Op Ed - Foreign investors gobbling farmland

by Douglas Campbell
 
The National Farmers Union (NFU) is alarmed by the rate at which P.E.I. farmland is being transferred to large corporate interests. Islanders, especially those in rural communities, know that all around them, land is being transferred generally in non-transparent transactions.
 
What is involved are frequent and widespread under-the-radar transfers of large quantities of land to interlocked corporations and to foreign investors. Without much apparent concern on the part of government, P.E.I. is now a victim of the well-known global land grab.
 
The P.E.I. Lands Protection Act is the envy of many people in other jurisdictions. However, the NFU has known since the early 1980s that limits on acreage ownership must be closely monitored to avoid exploitation of loopholes in the Act. However from the very beginning the NFU has made a distinction between the letter of the law and its spirit and intent.
 
Premier Angus MacLean, the politician credited with proposing the Lands Protection Act, was clear that the protection of the land is more than legal ownership. It was understood with the passing of the Act that land protection would require watching over who control land and how they do that. It would also require governments to be serious about restricting foreign ownership.
 
It is the responsibility of successive governments to oversee the actual legal transferral of ownership of land. Just as important, it is essential that each government monitors the way in which corporate entities take control of land even without formal ownership. The intent and spirit of the Lands Protection Act would protect Islanders from corporate entities consolidating power by exercising control over vast amounts of land.
 
The spirit of the Act is violated when, for example, in the industrial model of production, an industrial corporation can take control of farmland by controlling the production decisions, the access to inputs, and by keeping the farmers indebted to the corporation.
 
Currently, the Minister of Communities, Lands, and Environment is responsible for the administration of the Lands Protection Act. An arms-length body, the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission (IRAC), has the role of making recommendations to the Minister who must bring them to Cabinet for approval or rejection.
 
Unfortunately, these approvals or rejections are based only on the judgment of adherence to the letter of the law. It is estimated that the Cabinet has approved over 85 per cent of the requests for land transfer. The NFU challenges the Minister and IRAC to formulate their recommendations based also on the purpose, spirit and intent of the Lands Protection Act.
 
At best, IRAC’s recommendations and Cabinet’s approvals are piecemeal ways of acre-by-acre land transfers which accumulate over time into massive shifts in land ownership and control. At worst, the current administration of the Lands Protection Act seems to ignore the nature of land grabbing tactics.
 
Investors, local and international, with big money, seeing low return on their investment in the financial sector, are turning to securing their future wealth by investing in land, which they presume will increase in value. It is obvious to many people that an individual investor can and does form multiple corporations and thus own or control thousands of acres of land. It seems that there is little transparency.
 
Governments have the capacity to trace the money, to uncover the source of the investments, and to publicize these. Islanders have the right to know.
 
The NFU fears for the protection of land in P.E.I. because it is the corporate and investor sectors which seem to have the ear and the heart of government.
 
The NFU is not necessarily alleging that any of the widespread transfers of land are contravening the legal requirements, though some stretch the law to its limits. We are saying, however, that governments are abandoning the purpose, spirit and intent of the Lands Protection Act.
 
That is a serious indictment for any government and reveals a lack of understanding of the will of ordinary Islanders.
 
Douglas Campbell is a dairy farmer in Southwest Lot 16, and District Director of the National Farmers Union.