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Natural Resource Governance around the World

POLAND: Agrarian reforms and family farming

Documents of reference

Piotr Dabrowski, « Pologne, Un laboratoire de l’histoire », in Courrier de la Planète, N°47, septembre- octobre 1998; Andrzej Lipski, Communication à l’atelier organisé par l’IRAM, la CONTAG et les réseaux APM lors du Forum Social Mondial, Porto Alegre, janvier 2001.

Poland has undergone three big agrarian reforms, which took place in completely different circumstances and following completely different methods. The “Polish land issues laboratory” illustrates well the diversity that is hidden behind what is called an « agrarian reform », the importance of alliances formed between the ruling classes and the peasantry and the necessity to take into account the agricultural model which they seek to promote – a certain type of farm and a certain type of rural society. Today, despite decollectivisation, the position and future of family farming are again seriously threatened in Poland.

The first agrarian reform (1919-1939)

It was decided on political grounds. The Polish nobility needed the support of the peasantry for its projects for national construction and defence 1, which is something that it did not understand until later. It was not until after World War I in 1919 that the first agrarian reform law was passed.2

Feudalism had weighed very heavily on Polish farmers up until the abolition of serfdom in 1863 3. Just before World War I, large-scale landowners still possessed around a quarter of Polish farmland. Large farms could range from 200-300 ha to 2000-3000 ha, sometimes even more. They were surrounded by a large mass of families that possessed only very little land. A number of families didn’t have any land at all, and the most common measure of possessed surface area was under 2 ha. A few farms extended over 20-30 ha. The very poor rural class represented more than 65% of the population although they had given rise to waves of immigration towards the Americas or Europe since the XIXth Century 4.

The 1919 agrarian reform included expropriating with compensation (30 to 50% of real value) of farms of more than 60, 180, or 300 ha depending on the region, in view of promoting the creation of small family farms (in theory 15-20 ha, in reality 5 ha on average). This was supplemented with credits for peasants for the purchase of land. Between 1919 and 1939, it was progressively executed without reaching its goal, as 1.7 million ha were still waiting to be redistributed just before World War II. Yet the impact was real: the landed gentry controlled no more than 2.2 million ha compared to the 6.6 million ha in 1919.

The second agrarian reform (1944)

In 1944, the Soviet Union liberated Poland, while confiscating 30% of its territory and imposing a totalitarian system. The communists put an agrarian reform law into effect in order to gain peasant support 5.

Land and assets (from 50 to 100 ha according to the region) were expropriated without compensation. Despoiled landowners were obliged to leave their home towns.

The results are difficult to determine because the country’s territorial boundaries were altered and moved westward. Peasants were attributed 1.7 million ha, less than 10% of Poland’s farmland. Displaced peasants from the East of the country, which was occupied by the USSR, received farms previously belonging to German families that had immigrated or had been chased westward. However, the primary beneficiary of these transformations was the State, who appropriated 40-70% of the farmland in the West of the country. State farms grew. There were 6,200 of them occupying 3.14 million hectares in 1955; they covered 4.6 million hectares in 1980.

The totalitarian agricultural policy aimed towards two incompatible objectives: ideologically, to collectivise land in order to control rural peoples and food production; and technically, to produce more in order to meet the needs of the working class. First, the authorities chose oppression: falsifying the 1947 elections, repressing peasant activists, forcing the wealthier peasants to deliver certain farm products at 50% of their real price. An armed resistance movement against both the Soviets and collectivisation existed until 1953-54 in regions where the peasantry was at its strongest. From 1956 to 1970, forced collectivisation was progressively abandoned, but the deliveries continued and State farms continued to be the main beneficiaries of agricultural investments (80% for 20% of farmland holdings).

As part of a modernisation plan from 1971 to 1980, Poland opened to foreign investments, granted loans to farmers at a reduced interest rate, subsidised agricultural prices and abandoned taxes on fertilisers. On the other hand, the State maintained its control over rural structures and trade with an absurd planning system, resulting in serious economic imbalances. During the eighties, the country underwent a serious economic crisis. Inflation soared, which resulted in the resignation of the government and the arrival of democracy.

The first democracy independent of the Soviet bloc had to face a bankrupt economy. The land and agriculture issue was one of the heaviest. Although collectivisation had been less extreme and more recent than in other Soviet countries 6, with 75% of land still belonging to small farmers, the problem was essentially that of structural stiffness: the average farm size was less than 5 ha. State farms (taking up 25% of Polish farmland) had also suffered from the catastrophic former management.

The third agrarian reform (1991-…)

The liberalisation of the economy, suppression of subsidies, opening of frontiers and privatisation had very strong repercussions on agriculture, leading to a drop in the net income of agricultural producers. Starting in 1991, the government reinvigorated its agricultural policy through market intervention. The process of land privatisation was the subject of a live debate in 1993 within the Solidarność administration. Should the country permit a free land market without worrying about how land sales may restructure the farm sector as the liberals want, or should it control land sales in order to promote family farming? The independent farmers’ party left the ruling coalition, which had been degenerating until the victory of the former communists during the legislative elections a few months later.

The new land policy implemented from 1991 was characterised by the creation of a National Land Agency, the restructuring of government farms, and then their privatisation (land and assets). State farm debts were secured.

Laws concerning this land reform will be modified many times. Although in 1997, they affirmed that one of the objectives of the National Land Agency was indeed the creation and extension of family farms, no real decision in this vein had been taken, and the parliament continued to hesitate between free and controlled sales. Although the Polish are highly concerned by land matters, and the Polish constitution affirms that family farms constitute the basis of Polish agriculture, the land issue is not prioritised. Rather, other issues involving the country’s integration in the European Union or the WTO are emphasised.

In 1997, 3.6 million hectares of decollectivised land had been leased, 0.6 million hectares sold and 0.4 million were administered by the National Land Agency. A large majority of State farms were leased or sold in their entirety, without being fragmented. Very few were accessible to small farmers, despite the establishment of an installation programme for new farmers, which remained in fact very limited.

Peasant farms, either outcomes of the second agrarian reform or traditional ones that existed at the beginning of the nineties, were small in size, poorly equipped and were not immediately able to be competitive in a context of economic liberalisation and market opening. In these conditions, the liberal land reform instigated the creation of giant properties, often of several thousand hectares 7. There is even a 70,000 acre one, which would certainly not be found anywhere in Western Europe! Some of them are not actually being cultivated 8, whereas there are a number of farms without enough land in the surrounding areas. Other farms are developed following modern agricultural techniques and capitalist logic. The two million family farms that exist today in Poland and which represent 25% of the population should be, according to the official directives, reduced by at least half. The future is to belong to agribusiness, despite the fact that there is heavy unemployment in the cities and the lack of jobs in the countryside.

Polish farmers’ organisations do not share this official opinion and are convinced that Polish family farming, which had been able to resist collectivisation, represents an advantage for Poland and Europe.

For A. Lipski, a former leader of Rural Solidarność, the agrarian reform should be redefined in order to promote family farming and ought to be done with mechanisms for regulating the land market.

This article is part of Land Policies and Agrarian Reforms. Proposal Paper. 2007

Paper Editor: Merlet, Michel.

Translation: Mary Rodeghier. 2007.

1 Poland has been constantly under attack since the end of the Middle Ages. The country disappeared from the European map for 123 years after having been divided up between Austria, Prussia and Russia in the late XVIIIth century.

2This followed a process of land redistribution, which had been spontaneously initiated by a certain number of landowners: 840,000 hectares had been redistributed before 1919.

3Obligatory work for the noble masters had increased from 2 or 3 days a week to practically the whole week in the XVIIIth Century. A peasant’s life was not worth much. His neighbour (a noble of course) would be fined 3 groszy for a killed peasant in compared to 5 for a cow.

4To Canada, the USA, Brazil (Parana, Rio Grande do Sul) or Argentina; or to work in the factories of Germany and France.

5The public opinion at that time was ignorant of everything pertaining to collectivisation and the Ukraine famine in the thirties, of deportations and peasant revolts.

6In the USSR, 100% of land had been collectivised, and for a much longer time, creating a « peasantless country ».

7 Yet, very little land was sold to foreigners, since this would have only been possible under special authorisation of the Ministers of Agriculture and the Homeland.

8This situation is not unique to Poland. This is also the case in Ukraine, for example.


Piotr Dabrowski, « Pologne, Un laboratoire de l’histoire », in Courrier de la Planète, N°47, septembre - octobre 1998.

Andrzej Lipski, Communication à l’atelier organisé par l’IRAM, la CONTAG et les réseaux APM lors du Forum Social Mondial 2001, Porto Alegre, janvier 2001.

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