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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2003, MCB UP Limited
Protests in Poland
Sir Julian Rose and Jadwiga Lopataare co-Directors of the International Coalition to Protect the Polish Countryside (ICPPC). The ICPPC can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Keywords: Farms, European Union, Poland
AbstractPoland's forthcoming accession to the European Union – along with several other former Communist states – is seen by many politicians and commentators as a sign of progress. It is viewed as the fulfilment of a democratic dream, as a symbol of the union of East and West and as a harbinger of prosperity and growth. However, the EU's emphasis on growth as an end in itself, and the trend towards bureaucratic uniformity, are threatening the staple of Polish agricultural life: the small family farm. Peasant proprietors who maintained their independence despite half a century of Communist rule now find themselves facing bankruptcy because they are being forced to "modernise". Ironically, EU-based modernisations are less ecologically sustainable than the tried and tested methods of Polish farming. The Polish case illustrates the need for a more flexible, less homogenising approach to EU membership, and the need for the West to learn from the East as well as vice versa.
On 9 March 2003 more than 20,000 farmers spontaneously gathered at the holy site of Jasna Góra in south Poland to seek refuge in prayer and to protest against the complete failure of government, farmers' unions or local authorities to represent their needs and defend their struggling industry.
Over the last two to three years Polish farmers have witnessed the accelerating erosion of their markets by cheap imports, the enforced closure of their local abattoirs as well as meat- and milk-processing plants and the imposition of a bewildering list of rules and regulations for which nobody understands the need. They have been told that all this is necessary for Poland to conform with EU accession planned for 2004. Coming on top of this is a relentless rise in the number of big supermarket chains – such as Tesco – that undermine and ultimately destroy the small shops, quality foods and time-honoured village community trading patterns.
This is a recognisable pattern of events for Western European EU countries, but it is a relatively new phenomenon for Poland whose two million farmers have enjoyed relative independence and lack of interference, even during Communist times. But one of the most alarming aspects of today's crisis in Poland – and it is not just confined to agriculture, but to many private and public sector business – is the virtual blanket press embargo of anti-EU voices and activities.
The 20,000 farmers who came to Jasna Góra carried with them a strong "No to EU" message. They were not confrontational or violent; they desperately wanted to be heard and to demonstrate their patriotic solidarity in the face of the steady erosion of traditional values.
This was a big demonstration by farmers' standards, probably the biggest seen in Poland for many years, yet it went almost completely unreported. None of the main national newspapers, television or radio stations carried any news of the event at all. Only a paper clearly aligned with Radio Maryja, the organizer of the event, carried the story to the public. Weeks of farmers' blockades all over the country have received similar treatment by the media, with the net effect of keeping the public in the dark and making dissension against the EU appear minimal or extremist.
The reality is different. At the grass roots level there is increasing scepticism at interference from Brussels and a growing sense of disbelief that the Government could have "sold" Poland so cheaply at Copenhagen last December. For the majority of farmers, particularly the 1.5 million small peasant farms, there is absolutely nothing to be gained from joining the EU. With an average of 7ha each, they will get no subsidies but will nevertheless have to conform with the same crippling rules and regulations that have killed off so many small farms throughout Europe. Already, before the country votes on EU accession in a referendum this June, cattle ear-tags and passports are being introduced on farms where just one or two cows are kept largely for home production purposes. Milk quotas are being enforced and local processing plants no longer accept milk which does not conform with specific EU temperature control standards. At the same time prices for milk, meat and grain are falling as excess EU production is dumped in Poland, seriously undermining the home market.
With so much going against them, there is every reason why Polish farmers should be taking to the streets. However, many are not yet aware that behind the problems which currently beset them lies an EU master plan to halve their members and to "restructure" Polish agriculture to conform with the large scale, agrochemical monocultures that have already devastated so much of European and North American farmland over the last 30 years. It will take a strong international voice, coupled with the national protests, to prevent such a destructive policy from being implemented.
A key act of resistance against this slide in farmers' fortunes will be a strong "no" vote in the June referendum. The International Coalition to Protect the Polish Countryside (ICPPC) has consistently said that Poland should not join the EU until the CAP has been thoroughly reformed and agricultural conditions negotiated that protect the future of the Polish family farms. We need to reinforce this message and raise awareness that the grass is not greener on the Western side of the Polish border.
On the contrary, the Polish countryside still maintains a rich tapestry of biodiversity and ecological potential unmatched by any other EU country and should be recognized for the enormous environmental contribution this has already made to the region and beyond. Without its small peasant farms practising their traditional, environmentally-friendly methods of agriculture, including its high quality farmhouse foods, the real wealth of the Polish countryside would already be lost. The ministers and bureaucrats of Brussels and Warsaw choose to ignore this reality. They are already mesmerized by the false promises of global agribusiness. However, the gathering tide of protest which is currently struggling to gain voice could yet sway the pro-EU propaganda-fed citizens of urban Poland. The farmers, should they be sufficiently motivated, are the single most powerful grouping in the country and probably the only one capable of bringing positive change and fresh hope to the people of Poland.