Land grabbing is a global phenomenon and one that is hard to combat on an individual level. There is a need for specific laws and regulations, along with scrutiny of the area that can only be carried out effectively by the local population. Here we look at the case of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes SAFER which has deliberately set up a structure for democratic oversight of its area.
We described in a previous Newsletter the experiences of some Member States in the protection and maintenance of agricultural land. In the case of France we mentioned SAFERs (Société d’Aménagement Foncier et d’Etablissement Rural) which have been in existence since 1962. They are a public tool for the preservation of farming and forestry activities on agricultural land. They have acquired more and more responsibility as time has passed and today they also deal with services to territorial collettives, decisions on major infrastructure projects and protection of the environment (natural resources, protection of the landscape etc.)
The Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes SAFER, finding it was no longer able to intervene in transactions involving agricultural land, created a network of people throughout the area who would give early warning of the sale of land. The aim of this arrangement is to block the sale of land to investors who are not local to the area, avoid speculation and at the same time facilitate purchase by young people who wish to cultivate the land but lack the necessary financial resources.
This “warning system” was made possible by the civic awareness of those living in rural areas and its aim is to preserve access to farming for the younger generations and block the transfer of farmland and forested areas to large firms that have little connection with the area. In the view of SAFER this participatory approach became necessary above all when hundreds of hectares were bought in order to produce food and fuel designed solely for export, bypassing any connection with the local economy and farmers.
Is this a system of “snooping” being used against landgrabbing? No! This is a case of giving people responsibility over the areas where they live and making it possible to intervene before “the horse has bolted”. In addition, it means that responsibility for preventing certain actions is shared so that people are not faced with “faits accomplis”. People are no longer alone, but are part of a public organization that can intervene directly when informed of the situation.
The Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes SAFER calls it Vigilance over the Land and its purpose is to find out and take action before agreements to sell agricultural land can be signed, thanks to a network of people who, once they are made aware of the problem, can inform SAFER directly of potential land sales.
Why has SAFER chosen this method?
Initially SAFERs had direct access to information about sales and purchases: notaries were obliged to inform local SAFERs beforehand of land sales and the SAFER could then oppose these. The French Constitutional Court declared this approach to be unconstitutional because it did not respect property rights.
The Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes SAFER therefore decided to rely on a network of appropriately trained local people, who in turn could create their own networks of contacts. In addition, the SAFER uses a free hotline and an email address to gather information about transactions that are underway in a timely manner.
So this is not snooping; rather it is oversight, or to put it more accurately, democratic control.