The threat of “les rapaces” (lit. the raptors or the rapacious) comes from different but entangled processes: scale enlargement, global market competition, farm and region specialization, and CAP premiums. One should keep in mind that this threat is both an issue of land access and land use. “Les rapaces” are taking over land everywhere it is possible to grow commercial crops (wheat, potatoes, beetroots, vegetables for can industry). Rapaces are called by their family name and farmers often talk about them. However, farmers rarely see them as they live further from their fields and they work fast with big machines. Rapaces almost never come to their fields except for intervening (planting, fertilizing, spraying pesticides, and harvesting). They are known for not respecting social norms “les bonnes pratiques entre fermiers” (lit. good practices between farmers) and making non-sustainable use of the land.
Rapaces are either “les gros fermiers du village” (lit. the big farmers of the village) i.e. ‘remaining’ farmers that seek to expand their farms because of the economic squeeze - “la fuite en avant” (lit. headlong evasion) - or “gestionnaires” (lit. managers) of hundreds of hectares who work for large land owners (incl. private companies, local industries, banks). These farms are often mounted in “sociétés” (lit. companies) in order to gather capital (land and machinery -incl. investments made by non-agricultural entities), make the transfer of ownership easier and pay less tax. Their practices are described as immoral; farmers I met experienced them as ruptures towards the social norms that have regulated land access and land use until now.
Attachment to land has a long history in this area, particularly in the “Maugré” stories. For centuries, around Tournai, village communities revenged former tenant who had to leave the land “de mal gré” (i.e. against his will, according to owner’s will) by sabotaging undercover new tenants’ belongings. Indeed, the former tenant would lose the land “enrichie de son travail et de son expérience” (lit. enriched by his work and his skills) (Ravez, 1975, p. 471); village members acted as Robin Hood characters around the contested notion of land ownership. This practice sought to frighten newcomers, prevent rent increases, and witnessed a kind of solidarity among village members against landowners. The last manifestation of “malédiction du Maugré” happened in the late 1970s but it is still one of the major mysterious local stories. Thus, the local custom slowly but hardly disappeared despite repression (public death penalty executions) and new tenure laws.
Today, the law organizes the “bail à ferme” (agricultural usufructuary lease) as the general rule. This frame guarantees land access for at least nine years to the farmer. In this frame, the rent is often cheap and the contract is renewable implicitly - it may even not be written at all. When a farmer retires, there is either “reprise par un enfant” - the right is transferred to the son/daughter - or “remise à un confrère” - i.e. to a colleague. The law also authorizes the “location à l’année” (i.e. rent for a year); this right is negotiable every year and the rent is often much higher. The law foresees that the new tenant gives a certain amount of money to the former for “graisses et fumures” i.e. to pay for investments made by former tenant in field fertility. The law provides the formula to calculate this relatively little amount of money. Besides the legal frame and since the mid-twentieth century, it became socially accepted in this area that in case of “remise”, the new tenant gives “un chapeau” (lit. a hat) i.e. extra money “under the table” -not declared- to the former tenant -in addition to “graisses et fumures”. Since the 1970s, the “chapeau” increased and became the source of many conflicts within and between farm families. Flemish migrants could offer bigger “chapeaux” thanks to the support they got from the Boerenbond; it has happened that fathers chose to sell the farm to Flemish migrants rather than to their own children. Obviously, local farmers find it immoral that newcomers offer “chapeaux” that they cannot afford.
It is said that rapaces take an active part in the “surenchère” (lit. overbid); they are looking for land whatever the price and they offer higher “chapeaux” than what farmers can afford. Thus, they gather land from deactivated farms i.e. when the farmer retires, goes bankrupt or dies, “c’est un monde de rapaces” (lit. it is a world of raptors); farmers say they sometimes lie and bribe to get the pieces of land. Farmers complain that there is no solidarity among farmers anymore; they describe this economic battle for land as “un jeu d’échec” (a chess game) between huge farmers they are not part of nor playing in. Rapaces negotiate short-term tenure agreements with landowners “l’agriculture à contrats” (lit. contracts agriculture). Indeed, under the “bail à ferme”, the land owner cannot increase the rent during the covered period; landowners try not to “tomber dans le bail à ferme” (lit. fall -as in a trap- in the usufructuary lease) i.e. to be stuck for nine years with the same tenant. To do so, they must change of tenant regularly. Rapaces promise to leave the land whenever the landowner wants but demand lower rent than “location à l’année” as a counterpart. Rapaces give a part of the “chapeau” to the land owner also.
Rapaces are also considered as ‘the opposite camp’ in terms of land use; they are ‘entrepreneurs’ « on fait en fonction du marché » (lit. they do according to the market), they are considered as CAP premiums hunters and practice monocrop farming of commercial “speculations" e.g. « blé sur blé » (wheat after wheat). Such short-term calculations are considered as ‘pillaging’ rather than ‘cultivation’. This way of farming is considered as easier and « on serait plus riche » (lit. we would be richer) if ‘we’ did like ‘them’. Most of rapaces do not have livestock so they don’t spread manure « il y a de moins en moins d’éleveurs » (lit. there is less and less livestock farmers). A farmer told me: “je suis trop vieux mais toi tu vas en voir” (lit. I am too old but you will see) “toutes ces sociétés qui cultivent et qui vendent la paille (…) au noir, ils veulent leurs sous” (all these companies that cultivate and sell straw … ‘in black’, they want their money) « ils ne devraient pas » (they should not). As they don’t have manure, he thinks they should at least keep their straw to maintain soil structure. As they manage huge number of fields, they have less time and must work faster « rouler plus vite » (lit. drive -instead of work- faster) with bigger tractors and machines. “La force de frappe des gros, c’est le pulvé” (lit. the core strength of big farmers is their pesticide sprayer). « Ils démolissent plus le terrain » (lit. they destroy more the land) « les tâches sont réalisées n’importe quand » (tasks are done at random moments) « ils ne produisent pas spécialement plus » (they don’t really produce more) « avec l’agriculture par contrats, les rendements stagnent » (in contracts agriculture, yields stagnate) « c’est une dérive point de vue environnemental » (it’s a drifting into environmental degradation) as they cause floodings and soil erosion. Farmers sometimes blame them for starting plowing along the street, not letting grass strips between parcels, spraying herbicides on ditches, removing hedgerows with bulldozers, plowing and draining wetlands & meadows while pocketing subsidies for draining.
As long as the “bail à ferme” runs, farmers are not directly threatened by rapaces; the problem only occurs at the end of the agreement -e.g. when the landowner decides to sell the land- or for farmers who rent “à l’année” -they are in direct competition with rapaces. Thanks to their economic (incl. subsidy) and technological forces, rapaces can buy land more easily and farm fields further in other villages. In some cases, rapaces prevent farmers from getting more land “ce n’est pas evident au village (…) quand on a des gros machins ainsi (…) c’est lui qui a mis le grappin sur tout” (lit. it is not easy in the village … when there are such big [farmers] … he got everything in his grips). When it is possible, farmers try to buy the land they use and avoid letting ‘their land’ go in the hands of rapaces.
Another threat on land are the land use management changes « gens qui décident dans les bureaux » (lit. people who decide in offices) « faudrait leur faire enfiler des bottes » (we should make them put on farm boots). A farm I went to sees its grasslands being converted into housing projects -villas with private gardens. Landowners and real estate companies want to value the constructible land and try to put an end to the tenure agreement. « Il faut toujours se battre » (lit. we always have to fight), as soon as they were done with paying back « la reprise », they had to buy land. « L’avenir est menacé » (lit. future is threatened) « ça nous tracasse » (we are worried about that) “qu’on nous laisse ce dont on a besoin pour vivre!” ([we wish] that they would let us enough land, what we need to live). This last kind of threat involves non-agricultural agents and non-agricultural land use but also provokes a rupture in terms of land use and access regulation -both legal and non-legal. In the same vein, a group of Belgian NGOs is working on the phenomenon of land grabbing and also takes together land use and access changes as threats to peasant agriculture (CNCD-11.11.11; 11.11.11; SOS Faim; Oxfam-Solidarité; Réseau Financement Alternatif; FAIRFIN, 2013).
La carotte et le bâton
Last but not least, farmers are fed up with being ‘subsidized farmers’ i.e. stuck between premiums -the carrot- and conditionality, criteria and controls - the stick. “Tout ce système au dessus de la tête” (lit. all this system upon our head) makes them do an agriculture they did not really chose, and enrolls them in projects of others. Far from being democratic, this system demands farmers’ compliance: to stick to public rules -perceived as changing dreams of politicians- and to industrial standards. « Ces aides, ça te conditionne à beaucoup de choses, se préparer pour les contrôles : la compta, le contrôle bio, la déclaration de la PAC, les MAE… On se mord la queue. Avant les aides, les fermiers étaient trop indomptables. Nous, on est encore indépendants, plus libres mais il faudrait l’être encore plus » (those aids, it conditions you to do a lot of things, get prepared for all these controls: accountancy, organic certification, CAP declaration, agri-environmental measures… We’re biting our own tail. Before the aids, farmers were too indomitable. Us, we are still independent, freer, but we should be even freer). Agriculture modernization brought about the design of institutional systems meant for guiding, piloting virtual units. Thus, the responsibility of system well-functioning -matching with expected outcomes- is located in the ‘rationality’ of the units - they think as they should and adopt the new rationale - and in the design of the system -premiums and criteria induce proper behaviour. In the same vein, some farmers also criticize agricultural schools that kill curiosity « on ne peut pas penser autrement » (lit. one must not think otherwise) and train young farmers to be good and compliant managers.
During the fieldwork, I could feel farmers tiredness of following changing prescriptions, chasing after illusionary and virtual farm functioning. They have the feeling that public rules are aligned with industrial standards and that they will never really fit. They are always ‘special’ and if ever they reach a satisfactory level, it is never the case for a long time. Only the well-equipped specialized farms fit. Although farmers do not agree nor want to comply with all the criteria, ‘the stick’ is always there. “Une nouvelle checklist, ça nous casse les bras” (lit. a new checklist, it breaks our arms); it reaches such a point that farmers sometimes wonder whether these institutions still want them to exist. Farmers blame this institutional apparatus for being exhausting and killing farming attractiveness in the eyes of their children. But Arthur told me: “Nous on va se battre, on ne va pas s’arrêter” (lit. we will fight, we won’t stop) …