A Worldwide Phenomenon

Land Grabbing

Doug Campbell, Director, NFU District One, District One

This is the full text of the presentation Doug Campbell made at the February 23, 2019 Forum hosted by the Coalition for Protection of PEI Lands.

The land grab is a worldwide phenomenon that is greatly impacting the landscape of Prince Edward Island. The Island should be protected from this phenomenon by the 1982 Lands Protection Act; a forward-thinking-piece of legislation of spirit and intent, and law to ensure Islanders retain the right to the ownership and use of their land. The Lands Protection Act is constitutional. Islander residents have the right to determine the ownership of their limited primary resource. We have a right to guard its stewardship for present and future generations of Islanders.

Ownership and control of the Island land has been an ongoing saga since the British claim to ownership through defeat of the French in 1759. Of course, neither the French not the English concerned themselves with the ethics of taking the land of the Mi’Kmaq people. How ironic this point is when one thinks of where we stand today with the current land grab. Force has been replaced with underhanded tactics.

The British Crown surveyed the Island into 67 lots and gave them away in a lottery to its war creditors, with the understanding they would settle the lots with tenants. This move began the turbulent land issue. It would take confederation with Canada to buy-out the absentee landowners and make Islanders owners rather than tenants of their land. But, the battle never ended. Non-residents, corporations, and developers continually seek after Island waterfront land for subdivision purposes, and farm land for vertical integration food processors purposes. Various restrictions were introduced over the decades with little or no enforcement.

The legislation, with true spirit and intent, came in the form of the 1982 Lands Protection Act, which is the envy of many jurisdictions. However, from the day it was implemented a variety of people began the process of figuring out how to circumvent the Act for their own ends. Included in that list of people would be sellers wanting top dollar for their property, regardless of the impact on current and future generations; but, can they really be blamed? For many farmers, the land was and is their retirement fund. It is why more creative ways, than mere restrictions, have to be found to protect our primary resource. Corporations and individuals have their lawyers, accountants, and real estate agents; most of whom are Island residents, ever searching out the loopholes in the letter of the law to circumvent its spirit and intent.

Successive Island governments have permitted the spirit and intent of the Lands Protection Act to be continually violated. In turn, they tell the public that the letter of the law is being followed. Is that a lie? Technically – perhaps not; but its spirit and intent certainly has.

Successive Island governments have done nothing to strengthen the Act and close loopholes. One excuse is that the corporations have more lawyers than does the government. You would think that once a loophole is found the government would move to close it – that’s if they were faithful to the spirit and intent of the law. The reality is, Cabinet has the final say if a land deal goes through. Yet, there are many instances of them ignoring the recommendations of IRAC and approving land transactions in clear violation of the Lands Act. This leaves us to wonder how much our cabinet ministers are even educated on the Act. And what their motives are in allowing deals to go through that are in direct opposition to the intent and spirit of the law.

The Gift of Jurisdiction: Our Island Province is the name Horace Carver gave to his 2013 report of the Commission on the Lands Protection Act. Mr. Carver points out that, “While the purpose of the Act is clear and easy to understand, the legislative framework, consisting of the Act and the Regulations, is very complex and difficult to understand even for those who deal with it on a regular basis. Few individuals and corporations make application or even complete mandatory reports without help from accountants and lawyers.” Therefore, should the fate of our land be placed in the hands of the Cabinet?

For some time now, the National Farmers Union has been sounding the alarm bell about the land grab in the province, and the disregard for the spirit and intent of the 1982 Lands Protection Act that is resulting in an alarming consolidation of Island land into fewer and fewer hands. Why this matters is perhaps best stated by Horace Carver, “This province cannot withstand the effects of land grabbing experienced elsewhere in the world. We need the Lands Protection Act to protect us from the incredible wealth of people who live just beyond our borders and see our land as nothing more than a commodity to be bought and sold like silver and gold.”

Mr. Carver also stated that, “The time is here – if indeed it has not already passed – for creative, wise and visionary leadership; to try new and perhaps even some old ideas, on how to protect, enhance, sustain and assist our rural communities and our agricultural industry.” That was six years ago, and we have not yet seen the visionary leadership. We have not seen the effort to protect or sustain our rural communities and agricultural industry. What we have seen is the ramping-up of the land grab by foreign, on-and-off Island corporations, and individuals not interested in playing by the rules.

For the most part, the alarm being put forth by the NFU has fallen on deaf ears; partially, because of the lack of transparency in revealing what entities are holding Island land. The lack of transparency also allowed for the belief, by many Islanders, that the land laws were being upheld.

However, there appears to be a gradual awakening in recent months; which is, perhaps, connected to the concern around our water and the corporate demand of unlimited use of it through deep water wells and holding ponds. There has also been more recent transparency in the data base; and Island residents are beginning to see in their own communities the day-to-day results of the land grab. Also, the NFU would argue the corporations have become bolder in their transactions; in the justified belief that government will not stand in the way of their wants. After all, governments want investment and jobs; and are held ransom to the politics of fear. We have all heard it – give us what we want or we’ll move our jobs elsewhere. The NFU feels it would be fair to say farmers – as producers, have been pushed to the brink by going head-to-head with the processor to whom they are selling. It is getting difficult to hold onto the belief that a true and fair return can be earned.

The awakening is coming. But we can’t afford for it to be a gradual awakening, because time is running out; if in fact, it hasn’t already. If we, and our government don’t soon stand for the land there will be no stopping the land grab. And once again Islanders will be tenants; or worse yet, unable to afford to live in their own province – in their own communities. The NFU has, in its many talks with politicians from all political stripes, been clearly 4 told that the land will not be an issue in the soon-to-be called provincial election; unless, Islanders make it so. An example of how determined politicians are to back away from the issue is the recent no-show of three candidates running for PC leadership at the NFU forum on the land. It is also very evident in the recent hearing of the House of Assembly Select Standing Committee on Communities, Land and Environment – which proved to be a farce.

In November of 2017, the NFU made a presentation to the Committee on land grabbing. As a result, the Committee moved a motion to invite three entities to appear before them to disclose their land holdings.

Now, sixteen months later Vanco Farms has not yet appeared.

In November of 2018, Robert Irving of Cavendish Farms made it clear in his appearance that he had an hour of time to dedicate to the Committee hearing. He revealed nothing regarding Cavendish Farms’ land holdings, which are used to grown potatoes in direct competition to his contract growers – the very thing the Lands Protection Act was to prevent. Rather, Mr. Irving was allowed by the Committee, in his brief appearance, to push his own agenda. In a fall when potato farmers struggled to get the crop out due to weather conditions – Mr. Irving stated the need for the land laws to be changed so that farmers could double their acreage to supply more potatoes to the New Annan processing plant. He also pushed his argument for lifting the moratorium on deep water wells. Not one question was asked by the Committee on how much land the Irvings own and control before chair, Kathleen Casey, abruptly brought the meeting to a close.

The third entity asked to appear was the Great Enlightenment Buddhist Institute Society or GEBIS. Committee member Liberal MLA Allan Roach, after two attempts, successfully passed a motion that GEBIS not appear before the Committee to explain land holdings on the basis of it appearing racist. The land is the issue here, not racism; but it appears to be an advantageous playing card for those wishing to close down discussion when it comes to the transparency of Asian investors in Prince Edward Island.

By not asking the questions out of fear – our land suffers as the Island is being sold off incrementally. An example of not asking questions, when one should have been, was on GEBIS’ ability to develop three separate properties located side-by-side totalling 195 acres deemed agricultural when purchased. The records show it was still zoned agricultural when the building of a monastery was begun; then suddenly, an application came to government to rezone it commercial and was approved by Cabinet. Had the rules of the Lands Protection Act been followed this could not have occurred. If the government supported the Act it would have ordered building cease rather than rezone.

Richard Brown, Minister of Communities, Land and Environment has ordered IRAC to investigate PEI land holdings by corporations and individuals. Apparently, it is due in April. It is the opinion of the NFU that the government (through IRAC) already knows the information; and the delay is allowing for yet more land grabbing and abuse of the legislation. The NFU believes Richard Brown is the closest ally we have when it comes to political will to address the land issue; but it is questionable if he has the support of the McLauchlan government. When IRAC brings back the report and their suggestions will government implement them or will Premier MacLauchlan, again state “The letter of the law is being followed,” and allow the land grabbing to continue.

The Lands Protection Act has been reviewed numerous times since its inception. Before we give concrete examples of how the Lands Protection Act is being violated and by whom, let’s look at what the Act says in regard to ownership limits regarding farm land. Mr. Carver is right, in that, the rules and regulations of the Act are complicated, which begs the question – Is there any need for it to be so complicated?

In the simplest of terms the Act states that an individual is limited to one thousand acres of total land holdings. A corporation, having three equal shareholders, is limited to three thousand acres. Under the law a food processor is only supposed to have five acres to carry out test plots.

The best known example of abuse and circumventing the spirit and intent of the Lands Protection Act is by the potato processor Cavendish Farms, owned by the Irvings. As processors, Cavendish Farms is entitled under the law to five acres for test plots. Through interlocking companies the Irvings own and control an unknown amount of agricultural land. It is yet to be known if the amount they control will be revealed in the impending IRAQ report. By using the loopholes in the Act, which governments have made no move to close, the processor has been able to profit through land grabbing at the expense of Island farmers, and all Island residents. But can say they have stayed within the letter of the law.

The current situation that is unfolding, as we speak, is around 2200 acres of prime potato land in the Bedeque area. It has been a known fact, since the fall of 2018, throughout the agricultural community that Irvings purchased the land. But the recently opened-up database of IRAC shows that it was not until February of 2019 that an application was made to IRAC to purchase the land by Indian River Farms, Long River Farms, and Galloway Farms – all with Irving family member shareholders. Galloway Farms, with Rebecca Irving as the solo shareholder, only became a registered corporation on February 5th of this year. An application by Galloway Farms to buy just over a thousand acres of land from the said farm in Bedeque was made February 12th.

We have no way of knowing what the recommendations of IRAC to Cabinet concerning the sale will be or whether it will come up at the next Cabinet meeting on February 26th. However, it is likely safe to say, the Irvings are feeling pretty confident in the letter of the law.

The evidence is there that if politicians continue to only follow the letter of the law, which is the literal meaning of what the law says in writing, Islanders risk losing our gift of jurisdiction. We elect our politicians to represent the majority and the greater good, not the corporations or the land grabbers. We can no longer allow our politicians to say the letter of the law is being followed. This is an excuse to do nothing. A government that governs only by the letter of the law no longer governs for the people; but governs for the few, the wealthy, the corporations, and the self-interested; and becomes corrupt leaving an authoritarian style rule which turns leadership into dictatorship.

There is a saying that we’ve all heard – if you look after the land, it will look after you. But there is another saying – when the farm is having a hard time financially, the land is the first thing to suffer. Farmers know this. The land grab by corporations and processors is making this very evident. Here on the Island contract growers are receiving the lowest margin on their returns in the country. Farmers are forced to cash crop the land between the potato years, resulting in less cover crop and less organic matter to hold the moisture and soil.

Recently a survey was conducted among potato growers show the vast majority in favour of the Lands Protection Act and keeping the acreage limit where it is. They see the need for the Act to protect them from the land grabbing and processors having more control over their farms and livelihoods. But they need help. The land needs help. The NFU cannot solve this problem. The Coalition for the Protection of PEI Land cannot solve this problem.

The solution comes from our politicians. They and they alone, have the power to fix the land grabbing phenomenon that is impacting our Island. Politicians have to have the political will to do what’s best for the land. The time is now to make politicians accountable on such an important issue.

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