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Natural Resource Governance around the World

ALBANIA: From absolute collectivism to radical egalitarian land distribution.

Documents of reference

Entretien avec Adrian Civici; Adrian Civici, « La réforme foncière et la consolidation de la propriété », article inédit (oct. 2001); Adrian Civici & François Lérin, « Albanie, sans transition » in Courrier de la Planète, N°47, septembre - octobre 1998.

The collectivist period

The establishment of the Communist regime in Albania in 1945 was immediately followed by the adoption of an agrarian reform law. Big landowners were expropriated without compensation and their “exorbitant” capital goods were confiscated, including all vineyards, orchards, gardens, pastures and forests larger than the legally defined limit. In less than two years, Albania’s very unequal land distribution, a product of the Ottoman agricultural structure and “second serfdom”, had been replaced by an egalitarian society made up of small-scale farmers. However, forced collectivisation of agricultural land caused this to disappear very quickly. The agricultural sector’s new structure was accompanied by a limitation of property rights (prohibition of land transactions, sales, purchases, leases) and by the creation of cooperatives, which were taking over more and more land.

Under strict State control, forced and total collectivisation resulted in the complete socialisation of the means of production in a span of only twenty years. The 1976 Constitution abolished private ownership, plot ownership and animal ownership. Nowhere else in the world would small farmers’ material necessities be prohibited to such an extent in the name of the creation of the “New Man.”

The rapidity of this transition from a profoundly unequal agricultural system to collectivisation’s “classless” fiction has nevertheless been upstaged by Albania’s head-spinning transition from collectivisation to total land privatisation.

A radical privatisation

The collapse of the Communist regime in 1990 left Albania in a state of utter disorganisation. Popular debates concerning the utility of collective units, which went as far as to call for their destruction, led the newly elected pluralist regime to lance an agrarian reform. Thus, in July 1991, only four months into the new regime, a new “Land Law” was passed.

This law re-established private ownership of capital goods and instituted rules relating to land distribution. Land was given back to small farmers in a strictly egalitarian way, according to the number of members in each family. The cultivated land possessed by an agricultural cooperative at the end of the year 1990 was redistributed without compensation to families that had been registered as members of the cooperative before July 31st of that year. For a certain time (3-4 years), beneficiaries were forbidden to sell, buy or lease the land that they had received. The purpose of this measure was to prevent people from making irrational transactions during the early, disorderly stages of the post-Communist transition. Also at this time, it was decided to compensate former landowners who had been expropriated during the 1946 agrarian reform.

In 1990, 700,000 ha of cultivated land was divided among 160 State farms of 1070 ha and 492 cooperatives at 1057 ha each (on average). After a few years, all of this land was redistributed. By 1993, Albania’s agricultural sector had taken the following form: 467,000 small farms having an average surface area of 1.3 ha, which were divided into 1.8 million plots, in addition to a small private sector consisting of thirty large-scale farms (2.2% of the total agricultural surface area).

This phenomenon of radical privatisation, a unique example in the world, is not limited to farming. The fact that the entirety of the State’s holdings were distributed to the people right away provided a base for national unity at a time when the government no longer embodied a particular State apparatus nor was armed with an alternative economic strategy. Private commerce and the family farming economy had become the foundations for a new Albanian society: the agricultural sector employed 47% of the active population and contributed to 45% of the GDP.

In line with this restructuring of the Albanian agricultural sector, around 575,000 ha of farmland was distributed to more than 450,000 peasant families. They created then around 460,000 small private farms with surface areas varying from O.5 to 3 ha per family.

Cultivated surface area according to property size (in thousands of ha) : Source : MAA, statistics 2000
Cultivated land704702700699
State sector1701702020
Cooperative farms504000
Private sector30533680679

Although the law called for equal land allocation across the nation, with each family receiving a certain amount depending on the number of family members, the reality was different, notably for geographic reasons. Paradoxically, the farms are largest (with the average surface area of cultivated land from 1.2 to 1.7 ha) where flat, open farmland (and therefore the best land) is abundant. On the other hand, in mountainous areas where farmland is poor and fragmented, tilled fields cover an average surface area of only 0.2 to 1 ha.

In 2000, 30% of farms measured between 0.1 and 0.5 ha; 24% between 0.6 and 1.0 ha; 35% between 1.1 and 2.0 ha; and 11% measure more than 2.0 ha (INSTAT, 2000).

Specific problems

As a consequence of the search for equality between types of land and production conditions (irrigated land or not, land in flat open country areas, hills or mountains, close or far from the road, etc.), land distribution committees have fragmented the land allocated to each family even more by creating 1.8 million individual plots. This means that a family possessing a total surface area of 1.3 ha might have 4 to 7 plots measuring 1.0 to 0.2 ha each, with an average distance of 1-10 km separating each plot and the plots from the house.

These figures convey that the majority of family farms make use of extremely small plots of land. Such a restricted land tenure system clearly influences a farm’s productive activity, its production size, the market it produces for, its use of farm equipment, irrigation, etc.

Three negative effects on the country’s agricultural sector and its rural development result from such extreme fragmentation of farmland. They are:

  • Abandon of all efforts to modernise farm production (mechanisation, efficient water use, crop rotation, etc.)

  • Land far from dwellings was often abandoned. According to the surveys, on average, 10% of the closest plots were left untilled, whereas for plots further away, this figure reaches 47%

  • Numerous difficulties in the lease and sale of land.

In this context, from 1995 to 2000, the efforts made by the government and other involved institutions focused around three principal aims:

  • Finalising land distribution and providing small farmers with deeds of ownership. By the end of April 2000, about 92% of the land designated for redistribution was distributed and around 92% of small farmers had the corresponding documents.

  • Consolidation of ownership: creating a singular, modern property registration system. To establish this system, the parliament and the Albanian government modified the legal framework and opened « Registration offices » in 34 districts of the country. Financed by US-AID (USA), the Phare Program (EU) and the Albanian Government, the project is currently operating in 2,378 out of 3,046 cadastral areas.

  • Developing and revitalising the land market was one of the main objectives for the period of 1999-2003. During the last two years, the legal framework concerning the sale, purchase and lease of agricultural land was completed, and thus the legal obstacles to the development of the land market were eradicated. The rapid increase in real estate transaction since 1999 demonstrates the effectiveness of this policy. At the end of April 2000, more than 40,000 transactions had already been registered, of which 15,000 were for farmland.

More effective protection and management of farmland is becoming necessary. Two observations can be made upon analysis of the land market:

  • Firstly, direct and definitive land sales on the outskirts of large towns, next to national highways or in industrial and tourism zones: the final destination of this agricultural land was the construction of industrial installations, residence buildings, socio-cultural installations, tourist hotels and restaurants. The sale price is from 40 to 150 dollars per square meter.

  • Secondly, partial sales or lease of land that continues to be used as agricultural land: this phenomenon is typical of interior agricultural zones, close to big towns or transformation centres. The majority of buyers or renters are nearby farmers or livestock breeders, who invest to increase their production. Also, there is some joint-venture investment in export production.

Overly broad land use

Different indicators—from the proportion of untilled land in relation to the total surface area of arable land to the number of sowings per year—show that land use is not as intensive as one would hope given the small size of the majority of Albanian farms.

The available figures for 1997-1999 convey the extent of untilled land in Albanian agriculture: 43% of farms in Albania leave 14% of their land untilled. This phenomenon is amplified in the South of the country, where 35% of the arable land is not used for 80% of farms. It is less but still present in the centre of the country, in particular in the Western plains, Albania’s most fertile region, where 26-36% of farms have untilled lands occupying 5-10% of the total surface area. Analysing this phenomenon is difficult. Several economic, psychological, agronomic and cultural factors may be at the root of it: land ownership fragmentation, inappropriate infrastructures, the influx of foreign capital making agricultural work less attractive (especially in the South), the lack of financial means to cultivate all of the available surface area, the poor quality of land and low production levels.

In such conditions, land consolidation appears to be a necessity. Some other problems also prevail such as families who trade plots and villages where households are encouraged to rent to other families within the village.

Latent land insecurity persists

The security of land possession still remains a sensitive matter, which is more difficult to understand that it would seem at first. It is appropriate to distinguish formal security on the one hand (possession of documents proving rights in land, document precision, and security of the ways to register and make public land holdings), and subjective security of possession on the other, which refers to how farmers perceive the meaning of the rights they possess over land.

The enquiries that we have done between 1997 and 2000 show that historically founded ways to access land have high rates of social approval at the local level.

In places where there are no former landowners, such as in former wilderness areas that have since been transformed into farmlands, having a definitive document proving ownership provides small farmers with land tenure security. There are still some small farmers who, even though they have been working the land for several years, have not yet obtained a property title, and hence feel that their situation is insecure.

In areas where the farmland had been appropriated before collectivisations, the security of a person’s title depends largely on the tenure history of the allocated land. Possessing land that once belonged to one’s father is socially considered to be more legitimate, and thus the title for that land is more secure. Therefore, an official property title deed is just one element, not the only one: when a person says, « I have my father’s land” – that means, “I obtained a quantity of land for which I have ownership rights in accordance with the 1991 law, but I have settled on my family’s traditionally held land. »

This perceived tenure insecurity directly influences farmers’ freedom to decide on how to use resources, even when they possess official documents. Thus, whether the plot in somebody’s possession is « their father’s land » or not, the historical origin of the land is particularly important in determining how free that person is to use the land. As far as land awarded by the 1991 law that does not historically belong to the family is concerned, the right to decide how to use the land is limited considerably by pressure coming from ex-landowners, fear of changes in the law, disputes between neighbours who make opposing claims, etc. Land sales, construction and long-term investments are among the most challenging problems faced by small farmers. This fear of losing one’s land is manifest in farmers’ hesitations to invest in land where “there are other peoples’ interests”.

A future to be strengthened and farm policies to be created

The current farming structure in Albania can be nothing but transitory. We see that issuing official property titles is not enough in itself to resolve fundamental questions that are raised as far as land is concerned. The transformations, however radical they may have been, did not totally erase prior social relationships.

Can modern, sustainable production units be achieved by the sole means of land markets (ownership and lease)? Could the formation of new co-operative structures also play a part in this?

In order to fully express the potentials of new family farming production, Albania will need a coherent and comprehensive agricultural policy, which would help to fundamentally reorganise the rural world. The integration of this country in the worldwide market economy, the ways land is managed and the potential role to be played by farmers’ organisations will be crucial elements in the make-up of Albania’s future.

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

Paper Editor: Merlet, Michel.

Translation: Mary Rodeghier. 2007.

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