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FAO Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia

INTERVIEW: FAO land tenure expert Morten Hartvigsen

A family owns four scattered plots of land, each no bigger than half a football field. Family members use precious time and fuel moving equipment, seeds and fertilizer from one plot to another – often driving across the crops of other families. The combined output of the four plots might feed the household, with perhaps a tiny surplus to sell locally.

The situation just described – seen in many countries in the Balkans and elsewhere across Eastern Europe and the Caucasus – could actually present an opportunity. FAO land tenure expert Morten Hartvigsen spoke recently with senior communication officer Sharon Lee Cowan about how the Organization is helping countries cope with land fragmentation – and improving farm productivity and community life in the process.

Why so many tiny plots of land?
Most countries in our region have small farm sizes, often dating back to land reforms carried out in the 1990s as part of the transition from centrally planned to market economies. Take the case of Albania. In the 1990s each family was given 1.5 hectares of land – typically split into four or five parcels in different locations of the village. In the Western Balkans, Moldova, Georgia, and Armenia, we see average parcel sizes of around 0.3 hectares of arable land.

In other countries, land fragmentation dates back to still earlier reforms, after World War II for example. Yet another way land becomes fragmented is through inheritance, when already small plots are divided among several surviving children upon the death of the registered owner.

This creates problems?
Competing in the globalized economy is just not possible with small plots of land, distant from one another. There are no economies of scale, and time and fuel are wasted on traveling around from field to field, often over long distances, for plowing, fertilizing, harvesting. Parcels like this can only be useful for subsistence farming.

If a farmer is renting all the land to farm commercially, it might not be a problem. But when families are farming their own land, it becomes a huge problem. In Albania, for example, around 90 percent of farmland is used by the owners.

Is there demand for change?
Governments have recognized the need to develop agriculture, and this is one of the problems blocking development. They are asking FAO to support land consolidation. Almost all countries have development strategies that call for making farms more competitive and productive. If practiced more efficiently, agriculture can be an engine for growth. In many cases, countries are importing food that they could produce themselves.

Do farmers welcome land consolidation?
Sometimes smallholders have good reason to hesitate. Trust in government may be low, land tenure often is legally shaky, or the farmers just don’t understand the process at first. So it all depends on how it is presented. We have to take the time to listen, address their concerns, and develop a package of incentives and benefits that advance the community’s needs.

You mention benefits.
At the end of a land consolidation initiative, no family will be worse off than before the consolidation, and many will gain from it. This is our guiding principle. And the benefits are numerous. First and most obvious is that each household will have all its land in one or fewer large parcels, rather than tiny plots scattered here and there. So they will be more productive. Problems with property registration will be cleared up and farmers will have secure rights to their land. Depending on the needs of the community, new access roads, drainage and irrigation infrastructure might be established. Everything we do is fully in line with the Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Governance of Tenure.

How does the process start?
If done well, it is a long process. We go village by village, and the first step is to contact all the owners. Sometimes the owners have emigrated but every effort is made to contact them – through relatives still living in the village, through social media, even.

We set up a project office in the village or municipality, with set hours every week when farmers can come in and discuss their situation. In some cases we do home visits. We interview them about their interests, show them a map of all 800 parcels of land, or whatever the number may be. One family might prefer to keep a particular parcel where they have planted an orchard, let’s say. Others might want their land to be near their home. All these preferences are taken into account.

What happens next?
We carry out a land valuation, to ensure that the final configuration is a fair deal for each and every household.

Then there is the legal framework for land ownership, registration of deeds, transactions. All of this needs to be reviewed and often overhauled, so that families have secure tenure and can buy and sell land with confidence. In Georgia, for example, only 20 percent of agricultural land is registered. In Azerbaijan, there have been many informal transactions that were never registered. Obviously all this has to be dealt with first, before any land consolidation occurs.

How are the new property lines drawn?
Finally, geodetic experts and surveyors are brought in to update the map of land parcels and land ownership. The project experts also need to be people with a knowledge of farming, land use, land registration issues, procedures for land transactions, and how to link to rural infrastructure.

What about the community?
A land consolidation project – like the one about to begin in the Republic of North Macedonia – can be a golden opportunity for rural communities. To understand what the needs are, we hold community workshops, organize focus groups, and listen. Typical problems are things like weak value chains, or poor access to markets. These are issues that can be addressed in coordination with the project. As a result of this process, we often prepare a community development plan.

And women?
Equal participation and benefits for women and men is a principle that we take very seriously. Actual involvement of women in the decision-making process can be an issue in some countries. Maybe the husband goes to the community meeting or the home interview and his wife is not present. We make every effort to involve women in the process.

Often property is registered in the name of the “head of household.” In some countries women are not registered owners, but their rights are covered by a family code. In Moldova, women and men were equally eligible for the 1990s land distribution, and typically got parcels next to each other. Regardless of the starting point, at the end of the consolidation process the land can be registered in both spouses’ names.

Tell us about Egri village.
Egri is a village in the Republic of North Macedonia where, through the support of an FAO land consolidation project, they are going from 800 tiny plots of land to just 200, and will gain many community improvements such as access roads and irrigation systems. The successful experience of Egri should inspire other villages in the country, as a major European Union-funded project on land consolidation unfolds. FAO is pleased to be working with the country’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Water Economy, and with the European Union Delegation in Skopje, to implement this important project where all parties stand to win.

8 May 2017, Budapest, Hungary

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