Poland and Peasants

Polish Peasants v. Brussels Bureaucrats
By Julian Rose

Anyone who has visited Poland will have been struck by the thousands of little strips of land that criss-cross the countryside from North to South and from East to West. They may also have noticed the occasional prairie-like expanse, without a tree to be seen in any direction. The contrast is explained by history. Peasant farmers have traditionally owned their land in Poland and mostly continue to do so, dominating the landscape with their patchwork farms. However, invaders of the last century and since 1989, predatory transnational corporations, have ensured that some of the best land has fallen into foreign hands. Monocultures and asset stripping have followed. It is of note that the Communists failed to ‘factory farm’ much of Poland in the manner achieved in other eastern bloc countries such as Hungary and Czech. On the land, the Poles survived the worst of nationalisation and came through with much of their traditional lifestyle intact.


The peasants form the majority of Poland’s 2,500,000 farmers. Around 1,600,000 have small farms averaging just 5 to 7 hectares. These farms are typically mixed and self-sufficient, with only very small surpluses left over to sell. In my travels around Poland of the last year, I have visited many of these holdings. They typically sport 3 to 4 cows, a boar and 4 to 5 sows, laying hens, and one or two work horses. All animal feed is grown on the farm. The farmhouse is adequate in size and comfort and has, more often than not, been built by the farmer, his family and neighbours. Hot water, TV and a car are the norm. These people know how to survive. They waste nothing, turning a skilful hand to food preparation and traditional curing and preserving of meats and fruit. Most can not afford pesticides, so they don’t use them. This means that vast tracts of Poland are ‘organic’ by default. Their dependence on fossil fuels is minimal, small tractors and horses still work the ground and hand labour is not thought of as demeaning. Farming and forestry form the main employment in many rural areas of Poland, especially those well distanced from large conurbations.

All this however is on the brink of change. Poland is under attack from three directions: the EU, the WTO and the transnational corporate invader. These three share one thing in common. They all believe that Poland is a country in need: in need of developing and modernising so as to conform to standards enjoyed by North American and Western European societies. It is a familiar story. Thinly disguised neo-colonialist ambitions moving in under the pretext of bringing much needed investment; but in reality, establishing profitable outposts for self-serving corporate interests.

The scars are already visible. A high percentage of Poland’s manufacturing assets, including food processing plants, have been sold off to German, American, Dutch, British and other European companies keen to exploit a cheap and notoriously hardworking labour force with relatively good transport links between Western and Eastern Europe. Great ‘malls of convenience’ have started to sprout ignominiously, superseding small shops and open markets. The dominant supermarket chains, led by Tesco, are increasingly evident in most large towns, and in hideously conceived out-of-town sites, where they are surrounded by Macdonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and the standard package of international, no-holds-barred shopping precincts. Warsaw sports the largest single Coca-Cola advertisement in the world. It takes up the entire side of a 40-storey office block in the centre of the city. This imprint of ‘fast food’ on Polish soil is particularly jarring. Yet it is an inescapable sign of the times. I am on a mission to try and ensure that this dead hand of commerce does not also sweep the peasants from the land and replace them with the standard symbols of agrichemical corporate greed.

I started on this mission one year ago after being invited to become the co-director of the International Coalition to Protect the Polish Countryside, a newly formed Polish NGO led by a remarkable countryside campaigner, Jadwiga Lopata. We are confronted by a daunting task, to ensure the survival of some two million small farmers whose way of life is under acute pressure form an enlarging Europe and a national government seemingly at a loss with how to deal imaginatively with the future of the rural sector. Jadwiga was determined to fast track me into gaining a broad grasp of Polish regional farming characteristics. My schedule has involved one week out of every month being spent in Poland for the past year and a chance to visit and stay with family farmers in every region. It has been an absorbing experience and I have met some remarkable and wonderfully hospitable people all of whose futures hang in the balance. In order to give this future the sort of high profile it needs, I came up with the idea of writing a Charter for the 21st Century Polish Countryside (see below), which would serve as a clarion call for both national and international support in our battle to keep the peasants on the land. At the same time, Jadwiga deftly arranged high level meetings with farmers’ union leaders, prominent countryside campaigning organisations, academics and government ministers. As a consequence I have been invited to give two talks in the Sejm, the Polish Parliament and many radio interviews. To date the Charter has attracted over 3 million national and international signatories as well as sparking widespread publicity and debate.

Essentially the argument goes like this: Poland is in line to be one of the first of the new accession countries to join the EU, probably in 2003. The EU takes the view that drastic restructuring will be essential if Polish farming and the rural economy are to come into line with Western European standards and incomes. Reaching this target, it has been calculated, will involve stripping about one million two hundred thousand farmers off their land and reintegrating it with the remaining enterprises in order to create more viable units and less people expecting an income from them. Under current CAP ‘first pillar’ support programmes available to all EU farmers, production subsidies are designed to help underpin the economic returns and support the production of particular commodities favoured by Brussels. If Poland were to be accepted into the EU club – and gain the same economic benefits – she would have to conform to the same rules, regulations and standards as the rest of us.

However, whether any of this is feasible or even desirable is quite another matter. The flaws in the current accession proposals are stark. Firstly, what do you do with one million two hundred thousand peasant farmers once they have been ejected from their holdings? With the average unemployment rate hovering around 18%, no Polish government will want a further wave of destitute farmers added to the dole queue. A relatively unsophisticated calculation shows that the social costs of keeping that many fed and housed far exceeds the price to be paid for leaving them to get on with their land-based lives. Secondly, the evidence that similar restructuring proposals have worked in other EU countries is very hard to come by. In France, Germany and the United Kingdom, for example, an unprecedented exodus from the land over the past two decades has not led to significantly improved conditions or markets for those remaining. It has instead exposed them to strong WTO-inspired international competition, and the expectation of intensified high input, high output management practices whose unwelcome effects include serious soil erosion, pesticide and nitrate pollution of water supplies, the collapse of rural bio-diversity, poor animal welfare and the extensive denaturing of food. The net effect of some thirty years of Common Agricultural Policy subsidies for this sort of farming system has been to destroy the foundation for the best food and farming traditions of western Europe by undermining the broad-based, sustainable land-management practices of disparate artisan rural communities. Neither has the European consumer gained, as quantity has superseded quality. Bland uniformity of taste displacing distinctive flavour; overpackaged and processed produce replacing fresh, locally marketed foods; vast supermarkets supplanting small family stores. Yet this is the model the EU wants Poland to adopt.

The majority of Poles are as yet unable to grasp the significance of what joining the EU will actually mean at the grass roots. Their politicians are seemingly intent on EU entry. They believe it will help bale Poland out of an awkward financial downturn and give prosperity to the middle classes. Perhaps it will, although this is a dubious and distinctly risky gamble. Once a nation has lost control of its agriculture and primary industries and allowed a central European or U.S. bureaucracy to call the tune, then it will also ultimately lose the confidence and support of its people. The political decisions of the next 2 to 3 years will prove crucial.

If the Polish countryside is to face up to its future with a creative and bold spirit, it needs to do so now. Poland has the potential to become Europe’s leading organic food producer, renewable energy generator and eco-tourist attraction. It is uniquely placed to act as abridge between East and West and to offer a realisable model of sustainability, self-sufficiency and food security to Third World nations. It stands almost exactly halfway between an ‘overdeveloped’ West and an ‘underdeveloped’ East. Its peasant farmers and the generation that follows them can serve as an example of how we can ‘live within our means’, not as an outdated concept of hand to mouth survival, but as a sensible and diverse way of keeping the countryside populated with skilled workers whose ability to maintain the beauty and diversity of the landscape will always be vastly superior to anything that tries to replace them.

The Polish hills and dales are among the finest anywhere in the world. They have recently been recognised by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds as harbouring the widest variety of native farmland birds anywhere in Europe. There are still hundreds of wildflower meadows untouched by chemical fertilisers or synthetic poisons, and all rich in rare grasses and medicinal herbs. Fine forests and great snow-capped mountains complement the rolling landscape. This all combines to become Poland’s single greatest asset. If we can help save it and bring renewed hope to its people, Poland could yet become the place where the globalised, corporate rot is finally stopped, reversed and put into retreat. If Poland can ‘hold the line’ now against the worst of EU bureaucratic meddling, the rest of Europe will ultimately gain. We shall recognise the values inherent in small-scale, independent human communities and set about reintegrating them again into our own moribund rural economies.

The best bet for Poland will be to join forces with the CAP reforming countries of the EU to clearly state on what conditions entry into the EU will be acceptable. Not wait to be told. If entry is to be countenanced, then it must be in alignment with a reformed CAP (second pillar), where the majority of subsidies go to support environmentally benign and socially supportive rural conditions rather than the current disastrous and dated agricultural production subsidies known as the ‘first pillar’. The date when serious reform of the CAP looks most likely to happen is 2006, although a certain amount could be achieved by 2003. There are encouraging sign emerging from Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Italy and even the UK, that pressure from taxpayers means a major transformation of the CAP subsidy system can not be put off much longer. Poland should lend her not inconsiderable weight to this argument. Passive acceptance of current EU pre-accession rules and regulations will force what remains of the small processing plants, abattoirs and co-operatives out of existence, and thousands of farmers with them. Forced out by inappropriate and costly food and hygiene regulations adopted by Brussels but designed by supermarkets and global agribusiness interests intent on capturing the total marketplace. The same forces that currently have such a deathly grip on British agriculture. We should not ask the Poles to follow us. Rather, we should turn our heads to the East and consider following them.

c. Julian Rose

October 2001