Frederic Mousseau – on the Land Reform in Ukraine

Frederic Mousseau
Policy Director, Oakland Institute,
California, USA

Frederic Mousseau coordinates the Institute’s research and advocacy activities on land investment, food security and agriculture. He has conducted numerous reviews and studies on food and agriculture and authored many reports and articles on these issues. Trained as an economist, Frederic has worked as a staff member and consultant for international relief agencies for nearly two decades, including Action Against Hunger, Doctors Without Borders, and Oxfam International. He has designed and supervised food security programs in over 30 countries.

Public Forum “Towards Peasants’ Rights to Land in Ukraine – Through Responsible Management of Land Tenure and Land Use System”

Presentation Kiev, November 26, 2019

Good morning, greetings from Oakland, California, and thank you for this opportunity to join you today.

If I am particularly glad and honored at this opportunity, it is because of the importance of what brings you together at this conference. In the US, these days we only hear about Ukraine in relations to Trump and US future elections but nothing is said about what is at stake with the opening the sale of land in Ukraine under the pressure from US and other Western powers.

For Ukraine, the decision made today about your land will shape the very future of your country and the lives of generations to come.

These decisions also matter to the rest of the world. That a country such as Ukraine is forced by foreign interests to sell its land is simply unprecedented in modern history. It has been incredible to see such a conjunction of efforts by foreign governments and institutions including the World Bank, the IMF, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, who together have conditioned over $20 bn of aid to a structural adjustment program that include lifting the moratorium. Even the European Court for Human Rights joined this international campaign, saying that the moratorium is a violation of human rights. Just last week, the G7 put together a statement to encourage lifting the moratorium. Last week also, the World Bank published a series of articles to add some scientific arguments to the pressure.

So what are those arguments? The main one is that opening a land market will attract investment and result in an increase of between 0.5 and 1.5 percent of economic growth.

According to the World Bank, this additional growth will come from the gain in agricultural yields resulting from the removal from the sector of the less ‘efficient farmers’ and the concentration of land and finance in the more efficient farmers. In order to maximize the economic growth gains, the World Bank also insists that a full liberalization that will place no restriction or safeguard on the land market is required.

I see 4 reasons to be very concerned:

  1. This is not a policy reform that can be reversed; this is about selling the goose that lays golden eggs with no way back.
  2. This is a grave attack on the sovereignty of the country, i.e. not a decision coming from Ukraine but from foreign interests following years of arm-twisting.
  3. The argument of efficiency -that thanks to market laws, less efficient farmers will be removed from agriculture- is highly questionable as it is based on a very narrow definition of efficiency that overlooks important social and environmental issues.
  4. Lastly, as learnt around the world, there is no guarantee that economic growth will translate into benefits for the population as a whole – the gains, if any, may well be captured by a few private interests, domestic and foreign. The same institutions have made clear their concerns over corruption and bad governance, so how do they expect that a massive land sale can be implemented in a way that really serves the interests of its population?

So why such a pressure to sell the land? After all, in many European countries, farmers actually mostly lease the land where they work. As we expressed in several previous publications, there is little doubt that it is about serving the interests of Western agribusinesses and investment funds that see this opening potentially highly profitable.

The central argument put forward by the World Bank is efficiency. But what defines efficiency in food and agriculture? Many of the same countries that are pushing Ukraine to move to more efficient food production are today paying the price of a mad intensification of production in the past decades, which has largely focused on increased yields through heavy use of chemicals.

Whether it is in the US or in Europe, the efficiency of large farms often relies on the exploitation of farm workers living and working in miserable conditions. Everywhere, water quality is affected by the heavy use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. In France’s Brittany, access to beaches has to be closed because of the green algae caused by nitrates, which have killed people and wildlife. Monsanto is losing trial after trial, sued by people who contracted cancer because of glyphosate. Everywhere, consumers are increasingly in demand for food that is produced in a sustainable way, safe for the people and respectful of the environment. Citizens demand a countryside that is alive and preserved from environmental pollution, not factory farms that destroy both our rural societies and the biodiversity.

Lastly, the IPCC experts highlighted recently that industrial agriculture and large mono-crops play a major role in climate change, and that it is urgent to shift our production methods to agroecology and environmental sustainability of our food production.

If the goal of the Western institutions was genuinely to support Ukrainians, there are policy actions that they could assist the government with. An obvious first step would be to help Ukraine design and implement a comprehensive food and agriculture policy, respectful of the environment, supportive of farmers and rural communities, which could provide nutritious and healthy food to consumers and raw products for transformation by local industries. As others are getting louder in their calls for the sale of Ukraine’s land, I hope that Ukrainians will stand up together in defense of their most important asset and make sure that their voice is heard at this conference today as in the weeks to come.