Jul 11, 2012
Insight: socialist legacies and incomplete post-socialist reform policies shaped agricultural land use in Eastern Europe
A better understanding of how agricultural land is being used in the countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, where the collapse of socialism led to large areas of agricultural land being abandoned, is vital for this region of the world. The area could play an important role in environmental conservation and also be positively exploited to increase agricultural productivity, writes Alexander V Prishchepov of the Leibniz Institute for Agricultural Development in Central and Eastern Europe, Germany.
Our study in Environmental Research Letters (ERL) analyses the effects of the collapse of socialism on agricultural land-use change in Poland, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania and European Russia between 1990 and 2000. Each of these countries underwent institutional reform following the post-socialist transition, which was conditioned by politico-economics, socialist property rights and existing agricultural structures. The study demonstrates that institutions that manage agricultural land are highly important, and any changes in how they are managed dictate how much land is abandoned and at what rate.
Agricultural land was abandoned at the highest rates in areas where institutions that regulated land use changed and remained incomplete by the end of the first decade after transition. The highest rates were found in the Baltic States – 43% of agricultural land was abandoned in Latvia and 29% in Lithuania. Here land was handed back to its historic owners and land markets were not yet functioning, while rapid economic development gave priority to economic sectors other than agriculture.
In Russia, 31% of land was left uncultivated in the first 10 years after socialism collapsed because of dwindling state support for agriculture. Russian land reform policies maintained farming structures from the socialist era and a moratorium on land sales was only withdrawn in 2003.
In contrast, less land was abandoned in countries where institutions that regulated land use remained in control during the transition period. For instance, Belarus and Poland had the lowest land abandonment rates (10% and 16%, respectively). This was for very different reasons, however. Belarus retained most agricultural land under production by preserving the large-scale farming structures that existed during the socialist regime with high state subsidies for agriculture; Poland experienced comparatively few changes in farm structure during the transition period because the agricultural sector was characterized by the coexistence of many small-scale private farms and few state farms, where land was sold after the collapse of socialism.
Socialist legacies combined with post-socialist governmental support for agriculture was thus crucial. The importance of institutional changes and land reform strategies can easily be observed along the frontiers of countries such as Belarus and Russia. Analysing the patterns and drivers of such differences is key to understanding how to harness the untapped production potential of unused agricultural land in the region.
Institutional changes that regulate land use are not rare around the world, says team leader Alexander Prishchepov. Official statistics suggest that some abandoned agricultural fields were re-cultivated in the last decade in Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, most likely due to completed land reforms but also thanks to EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies.
At the same time in Belarus and in parts of Russia the amount of land abandoned increased because of incomplete land reforms. Indeed, more than 50 million hectares of land remain abandoned to this day in Russia alone. Understanding the effect of institutional changes on land use will be important in guiding land-use policies, national and global food security, and when designing strategies for managing abandoned agricultural land and for environmental conservation.
About the author
Alexander V Prishchepov is currently a postdoctoral research associate at the Leibniz Institute for Agricultural Development in Central and Eastern Europe (IAMO), Germany. In 2010 he received his PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, US. He was in Volker Radeloff’s group in the SILVIS Lab, with a special focus on remote sensing and land systems science. He completed additional postgraduate education on GIS and remote sensing at Oklahoma State University, US, from 2004 to 2005. He received his MSc in 2001 and BSc in 1999 from the Russian State Hydrometeorological University, St. Petersburg, Russia. His research interests lie in understanding the human dimension in land-use and land-cover change (LULCC), with a special focus on transition countries, including former Soviet Bloc countries in Eastern Europe, and remote sensing.