Poland ’s peasant farmers are the true trustees of its countryside
by Sir Julian Rose
Poland is accustomed to fighting rearguard actions to throw off unwelcome invaders. Throughout the 19th century period of “The Partitians” - occupation by Russia and then Austria – the Poles kept in their hearts a longing for a day when they could be freed from the yoke of repression and find genuine independence. After finally succeeding in 1918 to rid themselves of the invaders, they were soon engulfed in conflict again, this time with the invading Nazi Germany. They responded with the 1939-45 resistance movement that sprouted up in the fields, small towns and main cities.
As many will know, the Poles fought alongside the British throughout the Second World War - a time when Poland’s government in exile had its head quarters in London. I remember quite well when I was a boy a Polish exile who lived in our village (Whitchurch-on-Thames) coming regularly to my family home and diligently cleaning the chimneys. He spoke little, but did a very thorough job.
It was only in 1989 that Poland finally threw off the last repressive regime of occupation in their land, the Russian communists. So, the last nineteen years of freedom have been been the longest historical period of non-occupation in a very long time.
The Nobel prize winning author Thomas Mann, who fled Nazi Germany before World War Two, was reported to have remarked just before his death in 1969 that although the Nazis had been defeated, he feared that fascism had not: “I am concerned about the weak position of freedom in post world war Europe and North America,” he said.
We can surely identify with his concern. ‘The weak position of freedom’ is evident throughout our increasingly pacified Orwellian society, and has recently come to undermine the long standing traditions of the Polish countryside, particularly the independence of the peasant and family farms, and the huge biodiversity of the Polish countryside of which they are the prime trustees.
The communists failed to quell the small Polish peasant farmers into submission during their period of occupation, which left the Country with a rich, if rather confusing, legacy of approximately one and a half million small scale family farms (average size 18 acres) dotted around the Polish Provinces, but particularly prevalent in the south and east.
“The European Union is simply not interested in small farms”
When I was first invited in November 2000 by Jadwiga Lopata, founder of The International Coalition to Protect the Polish Countryside, to come to Poland as a co-director of this newly established non governmental organisation, the Country was preparing itself, or more correctly, being prepared for entry into the European Union. Opinions were strongly divided concerning the merits of such an action and those most against included the farmers.
One of our first tasks, as I saw it, was to warn the Poles just what ‘joining the EU’ would mean for the farming population, for rural communities and for the renowned biodiversity of the countryside.
Through the auspices of a senior civil servant in Warsaw, Jadwiga and I were able to address a meeting with the Brussels-based committee responsible for negotiating Poland’s agricultural terms of entry into the EU. It proved to be an ominous foretaste of things to come.
The first thing that struck us was the fact that out of the twelve people sitting in the room at the European Commission, not one was Polish. I explained to the attendant body that in a Country where 22 percent of the working population are involved in agriculture, and the majority on small farms, it would not be a good idea to follow the same regime as had been operated in the UK and other EU member countries, in which ‘restructuring’ agriculture had involved throwing the best farmers off the land and amalgamating their farms into large scale monocultural operations designed to supply the predatory supermarket chains. You could have heard a pin drop.