Guest Blog by Ruth Cape

Ruth works for Community Land Scotland although she writes here in a personal capacity. During the summer of 2009, she spent six weeks volunteering at the Tent of Nations farm in the West Bank, Palestine.

“We refuse to be enemies” is the sentiment upon which the Tent of Nations project in Palestine is built. Painted on a stone which greets every visitor to the Nassar family farm, where the project is based, the phrase encaptures the deep sense of humanity, resolution and faith which emanates from the 100 acres of land and the family who own it.

At 8am on Monday 19th May 2014, Israeli Defense Force (IDF) bulldozers arrived unannounced – presumably rolling past the Nassar’s defiant welcoming statement – and proceeded to destroy between 1,500 and 2,000 mature, fruit-bearing apricot trees, apple trees and grape vines in the lower valley of the farm.

Resting on a hill six miles southwest of Bethlehem in the Occupied Territories of Palestine (the West Bank), the Nassar family hold registration papers for this land dating back to the Ottoman Empire. For over 20 years now, the family have been fighting a legal battle to prove their ownership of the land. For over 20 years they have been challenged by knock-backs, obstacles and violent provocations. The attack at the beginning of last week comes while their latest case for proving ownership has been in the Israeli Military/Civil Courts since February 2013.

Image: The valley before and after the bulldozers arrived.

In 2001 the Nassars set up the Tent of Nations peace project on their farm; a project committed to building intercultural cooperation and understanding; to promoting dialogue and non-violence and to highlighting the connection between people and land. As a volunteer in 2009 (planting and harvesting many of the trees now destroyed), I was struck by the family’s steadfast resolve to remain on their farm despite the pressure to have it evacuated and claimed as Israeli State Land. I noted in a blog during my time there the “shuwe, shuwe” (“slowly, slowly”) attitude to the Nassar’s work; commenting that it “sums up their calm, thoughtful and sustained approach to dealing with an intense and emotional situation.” Such an approach couldn’t be more necessary now as they cope with this latest act of oppression; as ever – they are rising to the occasion with dignity and hope.

In addition to the destruction of the trees, the terraced land on which the trees were planted was also destroyed and left in a state of rubble which cannot currently be re-planted. Having generated income from the fruit of the mature trees, the family are faced with an attack on their livelihood as well as their property. As advised by their lawyer, the Nassars are now appealing for compensation; critically, they are also appealing to have the demolition orders which remain on the tents, compost toilets & other structures on the farm removed. They have asked for international awareness to be raised and for the international community to support their case and to understand that the injustices they face are representative of the oppression faced by the wider Palestinian population.

If you’d like to take action to support the Nassar family and hold the Israeli Military and Government to account for its actions, please write to your MP using this standard letter – doc and rtf.

See the Tent of Nations website Facebook and twitter for more information and updates.

 

Image: The unassuming entrance to the HQ of the UK’s largest farm

The largest farm in the UK is popularly understood to be that owned by the Co-operative Group which extends to 17,808 acres across the country and is currently up for sale. However, figures released by the Scottish Government show that, in fact a north-east farmer, Frank A Smart is now far and away the largest farmer in the whole of the UK. In 2013, Mr Smart was farming 87,423 acres of land across Scotland – almost five times more than the Co-operative Group. For his efforts, he was paid £3,226,492 by the Scottish Government. His company’s accounts record a profit of £552,655 for the year ending 30 September 2012.

Mr Smart is the King of the Slipper Farmers. By buying “entitlements” to farm subsidies of thousands of pounds per hectare and claiming these on the basis of bogs and mountains rented at around £5 per acre – “naked acres”, he has abused the system of farm subsidies and become a millionaire.

According to the farming journalist Andrew Arbuckle, slipper farming has been responsible for between £50 – £100 million of payments each year – almost 20% of the total amount of subsidy paid to Scottish agriculture. Some of Scotland’s leading charities joined in the scam – here is the National Trust for Scotland trying to explain away its own involvement in buying entitlements and leasing naked acres.

The new system of farm subsidies to be introduced in 2015 is meant to bring an end to slipper-farming by ensuring that all farmers are “active”. The definition of this is yet to be finalised, however, and it is far from clear whether this will be effective in eliminating this abuse. Matters are further complicated by uncertainty over whether the new system will be introduced in 2015 as a fresh start or whether it will be phased in over a number of years. The latter approach may well allow slipper farmers like Frank Smart to continue receiving millions of pounds per year for doing probably very little at all. Moreover, it would be a slap in the face to those many farmers across Scotland for whom, because the current system was designed to benefit those farming in 2003, have been running their businesses with no subsidy whatsoever

Last week, the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee wrote to Richard Lochhead and argued that an immediate move to the new system may have a “negative impact on Scotland’s agriculture sector which could have serious and economic and social impacts.” It argues this position on the ludicrous proposition that “some businesses”, despite having known for years that this change was going to happen, “may not be prepared”. (page 6 of the letter & Committee Inquiry page).

Sorry – but if these businesses (and, coincidentally, they are ones that seem to dominate the concerns of the National Farmers Union of Scotland) are not prepared, then that’s tough. Why should public money be paid out to to anyone on the basis of what they were given a decade ago and who has failed to prepare for change?

Apart from Scotland’s specialised farming press and a programme on Panorama broadcast in March 2012, the mainstream media has not paid much attention to this issue. One recent exception, interestingly is the New York Times which carried a story titled “In Scotland, Working both the Land and a Loophole” by Stephen Castle on 31 March 2014.

Meanwhile, the concerns of the Committee and of the Scottish Government will be evidenced by whether Mr Smart continues to receive millions of pounds of public money that should, instead, be supporting Scotland’s far more deserving active and enterprising farm businesses.

My previous blog on Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) farming subsidies attracted a bit of interest in The Herald today and a number of people have been in touch to ask what can be done to ensure a fair distribution of EU farming subsidies. This question of course is exercising Richard Lochhead as he finalises the details of the subsidy system that will kick in in 2015 and run until 2020. There are a number of competing interests to be squared and his task is unenviable.

I have blogged in the past about “capping the CAP” here, here and here. Capping involves placing a ceiling or cap on the amount of subsidy given to any one farming business. The European Parliament voted that capping be mandatory but the Council of Minsters took the view that it should be left to Member States to decide for themselves and that means, in the UK, that the devolved administrations have complete discretion as to if and how they apply such a measure.

During negotiations of the CAP, the UK and Scottish Governments were opposed to a cap but back in 2011, Richard Lochhead admitted thatthe public did not like the idea of very big payments going to individual farm businesses and many of the farmers he had spoken to across Scotland had acknowledged that.”

I argued in February 2013 that existing payments were very unevenly distributed. The graph below shows the total for 2011 (the distribution for 2013 is very similar).

If payments were capped at £100,000 per farm business, then this would, in 2011, have enabled the redistribution of £53.9 million paid to 813 farmers.

On the basis of the 2013 data, over two-thirds of the total direct payments went to 21% of the recipients (3962 farm businesses). A total of 642 farm businesses received payments of over £100,000 and capping the basic payments at this level would recover £66.2 million per year for redistribution.

No farm business needs a subsidy of more than £100,000 or, if it does, it does not deserve to be in business. I would, in fact place the cap much lower – at £50,000. The Scottish Government consultation noted (page 13) that,

If we wish we can decide that there should be a bigger reduction on Basic Payments than the 5% which is required by Europe, including a total cap on the size of future Basic Payments. Reducing the potential size of future payments in this way might also help tackle slipper farming where entitlements to high value SFPs have been transferred and are currently being claimed on rough grazing. Imposing higher levels of degressive reduction or even a total cap on the size of future Basic Payments could be one way to limit the future size of payments to slipper farmers who meet any minimum activity requirement. Without a tool such as this, these claimants could continue to claim a relatively large share of future support until payments become fully area-based. (my emphasis)

Consultees were invited to express a preference for one of four options but none included a total cap of less than €500,000.

Most people understand the concept of a cap and, whilst the the £26,000 per year benefits cap is controversial because it relates to some of the poorest members of society, the same cannot be said, generally speaking, of farmers. There are some poor farmers of course. There are many who work long hours for poor rewards. There may well be some who rely on benefits to feed their family. But this need does not extend to Sheik bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Earl of Moray or Viscount Cowdray.(1)

There is no justification for paying any farm business, including (as the previous blog noted) large landowners, much more than twice the cap on benefits received by the poorest in society. Furthermore, the current system of subsidies is contributing to a growing concentration of ownership and occupancy of land when the Scottish Government’s land reform policy is to see more diversity and have many more people owning land. Excessive subsidy (indeed any subsidy) also pushes up the price of land. Subsidies, in general are a bad policy but we are stuck with them.

So.

£50,000 a year. What do you think?

NOTES

(1) See previous blog to download Excel file of 2013 recipients of farm subsidies.