agriculture

How can the American black locust become a “Hungaricum”? Just ask Fidesz

Way back in  2008 the decision was made that the European Commission should take over the fight against alien invasive species in the territories of the Union. Although zoologists and biologists of the member countries had urged their governments to act, little progress had been made. Finally, it was decided that the problem must be handled centrally.

Years have gone by, but then we know that the EU’s bureaucracy is not known for its speedy resolution of issues. The bill was presented to the European Parliament only in September 2013, and it was in January of this year that the European Parliament discussed the matter. It turned out that at the urging of Hungarian scientists the European Union was planning to put the Robinia pseudoacacia, known in Hungary as white acacia, on the alien invasive species list. The plan is not to eradicate the acacia tree–that would be an impossibility–but rather to check its spread.

akac

This particular variety of acacia tree is native to the United States. Interestingly, it  is called the black locust in this country. Black locust trees can be found in the Appalachian Mountain regions of Pennsylvania and Ohio in addition to some areas farther west in Oklahoma and Arkansas. It is considered to be an invasive species here as well, and its control is regulated. American scientists admit that “control of black locust is difficult and no technique has been identified as entirely effective.”  The most cost-effective method is prevention.  Hungarian scientists are of the same opinion, and since 2009 the white acacia has been on the Hungarian list of alien invasive species. The Hungarian decision was made at that time without any pressure from the outside. Yet in the last few months the Orbán government has fought tooth and nail against the inclusion of the acacia on the EU’s list of undesirable species.

The hysteria about the fate of the acacia was initiated by Béla Glattfelder, a Fidesz member of the EP, who rose in the European Parliament during the debate of the bill to protest the “attack” on the acacia tree, which is considered to be an important agricultural asset for Hungary. After all, half of all acacia trees in the European Union can be found in Hungary and the tree is an important source of income for tens of thousands of people, especially beekeepers and owners of private forests. He emphasized that honey made out of the flowers of the acacia is a true “Hungaricum.” In addition, acacia wood is a valuable building material.

As soon as he got wind of what was under foot, he alerted owners of acacia forests and beekeepers, who formed an alliance to “combat the domestic and foreign endeavors to limit the spread of the acacia.” The coalition under Glattfelder’s guidance started lobbying to have both the acacia tree and acacia honey be declared  “Hungaricums.”

Glattfelder is an old Fidesz hand. He was a member of the Hungarian parliament between 1990 and 2004. In 2000 he also became undersecretary in the ministry of economics, dealing mostly with agricultural matters. Since 2004 he has been a member of the Fidesz delegation to the European Union. His name does not, however, appear among those who might represent Fidesz after the 2014 EP election. So this may be Glattfelder’s last hurrah in Brussels.

After Glattfelder sounded the alarm, the Hungarian ministry of agriculture moved into action. The ministry made it clear that the Hungarian government will fight the impending legislation. It is as outlandish to eliminate the acacia tree as it would be to forbid the growth of corn. As if anyone planned the eradication of the acacia tree.

The hysteria spread far and wide, with assistance coming from Glattfelder and Sándor Fazekas, minister of agriculture. Headlines like these have appeared in the last three or four months: “What will happen to the acacia? Will the Union destroy it?” Or “Hungarian honey and acacia forests are in danger!”

By the end of February the Hungarian Academy of Science’s Ecological Institute felt that it was time to enlighten the Hungarian public on the true state of affairs. The scientists pointed out that the information that had appeared in the Hungarian media was “based on the most outrageous misconceptions and false allegations.” The institute tried to set the record straight but, as we will see later, not with great success.

The acacia forests are not endangered. On the contrary, acacia trees grow on 463,000 hectares, about a third of all Hungarian forests. Since 1990 the area with acacia trees has grown by 150,000 hectares and it is still growing. The real problem is that acacia trees are all over, along country roads, sometimes very close to areas under ecological protection. They spread rapidly. There are places where they managed to eradicate native flowers, even animals. The scientists specifically mention Echinops ruthenicus (szamárkenyér), about whose blue flowers Sándor Petőfi wrote lovingly in 1844. Because of the acacia they are now practically nonexistent. According to the scientists, 200,000 hectares are currently threatened by “the acacia invasion.” What they would like to prevent is the tree’s spread into this 200,000 hectare area.

Of course, the scientists didn’t manage to counteract the hysteria created by Fidesz and the Hungarian government. On March 12 Sándor Fazekas held a forum in Kunhegyes close to the area where there is perhaps the largest concentration of acacia trees in Hungary. Here he indignantly stated that the Union has no right whatsoever to tell Hungarians what kinds of trees they can grow in their own country. In his opinion, the acacia tree is a “Hungaricum” whose spread should be encouraged.

A day after, on March 13,  Hungary using a legal loophole vetoed the draft bill in the Council of Europe. It was a compromise bill that had already been accepted in the European Parliament. That bill didn’t mention the acacia or any other offending species. But Hungary refused to sign it because they didn’t receive a 100% guarantee that acacia would not be on the list.

For a while it looked as if Hungary had managed to avert “the danger” to the would-be Hungaricum. The Hungarian government was elated, but then came the letdown. A week after the veto the Council of Europe passed the draft bill. Mind you, the fate of the acacia is still not clear. No explicit guarantee came from Janez Potocnik, the commissioner responsible for environmental issues, but the Hungarian government hopes that its lobbying was not in vain. The final bill will be voted on only in the fall of 2015.

Meanwhile we are being told that the American black locust will be a Hungaricum.

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The end of an internationally known organic demonstration farm and school?

I don’t write too often about political events that affect agriculture. First, I don’t know much about the topic and, second, I don’t have a genuine interest in it. In fact, I have a certain aversion to agriculture, most likely dating to my childhood and the very negative impressions I gained from occasional visits to poverty-stricken southern Baranya villages. That is probably also the reason for my negative feelings about the literature produced between the two world wars by writers who extolled the virtues of the Hungarian peasantry and its way of life. At a very early age I came to the conclusion that there was nothing wonderful about village life because it meant backwardness and poverty. Instead, I believed then and continue to believe now that we should eliminate the gaping differences between city and countryside.

Earlier we talked about the land-lease program that has been under way for a number of years. Parcels of lands owned by the state are leased for twenty years, allegedly to young farmers with initiative. In reality, in the most recent competitions many of the lots were handed over to Fidesz party faithfuls who had no experience in farming. One often heard about fairly prosperous farmers whose main source of income was animal husbandry but whose grazing land was taken away from them;  they were forced to sell their sheep or cows. There were heartbreaking stories of  poor people who applied to have their leases renewed but lost both their land and their livelihoods to politically connected applicants who could receive EU subsidies even if they left the land fallow.

One case really shook me. It was the fate of the Kishantos Rural Development Center, which includes a 452-hectare organic demonstration farm which has been in existence for twenty-one years. It began as a local grass-roots organization but grew and prospered with the help of German experts who helped design the farm. József Ángyán, a professor of agriculture at Gödöllő, Hungary’s agricultural college, was also heavily involved. In 1995 the center acquired a lease for a plot of land on which they established a school to teach young farmers about organic farming. The philosophy of Kishantos was rooted in the ideas of N. F. S. Grundtvig (1783-1872), author, poet, philosopher, and teacher. He was the ideological father of  “folk high schools,” educational centers for adult education. “Folk high schools” became popular in Hungary at the end of the 1930s and were revived right after 1945, but with the communist takeover they were forced to close their doors.

Over the years the Kishantos educational center developed ties with Danish and other European partners and organized international exchange programs. As the manager of Kishantos said, “the main goal of that program is to offer experiences for young Hungarians to learn about democracy and sustainability in practice.”

The school and the center are financed from the income the farm earns. But the lease for the 452 hectares of state-owned land expired on October 31, 2013.  The Hungarian Land Fund, representing the state, decided to put an end to the Kishantos organic farm and educational center. It put the acreage, cut up into ten different lots, on the auction block. It is clear that the Orbán regime wanted to ruin Kishantos.

The reason? There can be several. One is perhaps József Ángyán’s involvement in the project. Viktor Orbán promised Ángyán an agricultural strategy based on small family farming.  Ángyán was pleased that his ideas would become reality and therefore accepted Viktor Orbán’s offer of a seat in parliament.  Soon enough, however, Ángyán became disillusioned and turned against the Orbán government’s distribution scheme for state land. The second reason might be that the project’s philosophy does not mesh with Viktor Orbán’s ideas about the Hungarian ethos. Kishantos is dedicated to “spreading the idea of sustainability and democracy.” The founders claim that Kishantos is “the only project in Europe where sustainable agriculture, ecological farming, education and democracy have been functioning together in perfect harmony.” Not exactly the kind of philosophy the Fidesz folks would be terribly keen on.

Sunflowers in the good old days in Kishantos

Sunflowers in the good old days in Kishantos

Kishantos applied for all ten lots but were unsuccessful. They received none of the land they had cultivated for the past two decades. The farm’s management appealed the decision. Although there was no verdict by the time the spring seeds had to be sowed, they decided that the land shouldn’t remain fallow while litigation was underway. Therefore they opted to go ahead with the planting. Their reasoning was that if they win the case they will have their usual crop and if the new owners win they will be the beneficiaries of the Kishantos people’s labor. Well, this is not how the new owners saw things. A week before Easter several tractors arrived and harrowed under the plants that were already green. One rarely can see such barbarity. What kinds of owners would these people be who could destroy acres and acres of young seedlings? The whole thing is outrageous.

The harrowing of the fall crop is under way

So much for the tender seedlings

Well, the crop is gone, but this may not be the end of the story. Kishantos’s fate remains in the hands of the courts and early indications are favorable. I for one very much hope that Kishantos will stay and prosper.

What does the Demokratikus Koalíció stand for?

On September 3, I wrote about an opinion piece by Tamás Bauer, vice-chairman of the Demokratikus Koalíció. Its title was “Electoral mathematics: The Demokratikus Koalíció’s position.” Bauer argued for DK’s right, based on its numerical support, to receive at least 8 or 9 electoral districts. He added that DK’s positions on many issues differ from those of both MSZP and Együtt2014-PM and therefore it deserves a parliamentary caucus.

At the end of that post I indicated that I would like to return to DK’s political program because relatively few people are familiar with it. I had to postpone that piece due to DK’s very prompt answer to MSZP. On the next day, September 4, I posted an article entitled “The current state of the Hungarian opposition: Negotiations between MSZP and DK.”

Over the last few days it has become obvious to me that Ferenc Gyurcsány has already begun his election campaign.  Zsolt Gréczy’s appointment as DK spokesman signaled the beginning of the campaign, which was then followed by several personal appearances by Ferenc Gyurcsány where he began to outline his program. Surely, the amusing video on being a tour guide in Felcsút, “the capital of Orbanistan,” was part of this campaign. So, it’s time to talk about the party program of the Demokratikus Koalíció, especially since only yesterday Attila Mesterházy answered Ferenc Gyurcsány’s letter to him. I elaborated on that letter in my September 4 post.

You may remember that one of the sticking points between the two parties was whether DK is ready to have “an electoral alliance” as opposed to “a political alliance.” Gyurcsány in his letter to Mesterházy made light of the difference between the two, but as far as the socialists are concerned this is an important distinction. Yesterday Attila Mesterházy made that crystal clear in his answer to  Gyurcsány which he posted on his own webpage. According to him, a “political alliance” means the complete subordination of individual parties’ political creeds to the agreed upon policies.  In plain language, DK “will have to agree not to represent its own political ideas during the campaign.”

Since DK’s program thus became one of the central issues in the negotiations it is time to see in what way DK’s vision of the future differs from that of MSZP and Együtt 2014-PM. Here I’m relying on Tamás Bauer’s list of the main differences.

(1) An MSZP and Együtt 2014-PM alliance following an electoral victory will only amend the new constitution and the cardinal laws that are based on this new constitution. The Demokratikus Koalíció, on the other hand, holds that the new constitution is illegitimate because it was enacted without the participation of the opposition. Therefore, according to DK, the new constitution must be repealed and the constitution of the Republic must take its place.

(2) MSZP-E14 by and large accepts the policy of Viktor Orbán on national matters and would allow people living outside of the borders to vote in national elections. The Demokratikus Koalíció rejects this new law and would put an end to these new citizens’ voting rights.

(3) MSZP-E14 does not seem to concern itself with the relation of church and state or the Orbán government’s law on churches. DK would restore the religious neutrality of the state and would initiate a re-examination of the agreement that was concluded between Hungary and the Vatican or, if the Church does not agree to such a re-examination, DK would abrogate the agreement altogether.

(4) MSZP-E14 talks in generalities about the re-establishment of predictable economic conditions and policies that would be investment friendly but it doesn’t dare to reject such populist moves as a decrease in utility prices or the nationalization of companies. Only DK is ready to openly reject all these.

(5) MSZP-E14 accepts the tax credits that depend on the number of children and therefore supports an unjust system. DK, on the other hand, wants to put an end to this system and to introduce a system that treats all children alike.

(6) Együtt2014-PM opposes the concentration of land that is necessary for the creation of  a modern and effective agriculture. The policy of small landholdings was the brainchild of the Smallholders Party, which was largely responsible for the collapse of Hungarian agriculture after the change of regime. MSZP is against foreign investment in Hungarian agriculture. The Demokratikus Koalíció intends to liberalize the agricultural market. DK thinks that agricultural cooperatives should be able to purchase the land they currently cultivate. It also maintains that foreign capital should be able to come into Hungary in order to make Hungarian agriculture competitive again.

(7) The attitude of MSZP and Együtt 2014-PM toward the conflicts between the European Union and the Orbán government is ambiguous, while the Demokratikus Koalíció unequivocally takes the side of the institutions of the Union against the Orbán government.

These are the points that Tamás Bauer mentions. But as the Gyurcsány campaign unfolds more and more differences will be visible. For example, only yesterday Gyurcsány talked about his ideas to abolish the compulsory retirement age and to financially encourage people to demand higher wages in order to maximize their pensions after retirement. During this talk in Nyíregyháza Gyurcsány made no secret of the fact that his party is working on its election program.

So, it seems to me that the Gyurcsány campaign has already begun. Maybe I’m wrong and Gyurcsány will give up all his ideas and will line up behind MSZP-E14, but somehow I doubt it. Even if he tried, he couldn’t. Temperamentally he is not suited for it.

Meanwhile, an interesting but naturally not representative voting has been taking place in Magyar Narancs. Readers of the publication are asked to vote for party and for leader of the list. DK leads (52%) over Együtt 2014 (29%) and Gyurcsány (54%) over Bajnai (32%). Of course, this vote in no way reflects reality. What it does tell us is that the majority of readers of Magyar Narancs are DK supporters. Something that surprised me. If I had had to guess, I would have picked Együtt2014.

As for Ferenc Gyurcsány’s visit to Felcsút, I wrote about it a couple of days ago. The video is now out. This morning I decided to take a look at it because from Zsolt Gréczy’s description on ATV’s Egyenes beszéd the whole scene of Fidesz cameras following them everywhere sounded hilarious . At that time the video had been viewed by about 5,000 people. Right now the number of visitors is over 53,000.

Clips from The Godfather are juxtaposed with scenes from Felcsút. The video ends with the wedding of Vito Corleone’s daughter. While Gyurcsány is narrating the enrichment of the Orbán family, two people, one of whom is the Fidesz regional secretary and the other perhaps the cameraman of the Puskás Academy, follow him everywhere and record his every move and word. Definitely worth seven minutes of your time.

Since I am no fortune teller I have no idea what will happen. A couple of things, though, I’m pretty sure of. DK will never agree to drop Gyurcsány as their party leader. And Mesterházy indicated that this might be one of the MSZP demands for an agreement. Or at least that Gyurcsány not be DK’s top candidate, or possibly any candidate. Otherwise why would he have asked: “Are those media predictions that the Demokratikus Koalíció plans to nominate the chairman of the party, Ferenc Gyurcsány, for the second slot on the list true?”

At first reading I didn’t notice this linguistic oddity. The letter is addressed to “Dear Mr. Party Chairman, dear Feri” and continues in the second-person singular: “te.” Now that I returned to the sentence in order to translate it, suddenly I noticed that Mesterházy switched from “te,” which in a personal letter would have been normal, to “Ferenc Gyurcsány” in a letter addressed to Ferenc Gyurcsány.

What will the final result be? I have no idea. Let’s put it this way, it’s much easier to predict the outcome of Hungarian soccer matches than the outcome of opposition politics.