Land grabbing and international companies buying up land in Romania are destroying one of the places in the world with the greatest biodiversity and creating problems for the people in the countryside. This is the opinion of biologist Joe England and landscape architect Viktoria Luft, who works to promote sustainable agriculture and small-scale agriculture in the country.
The Hârtibaciu Valley is located in the Transylvania region. It's one of those largest protected areas in Romania and part of Natura 2000, EU network of protected areas. The area is full of arable land, forest and the valley is surrounded by the Carpathian mountain range. The valley is beautiful - with hilly, green meadows. Big, black cows graze calmly along the ground.
Landscape architect Viktoria Luft points to one of these areas and says:
- Do you see that? It is the land and livestock of the Carpathian Meat. It is so evenly green because they grow a limited amount of grass species for the cows. Before, it was divided into different plates for different crops.
The Carpathian Meat Group (KMG) is a Swiss-owned meat company that has today purchased, or otherwise claimed, large portions of arable land in the Hârtibaciu Valley. They also own land in other places in Romania.
On their website, the company says that they work to preserve biodiversity in the valley - something that biologist Joe England and landscape architect Viktoria Luft oppose. They are both part of the association Hosman Durabil and work to promote sustainable agriculture and to counter land grabbing in Romania, in a project together with the organization Eco Ruralis.
Romania has a long tradition of small-scale, sustainable agriculture. It is a contributing factor to why the country has some of the grasslands most biological diversity in the world, calculated per square meter. Biologist Joe England believes that before 2007, when Romania joined the EU and thus entered into a free trade agreement, one could see from a satellite map how the lands consisted of different colors of the different plants. A satellite image in the same area from today is completely green. When the diversity of plants is lost, this is followed by the disappearance of insects, mammals and birds, according to Joe England.
KMG recognizes land grabbing
Joe England tells of a meeting with KMG, when the spokespersons for the company practically admitted land grabbing - that they had illegally claimed land. According to KMG, they sometimes encounter problems with the local population. A man had not used his land for a few years, so the company put a fence around the area. When the owner wanted to return to land, KMG refused to give it up and offered another piece of land. They kept the land even though the owner did not want to agree to a change, which led to the owner starting to destroy the fence. KMG described the man as a troublemaker.
- Actually, the company admitted that they were guilty of land grabbing, says Joe England.
One reason why it is sometimes difficult to know whether it is a case of theft of land or whether it is actually legal can be explained by Romania's cultural and political history, says Viktoria Luft. When the Saxons, the Germanic people who lived in Romania for a long time, left the country, many people moved to villages and have been cultivating the land for generations since, because the owners did not. After the communist era, when most of the land was state-owned, people regained private ownership. It contributed, and still contributes, to confusion over the ownership of certain lands.
Land grabbing - a global problem
It is not only in Romania that land grabbing has attracted attention - the problem is widespread throughout the world, especially in low-income countries.
Land Matrix is an initiative that advocates transparency and responsibility in large-scale land acquisitions in middle- and low-income countries around the world. Their report from 2021 shows how land grabbing and land-rushing is a global problem, with negative socio-economic and environmental effects. The report mentions how the Amazon, Southeast Asia and the Congo Basin, among others, are vulnerable areas to land grabbing and environmental degradation. The organization La Via Campesina also works for farmers' rights, and believes that corporate interests have taken precedence over human rights for far too long.
Consequences for the rural population
It is not only the environment that is negatively affected, according to Viktoria Luft and Joe England - socio-economic and cultural aspects should also be included. When Romania joined the EU in 2007, many young people applied to work in other member states where wages are higher. This has contributed to older people in rural areas not having someone who can take over and help with work on the families' farms - which becomes a reason to sell land.
But when the socio - economic situation in Romania in a few years' time has hopefully improved and people want to move back home, Joe England and Viktoria Luft fear that there will be no land left to buy. Prices have also been pushed up by international companies starting to monopolize the country's land. Small farmers already have a drastically reduced opportunity to afford to buy land.
Luft also says that it goes against the public interest of the people who live in the villages around the Hârtibaciu valley. KMG has set up fences to prevent livestock from escaping, but this prevents people and shepherds from getting through certain areas and public roads. It also blocks access to grazing land for wildlife such as bears and wolves, even those parts of the land that are not owned by the company. This leads to the wild animals getting closer to villages, and people assume that there are too many bears, for example, even though the problem is actually in the fences. Air and England point to how this increases conflicts between wildlife and humans and destroys a cultural landscape.
- The unique cultural landscape in Romania is being destroyed because companies are buying up a lot of land. Why? For rich people to become even richer. And the profits do not even benefit Romania that much, but millionaires in Switzerland. It makes me so angry, I do not understand. Why do you let this happen? Says air.