“Orbán comes up with an idea in the afternoon, and it is passed in legislation next day” – Katalin Rodics about environmental protection and land grabbing

Katalin Rodics is a prominent figure in environmental protection today, after spending decades in state administration at present she works for Greenpeace, where she is responsible for agricultural issues. In the interview she was asked how the system dismantled environmental protection, why the government is in hurry when selling state-owned lands and how the country is contaminated with GMO feeds with the help of a pretence “NGO” funded by the government.

You used to work for the government in environmental protection. What is your opinion on present happenings?

Environmental protection as a profession was always pushed around, sometimes we were together with construction, sometimes with water management in the same ministry. However, it used to be a Ministry of Environmental Protection at least in name, and there was a professional apparatus, which provided a certain standard for decades. We had excellent lawyers, and we had a word when we were conciliating with other ministries.

When we were put together with the Ministry of Agriculture, the ministry, whose interests are completely different from ours, we could not make agriculture greener, but the agricultural lobby managed to push down environmental protection. Redundancies were made, and mostly environmental protection professionals were made redundant. An excellent example for the weakening of environmental protection is that the under-secretary has become a deputy under-secretary, and it has been pooled with protected Hungarian brands.

Not talking about Zoltán Illés, who said he would do anything for environmental protection, except when Orbán is saying something else. And Orbán often said something else. Not only the ministry was degraded, but the full environmental protection apparatus and the directors of national parks were dismissed. They were replaced by lawyers, friends, people who have no idea about what environmental protection is.

The whole authority, the supervisory authority was made empty, no professionals remained in the field, and the few who are still there are scared and only act on instructions. Nature and environmental protection is in the way.

In whose way?

The business lobby, and this concerns the issue of environmental authority permissions to development projects and impact studies. Now every project is a project of outstanding importance, including the pettiest things, so that they can avoid the necessity of obtaining permissions so that the cash till can start working.

How did you meet the agricultural lobby in the ministry?

In the beginning the encounter looked quite good, as I was the head of the department dealing with biodiversity. All the international environmental protection agreements belonged to my department, including the biodiversity of agricultural stock and plants, together with gene banks. This rooted in the former Ministry of Environmental Protection, as we managed to protect the gene bank in Tápiószele, under the previous governments against the Ministry of Agriculture at the time. My department managed to achieve the GMO moratorium.

However, soon it became apparent that there were huge conflicts. I was the first from the Ángyán team who was removed, not for the GMO or the agricultural lobby, but for the hunting lobby. We did not allow illegal trophies to be imported from abroad. We did not give permission we could not give based on international legislation to rich, influential people.

Was Zsolt Semjén one of them?

Not in person. Zsolt Semjén is Deputy Prime Minister and also the chair of the Hunter Chamber. In any normal state these two are incompatible, in a manner that the person pulls out his rank and instructs in hunting matters. In Hungary it is now so common that people do not even notice.

During Hungary’s EU presidency I was the head of the EC biodiversity working group when I was relocated to a background institution, however I could work in my place in secret. Then on an August day I was not permitted to enter the ministry, and now I do not feel sorry, I am rather proud about it.

Did the agricultural administration also undergo such a deterioration?

What sort of management is the one where the under-secretary of agricultural administration states he is not familiar with agriculture and it is not a shame? This speaks for itself. Politically involved people were put in professional positions, where proficiency would be needed. This is painful because they are doing nonsense even if they do not intend to.

Orbán comes up with an idea in the afternoon, and it is passed in legislation next day. And this is not only dangerous because democracy cannot work this way, but because this way there is no control. Something is created and it has to be modified daily because it contains so much inconsiderate nonsense that the country simply stops working.

Is the sale of state-owned lands also inconsiderate?

I do not think so. I believe this was invented already during the first Orbán government. Already the privatisation of state-owned agricultural enterprises was part of this great plan. It had to be suspended, because they did not win the elections. It was clear from the beginning that the quick tenders for lands also served the purpose of land sale later. Of course, we did not consider a lot of things even in our worst nightmares, e.g. what happened to Kishantos.

Kishantos was not only an act of revenge on József Ángyán?

No, it was not. The same thing happened elsewhere, not only in Kishantos, what happened there was really cynical, and of course there was a trace of revenge. The same thing happened to the gene reserve in Hortobágy, or in Borsod county, where in the programme “Opportunity for the disadvantaged” 150 roma people pursued ecological farming. Lands were taken away from non-profit organisations wherever it was possible. And not only from them, but from farmers in Fejér county or Hortobágy: the new land leasers are their friends or dummies.

It was obvious that this would happen, and the land will be given to them. The hurry was also obvious. There is the Simicska affair and his lands, and his lands are being sold, not accidentally, among the first. On the other hand, there are lawsuits in progress concerning the land leases of which we have won quite a few, e.g. Kishantos. It will turn out that the tender was often against the law, if not in Hungary, in Strasbourg, however this will take one or two years.

Meanwhile, they think if these lands are sold in the meantime, it is irreversible. It was shocking that in the case of tenders they sent back the materials without indicating the sender so that they cannot be compared, the decision was based on what criteria. Thus it could only be investigated, and it is also investigated in the Ángyán reports whether those who won had the right to have land lease.

An internal investigation was ordered at the National Land Fund which found the proportion of points was set up so that the subjective part, the business plan could be given more points than the objective part. They think they can make these things concerning the tender disappear at the bidding, with the sale of the land. I hope this will not happen.

The Hungarian state sued Greenpeace Hungary and the Kishantos Rural Development Centre, claiming 14 million HUF compensation. The first trial of the lawsuit initiated by the National Land Management Organization (NFA) was on November 10, 2015, accompanied by a demonstration by Greenpeace and other NGOs. The lawsuit was suspended.

How can bigger plots be bought by dummies?

On a bigger plot, one person can buy up to 300 hectares on paper, however to collect so many individuals in case of a plot of several thousand hectares requires many dummies. However, together with the employees or with a big family, for Lőrinc Mészáros or Mezőföld Zrt. huge plots can be established, which then make profit for one person.

There are many intransparencies. What is certain, the present leasers have a huge advantage, and in majority they will own the land, except for the Simicska plots. And of course, speculators.

Firstly, leasers only have to present 10 per cent own capital for the credit, while others 20 per cent. When we take a 30 hectare good quality land as an example, which costs 3-4 million HUF per hectare, the small family farmer, who was informed only a month ago that the state would sell these plots has to collect 10 million. In a month, they should have been able to raise 10 million HUF, find a lawyer, and pay another 30 thousand HUF on the spot, which is not refunded so that they can participate at the bidding.

I reckon this 30 thousand HUF registration fee was created in order to shut out publicity so that the ten outraged local farmers could not go to the bidding and meet the bidders and tell them they grab their lands. For them, this is not worth 30 thousand forints, so they will not do that.

Another outrageous feature is the posterior pre-emptive right. This means if anybody wins at the bidding, the result is posted for 60 days and the leaser has to right after the bidding to buy the land for the same amount of money. They do not even have to go there, so that the others can meet them eye to eye. In practice, local farmers are excluded, in spite of any propaganda.

It is not a Hungarian peculiarity that land property is concentrated along capital interests. What effects does “land grabbing” have all over the world?

Disastrous, to sum up in one word. This can be seen clearly in South America, Argentina is one of the most typical examples. This was a country with flourishing agriculture, Argentinian beef was the best meat in the world until the process started with American capital and the GMO soy where local farmers were practically pushed out of their lands.

The start of the process is, and this will be the case also in Hungary, that the farmer becomes poor. The goods produced for export will be bought from them on such a low price that they cannot make enough money to buy their own food. Smallholders has become the second most endangered profession in the world according to the report of the World Economic Forum on professions on the verge of extinction.

When the smallholder cannot survive, they sell their lands on a low price and go to the city as unemployed. Those who do not want to sell their land are driven out. In Argentina for instance the lands of those who did not want to sell were sprayed with glyphosate and other pesticides from airplanes, causing tons of lawsuits, sick children and other horrible events.

Eventually these lands were grabbed by capitalists, and these lands became the so-called green deserts, huge GMO soy plantations, and today Argentina is not self-sustaining agriculturally. The country cannot produce the corn, meat they consume. This caused a huge economic bankruptcy.

The European Parliament published a report on land grabbing in Europe a month ago. The report claims this process is the most intensive in the Central Eastern European region.

Is it possible that the land issue in Hungary will take a similar turn as in Argentina?

Practically we are facing the same fate except for the fact that it is not done by the US, but by our own government. In addition, with a communication if someone only listens to the state-owned radio or watches the state-owned television everything seems glamorous.

However, when someone visits the countryside they can see what is happening in reality. I am familiar with Szatmár, last year a kilo of apple was bought for 7.50 HUF. After that many gave up their apple plantations, because it is not worth maintaining it for 7.50. Land grabbing has started there, there are a lot of unemployed and the so-called public works is rather negative than positive. The end of this process is full social decay, the absolute collapse of local communities.

When we consider that a villager has to survive in an environment where the surrounding lands are owned by someone else and they cannot do wagework, as the work is done by machines, how can someone do that? How can one make ends meet?

The other side of the coin in this game is that such industrialized farms cannot produce healthy foods, which is a disaster for the whole society. It is already a fact that consumers cannot eat what they want and the producer cannot produce what they want. Our food production, consequently, is in the hands of corporations governed by big capital, and they decide on these questions instead of us, based on capital interests. Of course, if we let it!

Can foreign capital interests grab lands during the next biddings?

The government has started the “We think the people are total dummies” programme. Foreigners could not have bought from the state. Land is safest in the hand of the state. The foreigner can buy the land only from the Hungarian who wants to sell their land. Meanwhile, Lázár argues that they have stolen anyway. Shocking.

The argument that these lands cannot be resold for another 20 years is not a guarantee, as the Constitution was modified in every two weeks. Now it is being sold, then in two weeks or two months the government says they can be sold after a year instead of twenty. We are not fighting because foreigners want to grab the land, but we fight with our own government as they destroy the country, the countryside, smallholders, and with this any opportunity to pursue ecological farming.

In the government’s communication the government favours ecological and GMO-free farming.

In the strategy approved by the government it is stated that the areas pursuing ecological farming will increase to 300,000 hectares. In the meantime, last year areas where economic farming was pursued decreased by 7000 hectares. The lands of Kishantos and Hortobágy were taken away and given to people who do not pursue ecological farming. The most ridiculous argument is that thus a GMO-free Hungary can be guaranteed . How can Fazekas claim such nonsense?!

In the Constitution it is stipulated that we should not produce GMO crops. There cannot be stronger protection. How can these people look in the mirror, when they are willing to lie continuously for power? Which was already stated by the court in the case of Kishantos.

I cannot believe, it is shocking that only Ángyán stood up from Fidesz. Have we become so coward? Do these people ever consider what they have become?

How has GMO-free Hungary become a victim of political power struggles?

A two-member “NGO” was established with the help of the ministry, led by Tibor Zászlós and the head of another dairy corporation, with the name GMO free Hungary Association. Tibor Zászlós is the deputy chair of the Agricultural Chamber, head of Mezőfalvi Zrt. farming on 9000 hectares, who was an active player in what happened to Kishantos. They set up this Association, nobody understood what their purpose was, two such huge corporations establishing an association.

It turned out they would like to obtain the right to check GMO labelling. All over the world and in Europe GMO free products can contain maximum 0.1 per cent GMO contamination. Professionally it would be the best if there could be a trace limit, as one thousandth means there is some GMO in it, especially when we consider ten tons of feed for instance.

This GMO Free Association has lobbied and achieved that for them the limit of GMO is 0.4 per cent instead of 0.1. Feed producers do not have to do anything to obtain this label. With this, they can contaminate the country. This is how GMO-free Hungary can be destroyed, with the help of the Association for a GMO-free Hungary.

What are our opportunities to avoid these effects, or stop land grabbing? Do we still have anything in our hands?

It is very important for everybody to feel that they have something in their hands. I believe we cannot expect anything from above. Maybe the EU, although I was a little EU sceptical in the beginning, there are institutions we can have hope in, e.g. the Strasbourg Court.

We must start grassroot organization, and this does not obviously mean a revolution. We must recruit and active community from people around us, family, or friends. We have to organize ourselves, keep together, whether we hate our neighbour or not. If this society wants to stay alive, we have to learn how to learn self-sustainably. We have start living with more courage. Cooperate.

The government cannot sack 80-90 per cent of the teachers, cannot put into prison all the farmers, cannot make all the mayors, municipality leaders or judges fear. Now we see that one or two persons stand up. It is easy to drive them out, punish them, or make them silent. I hope more and more people will see and understand what is happening around us. We should not wait for the others! We have to stand up against injustice, and cooperate with others.

The situation about land sales is that if they sell them until December 31, I am convinced it is reversible, it contains so many irregularities. At least until we have the EU, and we are EU members.

On the land, which remained in the hands of people they should start produce for themselves and the local market, and not only depend on the price of bulk buyers. The whole chain has to be built up again from bottom up, and there are many hindering factors, however, if we cannot take this steps, it will mean trouble. In this process NGOs and the remaining independent press has a huge role, as people live in fear, so they must be given courage. If people gather and start building something peacefully, it cannot be stopped. We should only overcome this fear and apathy the country is in. And I am working for this goal.

Author: Gábor Vágó

Original article in Hungarian