If we want to feed our children, we must first protect our land

The Terre-en-Vue movement, « aims to facilitate access to land, with a view to helping farmers set up and develop agroecological projects with citizens… It supports projects that are socially, ecologically and economically sustainable and perennial: projects that revitalize the soil, respect the landscape and the balance of ecosystems. » Composed of a non-profit organization, a cooperative and soon a foundation, Terre-en-vue has its feet firmly on the ground, clear ideas and the way to implement them. Interview with Zoé Gallez and Maarten Roels, two of the initia

Kairos:
How was Terre-en-Vue born, what were the different steps that allowed you to get there?

Maarten: One of the key elements in the genesis of the initiative was the formation of a youth group, the « Reclaim the fields » group, which proposed squatting on the land to show that it is a common good. About forty people gathered at the initiative of Kari Steven, co-founder of the non-profit organization « le Début des Haricots »(1). Finally we decided to opt for a strategy by constituting a platform for all the associations that want to support peasant agriculture. Two main areas were identified: seeds and access to land. A « seed exchange » was quickly organized at the House of Culture in Molenbeek and was a great success. We then said that we had to think more deeply about the issue of access to land and make concrete proposals: we had to create a tool that would allow us to acquire land, rather than squatting on it.

Kairos:
Why?

Marteen:
A structural response was needed, which would allow for more actions to be taken later on. We wanted to take inspiration from the Terre de liens movement, created at the end of the 90’s in France and of which we had met one of the founders, Sjoerd Wartena. In early 2011, a small group met for the first time at CREDAL(2), with Jérôme Rassart who previously worked at CRABE(3). GASAPs(4) joined us with Anaïs Le Troadec, coordinator of the network that I also represented, as well as the Beginning of the Beans, the MAP (movement of peasant action)(5) with Thomas Lauwers, and then Zoé who met Thomas during a common reading of Tim Jakson on prosperity without growth (laughs). Ho-chul represented Agricovert(6), a network of cooperative farmers who organize themselves to sell their products together directly.

These actors represented three levels: access to the market through the GASAP networks, access to knowledge with CRABE and the FUGEA unions(7) and MAP, and access to capital with CREDAL. These three axes are the strength of the network.

We also had meetings with the group that is carrying out the same type of project in Flanders, made up of four partners: Land-in-zicht (literal translation of Terre-en-vue), a non-profit organization that also has a foundation that will become the owner of two farms; the CSA (Community Support Agriculture) network; Landwijzer vzw, which is the Dutch-speaking counterpart to CRABE; and the CDO (Center voor Duurzame Ontwikkeling at Ghent University).

Kairos:
That’s quite a network!

Zoe: Yes, it’s moving all around. The construction of the initiative continues with a meeting on May 6, 2011 in Namur, which meets a great success. In addition, another project has moved us forward, it is a buying group in Rochefort, which started from the observation that their producer could not make a full living from his agricultural activity because he lacked land. Jean Vander Elst realizes that there is land nearby that can be purchased but he cannot do it alone. He then proposes to his group to make a group purchase. And then, surprise: after a few weeks he collects a sum (60.000 euros) which allows him to buy three lands instead of one.

The synergies between the Rochefort group and Terre-en-Vue were obvious and Jean joined the Terre-en-Vue Dynamo group. The Dynamo group is the motor group, but without the polluting engine!
(laughs)

Kairos:
Can you tell us more about the difficulties of access to land in Belgium?

Maarten: It’s very serious, 41 farms disappear every week. At this rate, in 130 years there will be no more farms. If we distinguish the farms according to their size, we see two groups: one, the only one that is growing, is the « mega-farms » with an area of more than 50 hectares, and the other, in free fall, is made up of the small farms, under 5 hectares. Another observation: every week 64 farmers stop working without being replaced by new ones, so it is a pure and simple disappearance of jobs. In terms of land, 240 hectares are taken out of agricultural use per week (the equivalent of 330 soccer fields); this is land that is used for something other than agriculture (residential, leisure, etc.). This is a direct loss for the Belgian food sovereignty capacity.

Zoé: This is not well known, yet the data is public, on the website of the Federal Public Service Economy(8).

Marteen: Yes, these are statistics that anyone can access but no one asks. Even if food is the basis of our survival, we do not ask ourselves these questions for one main reason: there is a schism between the cities where we consume and the countryside where we produce. People don’t even ask about the conditions of existence of the actors of the agricultural world. They go to the store and choose products. They see only one aspect of a much more complex reality. We delude ourselves into believing that we are in a world of abundance and security, we are in a situation of enormous fragility and complete dependence.

Kairos:
What do you think is the reason for this fragility, apart from the dependence on oil?

Marteen: It’s true that the dependence on oil is massive. There is also the link with the international market: if we are able to fill the Belgian market with products that come from the other side of the world, it is because the price of transport is very low, because there is no land management policy in the countries of the South, because Western companies can buy thousands of hectares of land for 50 euros a year. Some U.S. universities are investing in the purchase of land in Ethiopia. This neo-colonialist management of access to land makes it possible to increase the surface area of farms, to produce intensive monocultures, to lower prices, which only gives a chance to large farms. The only solution that small farmers have is short circuits (farm sales, gasap), but it is not promoted at all in agronomy schools.

Most graduating farmers don’t consider this possibility, they see it as a barrier rather than a lever. This avoids a lot of intermediaries and therefore allows prices to be set according to the cost of production and not on a market that determines them.

Zoë: There is still room for improvement at all levels because even in GASAPs, some producers base their prices on market prices; they are embarrassed to ask for prices that correspond to their real costs.

Marteen: At the level of education of professionals, we should recover lost knowledge, for example with writings like those of Fukuoka(9) on no-till agriculture. It’s about respecting the land, but it’s also a vision in which you try to do as little as possible and use the natural reproductive capacities so that production costs decrease. Basically, in agriculture we do a lot of things that are not necessary, only because it makes money for another industry, whether it is chemistry or mechanization.

However, it is not a question of completely de-mechanizing, simply that there are a number of things that can be done without. But we are in a society where producing less creates guilt.

Kairos:
You are touching on the pillars of our productivist societies: large surfaces, intensive agriculture, chemistry… what do you expect from the public authorities?

Zoe: Governments are elected by the people. Just as citizens must question the public authorities, the public authorities must play their role as a counter-power to the industrial lobbies. So we want to include the public authorities in our project. The French example shows that fruitful collaborations, particularly with the municipalities, are possible.

Kairos:
Do you favour a particular political level?

Maarten: Every scale has its importance. It is necessary that each level realizes the power of the others. For example, now we often try to solve local problems at a higher level, but this is not possible. If you go beyond your scale, you generate rigidity, everyone wants to intervene, it doesn’t work. Biodynamics is a great source of inspiration here. This homeopathy of the soil will allow us to be actors at the level of the earth but also at the political level. The principle of biodynamics is to create preparations that are sprayed on the soil to bring it to an ideal mineral balance. We will do the same thing at the political level, that is to say, we will develop political visions and practices by trying to include politicians so that they modify the relationships between the different levels. Respect for the commons requires a reflection on the forms of organization.

Kairos:
How does Terre-en-Vue work?

Zoé: There are two branches: the asbl and the cooperative. The association takes care of the whole movement: animation, political interpellation, awareness raising — training, accompaniment, advocacy. Jobs will be created on the basis of public funding. The starting capital of the cooperative, already reached 12.000 euros, was constituted by the asbl and the other founding associations. We obtained it very quickly: in one week, we had 6.000 euros of donations to the asbl, it is very encouraging.

The cooperative will be able to receive the investments of the interested parties, without any possible speculation, therefore without capital gains, dividends, etc., it will be money used to buy land, to protect our heritage, our food. The cooperative will not have employees. The means of acquiring land are regional, i.e. the cooperative can buy throughout the region, but ideally we would like to rely on a local dynamic each time, so that at least half of the purchase of a piece of land is financed by people in direct contact with the beneficiary farmer (either because they live nearby or because they consume his products).

In addition, a foundation will be created to receive the land bequests that the cooperative cannot receive.

Kairos:
What difficulties do you encounter, if any?

Maarten: Actually we created a lot of expectations. New farmers want to settle, waiting for land. Unfortunately, a lot of land goes on public sale and in this case we have to know in advance how much we can put in, which is not at all obvious in terms of reaction with a collective movement like ours. Public sales obviously attract speculators who buy land at prices beyond its value. The crisis and the Dexia episode have, for example, seen the sale by municipalities of numerous pieces of land to private firms. It is not excessive to speak of the re-dimensioning of our countryside.

Kairos:
We already have an idea of the kind of society you are promoting.
How do you position yourself in relation to the growth objection, for example?

Zoé: Our model is a decreasing, alternative model, one of its main objectives is to stop overproduction. Our goal with Terre-en-vue is to reappropriate these essential questions together.

Kairos:
Is there a message you would like to convey to the reader?

Zoé: Yes, everyone has a place in the Terre-en-vue movement: by donating money, by participating in a local group, by coming to our forums… but above all by thinking about the way they eat, by thinking in the long term. If we want to feed our children, we must first protect our land.

www.terre-en-vue.be

Interview by JBG and Alexandre Penasse

Notes et références
  1. www.haricots.org
  2. « Coopérative de crédit alternatif soutenant des projets sociaux qui n’ont pas accès au crédit bancaire en Wallonie et à Bruxelles » www.credal.be
  3. Coopération, Recherche et Animation du Braban Wallon de l’Est, www.crabe.be
  4. Groupe d’Achat Solidaire de l’Agriculture Paysanne, www.gasap.be
  5. www.lemap.be
  6. www.agricovert.be
  7. Fédération Unie de Groupements d’Eleveurs et d’Agriculteurs. www.fugea.be
  8. Voir par exemple : http://statbel.fgov.be/fr/binaries/keyagr_fr_tcm326-133838.pdf
  9. La révolution d’un seul brin de paille. Une introduction à l’agriculture sauvage. Masanabu Fukuoka, Editeur Guy Tredaniel pour la trad. Franç., 2005
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