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'Land grabbing' hikes prices in eastern Germany

BERLIN--Land prices in eastern Germany are rising at dizzying rates and local farmers feel they are being squeezed out by foreign investors in a phenomenon known as “land grabbing.”

The price of a hectare of land has risen by 54 percent between 2009 and 2012 in Brandenburg state and by 79 percent in neighboring Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, even if prices remain below those in the west of the country — at least for now.

The rural east of Germany has vast swathes of arable land inherited from communist times, when farming was in the hands of huge collectives, known as LPGs.

But today the land is increasingly being snapped up by foreign investors, often with no background or interest in farming, pushing prices up and forcing out locals.

For Axel Vogel, head of the environmentalist Green party in the regional parliament of Brandenburg, the phenomenon in eastern Germany amounts to “farm grabbing.”

Agricultural land is perhaps one of the few natural resources of the region encircling Berlin.

Following the collapse of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1989, a state-run agency, the BVVG, was set up to privatize the land.

But critics complain that the land was sold to the highest bidder rather than the families of the local farmers who had owned it prior to communism.

Indeed, in the privatization rush following unification in 1990, the GDR's massive farming collectives were frequently snapped up by their managers.

And as those managers now reach retirement age, it is only wealthy investors who can afford to pay the high prices, even if there are plenty of small farmers eager to step in.

But these “have neither enough experience or money” to buy that quantity of land, said Willi Lehnert, who represents a group of young farmers campaigning against “land grabbing.”

Brandenburg “is being transformed from a village-based agriculture into one that is nothing more than a financial investment,” complained Reinhard Jung, head of the regional arm of the Bauernbund farmers' association.

The problem is that the practice is completely legal, he said.

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