Third-party lease transfers wreak havoc in the farming community

In yet another convoluted twist in the legal saga related to the Agricultural Leases Act, a 2018 legal notice that allows leaseholders to assign their lease to third parties, leads to an outbidding of farmers by non-farmers , including developers, for coveted plots of farmland.

The head of the Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi (GħBA) farmers’ association, Malcolm Borg, contacted The Shift after being made aware of several cases in which farmers could not follow other bidders seeking to claim farmland to use them for non-agricultural purposes.

Whereas the law previously only authorized the transmission of such leases from parents to their children, Legal Notice 438 of 2018 amended the original Government Lands Act to allow transfers to third parties who qualify as “bona fide farmers”.

The problem, however, is that the legal notice does not specify what “bona fide farmers” are, stating only that such a farmer would be registered on a part-time or full-time basis with the director of the agriculture.

Cases such as that of Chloe Portelli, the daughter of developer Joseph Portelli, in Gozo highlight the abuses of developers registering themselves as farmers and appropriating farmland.

“The law only allows these transfers to ‘good faith farmers’ without providing any definition. They only require applicants to provide a certificate from the Ministry of Agriculture that they are ‘farmers’, which is issued even if you have a tumolo of land,” Borg told The Shift.

“Hence what happens is that a non-farmer, especially entrepreneurs but not only, makes a ‘gift’ (rigid) current tenants to pass on the lease to them. As long as they have official registration, in the eyes of the Land Authority, they are bona fide farmers,” he added, explaining how the act of “gifting” is essentially an unofficial deposit. to convince the lease holder to put back above the title.

The legal notice states that the Lands Authority has the power to sue individuals in the First Division of the Civil Court if it finds that following a lease transfer the land is not being used for agricultural purposes.

In such a case, the Authority would ask the court to order the eviction of any person from the land in question while declaring the assignment null and void.

Borg argues that the Authority has no system in place to check what happens to the land it leases, which means genuine farmers with limited cash flow are in a situation where they are forced to compete for cheap leases with much wealthier speculators.

According to Borg, this is exacerbating the already existing pressure on the agricultural sector in Malta, which has been hit by a perfect storm scenario consisting of a sharp increase in costs as well as a wave of evictions of farmers.

Questions have been directed to the Land Authority to inquire about the number of verification inspections carried out and whether they have ever taken anyone to court for a violation of the conditions stipulated by the legal notice.

“It’s a disaster for farmers who want more land but can’t give a substantial ‘gift’ to the current tenant like other non-farmers are doing. It is a disaster for new farmers who want access to land to start their business but have no way to get their hands on that land as these giants are grabbing more and more land,” Borg said. , emphasizing that this is a problem for food production and food security. .

In its effort to back up its case, GħBA commissioned a satellite imagery analyst to help it monitor the plots of land that were up for grabs as part of a tender launched by the Land Authority to potential tenants. interested.

Without gathering such evidence, Borg argues that the Land Authority cannot adequately monitor the situation, adding that he is not aware of “any instances where the Land Authority has taken action.”

Joseph K. Bennett