Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Selling The Countryside

Mallorca has a total land area of 3,640 square kilometres and it has 41 municipalities which are categorised as being rural. Qualification for being a rural or an urban municipality throws up one or two anomalies. Of the twelve municipalities considered to be urban, there isn't much debate with some of them - Palma, for example - but Sa Pobla is categorised as being urban, despite it being the centre for the island's potato-growing trade (and other agriculture), and Binissalem, the main centre of the island's wine trade, is also "urban". The determinant of rural or urban is the number of inhabitants per square kilometre: 150 or more, then it's urban; fewer, then it's rural.

Anomalies or not, 73% of the land is occupied by rural municipalities, while 62% of all Mallorca's land is categorised as being Superficie Agricola Utilizada - land that is used for farming purposes. From a report entitled the "Programme for Rural Development in the Balearic Islands 2007-2013" that was issued by the Balearic Government and the European Commission in May 2010, we learn that this 62% of land contributes 1.1% of Gross Value Added to the local economy and that 2.4% of the working population is engaged in agriculture.

We further learn that between 1999 and 2005 in the Balearics as a whole the number of agricultural business declined by almost a third and that the age profile of those working in the agricultural industry was heavily skewed towards older workers. Over 62% were over 60 years of age and 20% were aged between 50 and 59. None of the figures has changed markedly since the report was issued.

Agriculture does require a lot of land. That almost two-thirds of Mallorca's land is dedicated to agricultural use isn't necessarily an issue, but issues there most certainly are in terms of the productive use of this land, the decline in the number of agricultural businesses and the alarming lack of employment among younger people.

The 2010 report set out a number of areas for consideration, not least those for diversification, and the regional government now wishes to act by introducing legislation designed to stimulate economic activity in the agricultural sector and indeed to preserve the countryside. The minister responsible for agriculture, Biel Company, who was brought into the government from the agriculture industry, has unveiled the farming bill, but rather than it being greeted with praise it has been met with howls of protest.

What Company's bill envisages is something similar to that which was contained in the 2012 tourism law, namely that there can be secondary activities. The tourism law permits hotels to offer things which are open to the general public which previously had not been permitted (rock concerts, to give one example). The farming bill would permit the opening of restaurants and shops as well as the establishing of sporting activities of a country style, e.g. equestrianism, and possibly the building of processing plants or mills.

The protests against the bill have come from different sources: the environmentalists GOB and from business - the Balearics business confederation and the restaurant association. Where business is concerned, there is no opposition if produce that comes from a farm is then sold, but there is opposition if the bill means that any type of product could be sold. GOB believes that the bill would represent the sale of the countryside to speculators. Rather than preservation of the countryside, the bill would lead to its destruction.

But Company, an agriculture man and arguably the only cabinet minister at the regional government with any real credibility, has got a strong case, especially when one takes into account the employment profile. Preservation of the countryside comes in different forms, but if there's no one working on it, then it will not be preserved. Instead, it will be abandoned, and it is potential abandonment that he is trying to avoid.

The bill will also attempt to cut through much of the red tape regarding land use. So long as the agricultural land holder is registered with a municipality, this will be sufficient for the municipality to authorise a change of use of the land. However, and as was seen with the tourism law, the municipalities fought to retain their rights to veto planning or change of use by hotels, and they won that fight. It is quite possible, therefore, that they will raise their own objections, concerned at seeing their powers being eroded. GOB has said that the bill would in fact eliminate the powers of the municipalities and also of the island councils, but then maybe this wouldn't altogether be a bad thing. 

Company has said that the bill will be fundamental in maintaining and developing the rural community over the coming years and in bringing young people back to the land. At times, one feels that people protest too much. It might just be a very good bill.

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