THE BLOG
22/11/2013 06:02 GMT | Updated 25/01/2014 16:01 GMT

Buffalo, Betting and Power Boat Racing - The Bizarre Story of Land-Grabbing in Romania

Beneath the vast skies of the western Romanian plains, a young shepherd watches over his sheep as they search for grass amongst the concrete remains of a long abandoned barn. Surrounding them on three sides, bare earth stretches out towards the horizon. On the fourth, a well worn route through the crumbling buildings of an old collectivized farm leads to another small patch of grass, this one over crowded with cattle. These two strips, just a few hectares in total, are all that is left of a communal grassland that up until last year provided food for 12000 sheep and cattle, a livelihood for 12 families and a home for Romania's last population of one Europe's rarest and most spectacular birds, the Great Bustard.

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Image credit: Béla Motkó. All rights reserved.

Now, for almost as far as the eye can see the land is in the hands of an Austrian investor. A onetime power boat racing champ and current gambling tycoon called Hannes Bohinc or, as the Austrian tabloids prefer, 'Bison Bohinc', he plans to start Europe's largest American Bison farm and, like so many agri-investors, he has chosen Romania as his playground. Drawn by low prices and loose regulations, his company, EuroBuffalo SRL, are ploughing this natural grassland, supposedly protected under the EU Natura 2000 network as a high biodiversity site, to replant it with imported seeds to better suit the imported livestock. The result? Bohinc can follow his bizarre dream of merging 'elite motorsport aficionados, genuine American Bison and exclusive gaming and sports betting all under one roof'. Meanwhile the lives and livelihoods of all who rely on this land are thrown into jeopardy.

The story is familiar - large scale land acquisitions are a feature so intrinsic to the new global market that their colloquial categorization as 'land grabs' has quickly been taken on as political parlance. But it is a story we have come to associate primarily with the Global South, particularly Africa and Latin America, where millions of hectares of land change hands each year, moving from the small holders who live and work it to investors who can bring it to full capital potential. Driven by state debt and the need for an export economy to tackle it, governments welcome the investors with open arms.

In eastern Europe land grabbing comes under a different guise, falling under the congratulatory term of 'rural development' or, more candidly, 'land concentration'. Built into EU policy, the movement of peasants off the land in the new member states of Bulgaria and Romania is billed as part of the inexorable pull of progress, propelled by the lure of wealth and prosperity offered to the young by city life. The reality is very different. The force most felt here is not a pull but a push; for the million or so peasant farmers who have moved to cities in the last decade, leaving their land was not a matter of choice but necessity.

Vilhelm Schuster, a founding member of Ecoruralis, a network of smallholders working to protect land rights in Romania, sees land grabbing in Romania as arising from a historical disparity between east and west Europe that is stubbornly ignored by the Common Agricultural Policy. 'This is a country of peasants' he says proudly. 'Nearly five million of us work the land just as our ancestors have done for hundreds of years. But being a peasant is not a valid option in Europe anymore, we are just an obstacle standing in the way of investment. They expect us to pack up, sell out and leave- but where do we go? Neither the West nor Romania's cities seem to have space for us.'

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Image credit: Liviu Oros. All rights reserved.

That so many people live off the land in countries like Romania seems to have been conveniently forgotten each time the CAP has been reformed over the last fifty years. With the aim of increasing productivity over all else, 51% of CAP subsidies in Romania go to just 0.9% of land owners while 70% of farmers are considered ineligible for payments of any kind. As such, large farms are growing exponentially, driving down the price of food and pushing smallholders ever further towards the fringes of the market. As their trade is eroded, selling up becomes the only available option.

Maybe worst hit of all are the communal, state owned grasslands that border nearly all Romanian villages, making up over half of the country's pastures. These grasslands are key to the functioning of the rural economy, giving space to the 90% of Romania's farmers who own a few animals but not enough land to graze them on. Ecologically too they are of great value, comprising nationally an area of huge, semi-natural grassland whose heterogeneous habitats support many of the country's plant and animal species. As they disappear, so will the lowland biodiversity that is fundamental to the survival of so many animals, from the great bustard to the European ground squirrel, that are already endangered or extinct across much of Europe.

But economically communal grasslands are considered an anachronism and the CAP and Romanian government treats them as such, bypassing them altogether on subsidy payments. As such, the incentive is for privatisation or leasing on increasingly long contracts (a legal minimum of five years but invariably longer). This is a process to which many farmers are unable to subscribe.

Nonetheless, it is a policy fervently pursued by many local administrations, with potential leasers often chosen on the scale and time frame of their proposal; the larger and longer the better. According to Ramona Duminicioiu, the legal consultant to Ecoruralis, 'the legality of these deals is often questionable at best, yet most smallholders aren't aware of their rights and even if they are they don't have the knowledge or funds to challenge the deal in court.'

This must have been what Hannes Bohinc was banking on when he pushed through his application for the 1100 hectares (2750 acres) of communal land in western Romania. However, he was up against tougher competition than he imagined. A group of shepherds also entered the bidding, putting forward an offer that exceeded Bohinc's by over 10%, enough to win regardless of their weaker business plan. Nevertheless, Bohinc won the bid.

The shepherds took Bohinc's company to court, claiming that the bidding had been rigged to ignore their offer. In a short and inadequately conducted hearing their case was thrown out; the only reason given was that the envelope in which they submitted their bid was improperly sealed.

But Bohinc's troubles aren't yet over. Drawing on EU regulations that deem land use change in a site protected under Natura 2000 as illegal, wildlife protection NGO Milvus Group plan to challenge the company further. However, Natura 2000 sites are managed by local administrators, all of whom have been standing firmly in favour of the Euro Buffalo project. 'We will fight this', says Attila Nagy of Milvus Group 'but it's not going to be easy. Bohinc seems to have gathered a strong circle of powerful people around him.'

None of this is surprising when you consider Bohinc's connections. His business partner is a real estate magnate called Alexandru Pop whose companies are working on commercial development projects on leased public land across the county capital of Oradea and whose cousin is a former MP and current county prefect. 'In Romania, once you have the right connections you can do pretty much what you like,' says Nagy. 'And if you have money, connections can be bought.'

Involving some law savvy shepherds, one of Romania's largest environmental NGO's and backed by EU legislation, the case against Bohinc is about as strong as challenges to land grabs get in Romania. Yet the outcome looks bleak. EU law to protect land use change in protected sites is nothing like as strong as the inducement to land concentration coming from the CAP, while the European Commission has little power in dealing with corruption in land acquisition.

As of January 1st next year, the law on land acquisition in the new member states of Bulgaria and Romania will change, propelled under EU law to open up the market to make it easier for foreign investors to buy from 'natural owners'- that is, anyone. With the groundwork already done to weaken Romania's rural economy, this could well mark the beginning of the end for Romania's smallholders and the wildlife they support.

This article was first published in Open Democracy