“This may be the first time something like this has happened since the Middle Ages.” – Éva Ács, founder, Kishantos rural development center and organic farm
“It’s a scandal, a scandal.” – József Ángyán, former Fidesz caucus member and one-time state secretary for agriculture
Organic farmers from central Hungary were back in court last week to appeal the results of a 2012 tender that deprived them of their livelihoods and saw their crops senselessly destroyed by the new leaseholders, even as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán claimed his government had given local farmers priority when divvying up state agricultural lands.
The Kishantos Rural Development Center and Organic Farm (KVK) was operated by its co-founder Éva Ács and other farmers as a non-profit limited company for 22 years. As well as working as a demonstration farm, Kishantos promoted sustainable rural development and democracy at its folk school. However 20-year leases for 452 hectares of agricultural land previously cultivated by KVK were awarded to ten other applicants effective November 1, 2013. Since then the fields of Kishantos have become a fallow wasteland, where ragweed is the only plant in evidence.
The tender winners included a company from the northern city of Sálgotaraján, Mezö Vidék BT, which changed its name some days after the tender was issued and did not even list farming among its activities when applying for state land. Other winners included Csaba Márok, the mayor of neighbouring Mezőfalva, and the daughter-in-law of the owner of Simon Kft., a company that has owned the right to cultivate thousands of hectares across the road from Kishantos since the first Orbán administration (1998-2002).
The National Land Office (NFA) and Ferenc Kumin’s office of international communications both declined to talk to the Budapest Beacon about allegations of corruption at Kishantos and nationwide.
The nine-hectare farming and education center is now surrounded by a 452-hectare desert of barren fields due to a regulation that bans crop spraying for a year. When that time is up, and the new era of chemicals and fertilizers begins, the farm will also lose its hard-won Bio Suisse status for organic farms. Ács says: “We have been cultivating the lands without chemicals for over 20 years. It will be interesting to see how the new farmers cultivate the land here.”
But for now, amid rolling wheatfields and swathes of giant sunflowers, Kishantos, once the pride of the area, is a desolate landscape. “They put this desert here as a warning, a symbol of what will happen to you if you mess with them,” says Ács.
The fields are barren because the new tenants made sure of it. They came with tractors and ploughed under seedling crops – worth an estimated HUF 150 million – just two months before they would have been ready to harvest. Ács explains: “These so-called winners made a big effort to turn this blooming, organic farm into a desert. The first session in April took one and a half days because it was organised centrally and involved 15 tractors. It was unbelievable.”
Her co-founder, farmer Ferenc Bolye, said: “What kind of barbarism is this? We would have handed over the land, let them harvest it if they want, but why destroy it?”
Ács added: “This may be the first time something like this has happened since the Middle Ages.”
However, Márton Bitay, the Rural Development Ministry state secretary, defended the destruction of the crops. “The new leaseholders could not use the land for half a year because the KVK did not vacate it,” he said, and described the Greenpeace protest as merely part of “the daily business of opposition attempts to discredit the government abroad”. Socialist MP Zoltán Gőgös called the destruction of the crops “petty, political vengeance”.
The following month, as Ács recalls, “a journalist from (the daily newspaper) Népszabaság came, and the photographer was nearly run over. One tender winner – unaware he was talking to a journalist – was shouting ’get off my land’. When the journalist pointed out that it wasn’t his land, he said ‘I will gouge your eyes out.’”
Many legal cases have also been brought against the organic farmers by the tender winners. Ács says they won the first few cases but have been losing them since the NFA became involved.
The KVK, which has operated in the black since 1998, faced the latest in a long line of court cases at Pest central district court on Tuesday, where the NFA’s lawyers argued that there is no case against these tender winners because they have “no legal parties” to the case.
Democratic opposition MPs Róbert Sallai and Rebeka Szabo have tried to investigate the Kishantos tender procedure with some difficulty, because the management plans submitted by the applicants are not available to the public. Basing 50% of the tender scores on such management plans gave the relevant state land allocation committee a lot of room for manoeuvre. For example, according to the objective data, winner Mezö Vidék BT should have been placed sixth and last in its tender. But after scoring 135 out of 150 points for the management plan, it won the right to cultivate the plot after all.
It seems unlikely that the new regime at Kishantos will greatly enrich the local community. “The local mayor attached a letter of support to our application, saying it was important because we employ 15 people, but they just ignored it, and actually only one of the ten winners is from Hantos,” Ács says as she walks around the fields she tended for over two decades, remembering the harvests of earlier years. “This was a wheatfield, so right now we should have the same fields as that one,” she adds, pointing over at a neighbouring field in full bloom.
Kishantos’ fields to the left have been ploughed under, in contrast to the neighbouring farm’s on the right
Ács and Bolye founded Kishantos as a grassroots organization in 1990 after the latter had spent four months in Denmark and returned to Hantos inspired by the teachings and folk school traditions of N. F. S. Grundtvig. With the help of German farming experts and József Ángyán, a professor of agriculture at Gödöllő’s farming university, the school and farm prospered. Having started organic farming on the Kishantos lands in 1992, the KVK acquired a lease for the ‘Kishantos castle’ building in 1995, when they set up a school to teach young farmers about organic farming. Kishantos began operations as an independent farm in 1998, after winning the lease to the 452-hectare farm thanks to a German-Hungarian governmental cooperation.
The school defines its mission as “spreading the idea of sustainability and democracy”, and says Kishantos is “the only project in Europe where sustainable agriculture, ecological farming, education and democracy have been functioning together in perfect harmony.”
The Kishantos community has also played an active role in the community of Hantos, a poor village of 930 people two miles away, which is visible across the fields. Among other community-minded initiatives, the KVK has twice renovated the local park, introduced a tree-planting scheme and organised regular cultural exchange trips with folk schools in Denmark.
Jozséf Ángyán accepted Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s offer of a seat in parliament when the premier dangled the carrot of his overseeing a sustainable farming policy. Soon he became disillusioned, however, and turned on the Orbán government over its distribution practices when leasing state lands, becoming that rarest of creatures: a publicly dissenting member of the Fidesz caucus. He remains the only person to have left the Fidesz parliamentary bloc since the party’s election landslide in 2010.
According to Ángyán, the story of Kishantos “perfectly demonstrates how national and international capital interests are trampling on local communities and families”. Government policy is “not about common good”, he adds. Rather than destroying them, “the rural development strategy calls for the establishment of centres where demonstration and education take place”.
“The land of a European-ranked demonstration farm, operating for over 20 years, can be wiped out in this way because the past and the future don’t matter. It’s a scandal, a scandal,” said Ángyán.
Professor Ángyán’s resignation may have been a factor when the NFA decided not to extend the lease of Kishantos beyond October 31, rejecting all ten of its applications for the ten plots on offer. One significant detail is that the KVK’s programme had to run for one more year, otherwise EU subsidies would have to be repaid, meaning that the loss of their lands left Ács and Bolye in financial trouble. Nevertheless, when some 100 Greenpeace activists and 250 others protested the judgement at the farm, the NFA simply dismissed the complaints as “political”.
Another contributory reason may have been Ács’s public criticism of Fidesz’s land policy. “I have openly criticised the government because they were misleading the country, talking about genuinely sustainable development with Professor Ángyán, according to his strategy and then doing absolutely the opposite.”
Ángyán notes that “many of Hungary’s scandalous land redistribution cases have occurred in Fejér county… where applicants always won via excessive subjective management plans scores.”
Unlike him, Ángyán says, “Hungarian society cannot simply resign from this, because if this is the way things are going, then the countryside is finished.” The former politician says the scandal is part of a “wider ‘mafia network” of a few dozen economic actors who have taken over politics. The two political parties are the ‘day and night shifts’ of the same mafia network.”
“How do you think it feels when three state lawyers are after you, when you have spent your whole life helping the community?” Ács asks. “It is not enough that we lose the farm but they want to destroy us. The main aim was to lead us into bankruptcy because our main investment was in the plants and they ruined them. It was unbelievable but it happened. Aggressive barbarians, cheats, criminals, yet they are supported by the land firms and business circles.”
It is difficult to square these accounts with the words of Orbán last Saturday, when he said “the government has successfully protected Hungarian farm land over the past four years,” and claimed that “the biggest threat of the previous 20 years had been attempts by the ’remnant communist’ Socialists and their liberal peers to put Hungarian farm land in the hands of foreigners and speculators”. In the same speech he pledged that “the government will continue to press for legislation that ensures farm land remains in the national sphere of influence while weeding out speculators.”
Ács has experienced a different Hungarian reality to the one painted by Orbán, one which her, Ángyán and other victims of suspect state land deals document at http://www.kielegyenafold.hu. “We are fighting to get our farm back,” she says.
“This is the real rezsicsökkentés (a reference to Fidesz’s trumpeted utility rate cuts)”, she adds, pointing toward an office building almost entirely covered in solar panels, before disappearing inside “to write another letter to the NFA”.
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