking about the Ukrainian land as a strategic resource. Agricultural land for Ukrainians is the same as oil and gas is for Qatar.

Russian political scientist Andriy Okara said that “the last two under-sold Ukrainian strategic resources are the agricultural land and the women. Now we have an opportunity to witness one of the greatest land squanders in the Ukrainian history.”

Serhiy Krymsky, a modern Ukrainian philosopher, also suggests that land war is one of the most urgent problems the nation will face in this century.

Who emerges victorious will depend on the readiness of Ukrainian officials to defend its strategic interests. Now is the chance to correct past mistakes.

Hanna Hopko is a Kyiv-based activist and freelance journalist. She can be reached at
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