Poland’s Jadwiga Lopata won the environmental community’s most prominent prize this week. But her country’s imminent EU membership could mean the end of the conservation battle she's been waging since the mid-1980s.
Poland can't compete with Western Europe's factory farms.
Small time Polish farmers got some good news out of San Francisco on Sunday.
The Goldman Environmental Prize, considered by some as the Nobel prize for environmentalists, was awarded to Polish organic farmer and activist Jadwiga Lopata. The award means more publicity for the plight of the Polish farmer, who will be facing stiff competition when the former Eastern bloc country joins the European Union at the end of this year.
It is a plight Lopata, 48, has made her chief cause since giving up her job as a computer programmer to fight for rural preservation in the mid-1980s. At that time, the threat was Communist-pushed collectivization. This time around, Lopata and Polish farmers face a possibly greater foe: corporate agriculture.
For years, Poland’s farming community has been dominated by family farms, of which 68 percent are smaller than 20 acres. The scale means the farmers haven’t been able to turn their farms into the mechanized, mono-crop variety found in European Union member countries.
Leaders in organic farming
As a result, Polish farmers have begun producing almost completely organically grown products. Their plots of land are a boon to the environment, preserving plant and wildlife species which would otherwise be endangered.
Lopata seized on the benefits, grounding the European Centre for Ecological Agriculture and Tourism in 1993. The organization, which also serves as a lobbying group, coordinates eco-tourism trips to Polish farms. The group hopes to raise awareness to the problem while providing financial support to the country’s farmers.
Since its founding, the organization has received a number of awards. But members hope that the prestige of the Goldman prize brings an extra boost.
"The award is more prominent and certainly is more well-known and it will help get much more feedback in the media," Chris Wietrzny, a board member, told DW-WORLD. "More information will be going around because of it."
EU membership could mean the end
The clock is ticking. Negotiations for 2004 EU candidate countries, of which Poland is one, are due to wrap up by the end of this year.
Farming remains a big stumbling block, Polish EU negotiators have said. News that farmers in new member countries would only get 25 percent of the rich farming subsidies the 15 member countries currently get hasn’t helped either.
Still, Polish government officials are hard-bent on joining the EU, meaning tough times for the farming community. Requirements that Poland reduce the number of family-owned farms from two million to 500,000 and open them up to EU competition could add to Poland’s already high unemployment.
"A difficult period will start, because they will not be able to compete in the external market," said Wietrzny.
And at that point the benefits Poland’s farmers could bring to the union – high-quality organic products, eco-tourism and biodiversity – may have already been lost.