Letter to the Editor by Doug Campbell, published in the Charlottetown Guardian
October 23, 2017
The National Farmers Union (NFU) is alarmed by the rate at which farmland is being transferred to large corporate interests. Islanders, especially those in rural communities, know that all around them, land is being transferred generally in non-transparent transactions. What is involved is frequent and widespread under-the radar transfers of large quantities of land to interlocked corporations and to foreign investors. Without much apparent concern on the part of Government, PEI is now a victim of the well-known global land grab.
The PEI Lands Protection Act is the envy of many people in other jurisdictions. However, the NFU has known since the early 80’s that limits on acreage ownership is an important aspect of the Act, if the loopholes regarding these limits were either closed or closely monitored. However from the very beginning the NFU has made a distinction between the letter of the law and its spirit and intent. Premier Angus MacLean, who is the politician credited with proposing the Lands Protection Act was clear that the protection of the land is more than legal ownership. It was understood with the passing of the Act that land protection would require watching over who control land and how they do that.
It is the responsibility of successive governments to oversee the actual legal transferral of ownership of land. It is also, and especially, essential that each government monitors the way in which corporate entities can take control of land even without formal ownership. The intent and spirit of the Lands Protection Act is that land would be protected from the consolidation of the power of these corporate entities over the land. In the industrial model of production, for example, an industrial corporation can take control of farmland by controlling the production decisions, the access to inputs, and by keeping the farmers indebted to the corporation.
Currently it is the Minister of Communities, Lands, and Environment who is responsible for the administration of the Lands Protection Act. An arms-length body, the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission (IRAC), has the role of making recommendations to the Minister who must bring them to Cabinet for approval or rejection. These approvals or rejections are based only on the judgement of adherence to the letter of the law. It is estimated that the Cabinet has approved over 85% of the requests for land transfer. The NFU challenges the Minister and IRAC to formulate their recommendations based also on the purpose, spirit and intent of the Lands Protection Act.
At best, IRAC’s recommendations and Cabinet’s approvals are piecemeal ways of acre-by-acre land transfers, which accumulate over time into massive shifts in land ownership and control. At worst, the current administration of the Lands Protection Act seems to ignore the nature of land grabbing tactics. Investors, local and international, with big money, seeing low return on their investment in the financial sector are turning to securing their future wealth by investing in land which they presume will increase in value. What is obvious to many people is that an individual investor can, and does, form multiple corporations and thus own or control thousands of acres of land. It seems that there is little transparency. Island residents have the right to easy access to information on transfers of land.
Governments have the capacity to trace the money, to uncover the source of the investments, and to publicize these.
The NFU fears for the protection of land in PEI because it is the corporate and investor sectors which seem to have the ear and the heart of government.
The NFU is not necessarily alleging that any of the widespread transfers of land are contravening the legal requirements, though some stretch the law to its limits. We are saying however that governments are abandoning the purpose, spirit and intent of the Lands Protection Act. That is a serious indictment for any government and reveals a lack of understanding of the will of ordinary Islanders.
Douglas Campbell is a dairy farmer in Southwest Lot 16, and District Director of the National Farmers Union.