Silence is Consent
Lands Protection Act seems powerless to stop rapid corporate, non-Islander land grab so obvious in the rural community
GUEST OPINION BY DOUGLAS CAMPBELL – JUNE 28, 2018
The National Farmers Union (NFU) notices and welcomes the community’s new expressions of interest about the Lands Protection Act. Islanders know the painful history of the land and how easily it can be taken from the people. Now we are in a new era in how land transactions take place. In 2018, the style of take-overs is more hidden than they were in other times. However, on the community level, people know who is taking control of vast acreages. What is not clear to the Island population is why the Lands Protection Act seems to be powerless to stop the rapid land grab so obvious in the rural community.
The NFU has not said that corporations and individuals are breaking the letter of the law set out in the Lands Protection Act. We are saying that there is an alarming ignorance on the part of policy makers and other Island residents about the spirit of the Act.
In 1982, then-Premier Angus MacLean made it clear that the spirit/intent of the act was to keep farm land in the control of Island farm families and to keep all lands in control of Islanders. Control of the land was Premier MacLean’s over-arching theme. Part of this was that individuals and corporations must be prohibited from amassing large land holding. The Act also put tight restrictions on non-resident purchases of land. There was no intention to discourage new people from becoming resident owners. It was meant to prevent absentee control of the land.
Our consultations with influential people, associates of Premier MacLean, tell the NFU that limiting land holding in the Act was an instrument of keeping Island land in specific Island hands. The restriction to 1,000 acres for individuals would prevent excessive concentration. It meant that more people, rather than fewer, would actually control the land. The 3,000-acre limit for corporations, in the vision of Premier MacLean, was meant as a business convenience for farm families.
The intent was that three members of a family group, e.g. a parent and two adult children could form a corporation. In this way, the original spirit of the Lands Protection Act was to keep farm land at the service of family farming model. It was never intended that the corporation limit would be manipulated to serve the interests of industrial agriculture. In fact, a five-acre limit was placed on industrial corporations (including processors).
So, to accept the spirit of the Lands Protection Act, in fact, requires accepting the original goals of keeping farm land in family farming. What a desecration to see the corporation allowance being manipulated for massive takeovers of farm land. Contrary to the spirit of the Act, the goal of this current takeover is to enlarge the profits of the powerful corporations, and to firmly establish the industrial farming model as the predominant agricultural structure.
Some people, including policy makers, seem to be easily confused about what a family farm is. The NFU has heard members of large corporations, controlling immense tracts of land in P.E.I., saying, “we are a family involved in farming, so we are a ‘family farm.” That does not make their operation a family farm. When we speak of family farms, we are not talking of industrial corporations with huge land spreads.
goal of industrial farming is to amass profit for the corporation, to increase its capital holdings. The family farm on the other hand is a unit of food production where the major production decisions are made by the farm family. The farm is small enough ideally to make production decisions and to allow it to be worked mainly by the family, of course with outside labour for the busy seasons. Central concerns are making a living for the farm family and caring for the land, air and water.
With new awareness in the community about land, and about the Lands Protection Act, the NFU urges Islanders to speak out. Those in power interpret silence as consent. The NFU wants to hear loud protests about the weakening of the Act and the failure of governments to protect our land for current and future generations.
– Douglas Campbell, dairy farmer in Southwest Lot 16, District Director of the National Farmers Union
Independent Review of Land Holdings and Transfers Needed
May 3, 2017
The National Farmers Union (NFU) has continuously raised the alarm in public about the conditions in which PEI land is being transferred. We therefore welcomed the announcement of the Minister of Communities, Land and Environment, the Honourable Richard Brown, that he is initiating a review of non-resident and corporate land holdings. However, we have serious concerns about the Minister putting this task into the hands of the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission (IRAC).
The NFU understands and appreciates IRAC and its role to provide advice and recommendations to the Executive Council (the Cabinet) on all matters relating to the Lands Protection Act. IRAC receives all applications for land transfer to which the Lands Protection Act apply and recommend to the Cabinet either a denial or approval.
In our dealings over the years with IRAC, we take for granted the integrity of the Commission. They give as much information as possible to the public. However the NFU believes that because IRAC has authority only as delegated by government, the Commission may not be totally free to do a comprehensive and independent review of how the Lands Protection Act is administered.
It is difficult to understand the intent or scope of the proposed review, given that the Premier, the former Minister of Communities, Lands and Environment and the current Minister have all declared categorically that the letter of the Act is being followed. It would be difficult for IRAC to unearth findings which would contradict these authorities. The NFU even wonders if it is fair, given these circumstances to ask IRAC to perform this task.
The NFU has never claimed that the letter of the Act is violated. It seems, however, that there are loopholes in the Act, which appear to be easily navigated with the help of astute lawyers. The clearest example of a loophole is that a corporation can spawn various other corporations with separate directors, all of which, in reality, remain connected by access to the mother-corporation’s capital assets and management. The community knows that land is being concentrated and placed under the control of fewer and fewer corporations.
Following only the letter of the law is not sufficient for the land situation we are facing. The letter of the law and the spirit of the law must go hand-in-hand. The current proposed investigation concerns only the letter of the law. If we continue to follow only the letter of the law and ignore the spirit, intent, and purpose of the Act, then Island farmland will continue to be sold off to the highest bidder. Now is the time for government to shoulder its responsibility for this. The NFU is looking for real expressions of “political will” to truly protect PEI land according to the intent and spirit of the Lands Protection Act. The buck stops with the Government. The use of loopholes is in violation of the “spirit”, the intent, of the Act.
If we want to know the spirit of the Act we need to go back to its origins. The NFU has talked to key people who were involved in the early development of the Lands Protection Act. They speak clearly about what Premier Angus MacLean and his government intended. The intent, they say, was to keep all Island lands, including the shoreline, woods, and environmentally sensitive land in the hands of Islanders. The hope was that those who gained access to acreage would live on the land and actually farm it. People buying up farm land, and not farming it, are rightly called speculators and “land grabbers”. The original goal was to maintain farmland in responsible farming. The intent was to keep the land intact for future generations. Acreage limits were meant to serve this intent. The current excessive accumulation of land under one capital source definitely contravenes the spirit of the Lands Protection Act.
There is a central phrase in the Act, “steadfast stewardship”. Some may think this is referring only to land use practices; however in the context of the original intent it means maintaining a watchful eye and responsible policies so that land will be here and be protected not just for the few, but for the many, in the far-reaching future.
Loopholes in the Lands Protection Act
March 17, 2018
It is a matter of days since the National Farmers Union (NFU) participated with over 65 Islanders in a symposium on the Lands Protection Act: The Spirit and the Letter. Loopholes in the Act were high on the list of participants’ concerns about the implementation of the Act. This week, veteran, volunteer land-acquisition researchers advised the National Farmers Union of a specific case in Kings County which should shock any Islander.
The situation is as follows: around mid-2017, 75 acres of farmland came up for sale in Valleyfield, parcel #272336. A resident of Hebei, China, Yongzhang Xia, applied to the Island Regulatory Appeals Commission (IRAC) to purchase the land. The request was denied by Executive Council, whose authorization would have been required (EC2017-502).
A second request for the same land came from a corporation, Universal Cihang Ltd, Prince Edward Island, Canada, in which the name of Yongzhang Xia again appears, now as a shareholder. The request was also denied (EC2017-495). Both denials are dated August 22, 2017. The NFU thanks the Executive Council for denying these two applications.
The next phase of this story is very upsetting for the future of farmland in P.E.I. As most Islanders know, the Lands Protection Act allows non- residents to acquire up to five acres of land. No approval is required. It is ironic that while non-residents can easily take possession of five acres, resident Islanders can often afford only one acre for a building lot. We know the results of this five-acre allowance when we view the non-resident ownership of an estimated 50 per cent of our coast line. And many people have stories of how land for residential lots has been purchased by a group whose members conspire to take ownership of five acres each.
Now back to Valleyfield. In the fall of 2017, in order to take possession of the desired farmland, 15 non-residents, all of Hebei, China, came together to purchase the 75 acres of farmland, each one supposedly taking ownership of five acres.
This story brings out five major concerns for the National Farmers Union. The first is that this loophole in the Lands Protection Act must be closed immediately. The second is that given the difficulty of finding consolidated information about land acquisitions, we are anxious about what we will discover hidden from view. There is no transparency if we have to dig through archives and databanks to find out the truth.
The third is that farmland sought after by non-resident owners of untold wealth is rapidly becoming too expensive for ordinary farm families. The fourth is that farmers who have worked hard all their lives may welcome having a “good dollar” offered for their land. P.E.I. desperately needs a land banking system which would allow retiring farmers to get a good price for their land while allowing Island farmers to buy land at a cost they can afford.
The fifth was expressed by many participants in the symposium on the Lands Protection Act: there is no political will to tighten up the Act to protect P.E.I. land.
The NFU calls on Minister Richard Brown to step up and take ownership of his mandate to administer the Lands Protection Act. He and the rest of the cabinet are responsible for every scrap of land that goes out of the hands of Islanders. Minister Brown and the cabinet are to be held accountable for every acre of farmland that is taken out of food production. Once the land is gone, there is no returning it.
Governments can get away with allowing the weakening of the Lands Protection Act just simply by allowing the land to trickle away an acre at a time or a farm at a time. The more hidden this land drain is, the less people will trust governments to be caretakers of land, water and air. Maybe it is time that P.E.I. has a provincial election run on lands protection. Islanders are more attached to the land than government knows.
A Matter of Trust
December 19, 2017- Charlottetown Guardian
Farm and Food Care P.E.I. is officially launched. The National Farmers Union (NFU) had been following this initiative long before the Prince Edward Island Federation of Agriculture (PEIFA), announced in summer, 2017 that it was hiring a co-ordinator for the then-proposed program in P.E.I. From the beginning the NFU suspected what interests are being served by Farm and Food Care.
The NFU has reason to be concerned about the power of big agro-industry in this program. We also have wondered why the P.E.I. Department of Agriculture and Fisheries was so eager to establish in P.E.I. a branch of Farm and Food Care, now known as the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity (CCFI). So let’s connect a few of the dots.
First of all, for an explanation of the Department’s persistent fervour to set up Farm and Food Care in P.E.I., it is significant that the current Deputy Minister of Agriculture, John Jamieson, former executive director of the PEIFA, served on the Board of Farm and Food Care Canada. Add to this the fact that the Department turned its program over to the PEIFA, an organization which has displayed its pro-government, pro-industrial interest. This does not look good for government transparency.
Secondly, the NFU is particularly concerned about how much influence major agro-business has over the P.E.I. program. We know that Canadian Centre for Food Integrity is affiliated with its U.S. counterpart. The American Centre for Food Integrity gives full display to the financial contributions and involvement of industry giants such as Monsanto, McDonald’s and ConAgra Foods. The Canadian organization, CCFI, now part of the P.E.I. agriculture scene, has its own big names. Donors to the Farm & Food Care Canada include a long list of agri-business trade associations and companies, including Maple Leaf Foods, Burnbrae Farms (Canada’s largest egg company) and Cargill.
The NFU’s central concern is how ‘public trust,’ the main pillar of the Canadian Centre of Food Integrity, became identified as a major issue for P.E.I. food production. More importantly we wonder about the meaning of public trust in P.E.I. The federal department (Agriculture and Agrifood Canada) also presents public trust as a concern, which it is willing to fund through the Canadian Agriculture Partnership. If public trust is the issue, these two governments must be recognizing some level of mistrust.
The NFU observed that public trust is in question only when numbers in the Island community do not trust the system and practices of production and distribution. The P.E.I. community over the years has been on the alert about any agriculture that is designed for any, or all of the following: stimulating food production as a huge profit-maker for the corporate sector and to enhance the province’s revenue; making a few well-connected farmers rich (temporarily); disparaging the people’s attempts to prioritize the protection of land, air and water; inventing cosmetic improvement to hide the real ecological damage of industrial farming.
The proponents of Farm and Food Care seem to feel that the general public is lacking in knowledge about farming and food. The Farm and Food Care promoters seem to ignore the high level of awareness of Islanders about how land, water, and the whole ecosystem is being threatened by the major players in the industry. This is in fact deep-seated knowledge about the realities of how food is produced and how safe, or unsafe, the production is for the ecosystem, and especially for eaters.
No amount of glossy communications, forums, or farm visits will alleviate the community’s concerns/fear about what is in our food, and how the land and water are being mined and drained in the production processes.
The National Farmers Union sees the development of Farm and Food Care P.E.I. as another sign of the huge disconnect between the majority of P.E.I. people and Government of P.E.I. This opens up again the question of who has the attentive ear of government.
Respecting the Spirit and Intent of the PEI Lands Protection Act
October 25, 2017
Holding Ponds and Protecting PEI Water
May 27, 2017