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Fighting for the fields.

Poland is usually thought of as a kind of environmental house of horrors. Belching smokestacks, coal-darkened buildings and mammoth industrial complexes are the dismal and grimy images that leap at us from reports about Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, wholesale despoliation is not a pervasive condition. In spite of the gray renderings, much of Poland is still surprisingly lush. Unfortunately, few get to see past the cheerless Orwellian visage to the other Poland -- the green Poland.

Anyone who has ventured beyond the urban tourist corridors knows of the rare quality of the Polish countryside. In her recent book Exit Into History, Eva Hoffman describes the rickety socialist city centers as mere "foreground" against the deeper and older rural background of Poland -- a background that has survived changing political landscapes.

During the 1950's centralist governments in Eastern Europe sought to "rationalize" private land holdings and create large, modern, collective farms. Because this means forsaking their own land, Polish peasants resisted the move, and, after inducing severe food shortages, forced the authorities to abandon collectivization. Small scale and privately owned, Polish agriculture preserved an autonomous structure that subsequently became an Eastern Bloc anomaly.

Today, 25 percent of the Polish population still farm. This is a remarkably high proportion (only two to three percent of the U.S. population is employed in agriculture) for a European nation spread across two and a half million farms, generally between 25 and 50 acres each. Polish peasants have remained close to the land, which can be immediately seen by any visitor. Rather than uninterrupted monoculture fields, a mosaic of crops in neat small plots gives the landscape a colorful, quilt-like texture. Wheat, rye, oats, fruits and vegetables, a gaggle of geese, chickens and a few cows is the typical mix on a Polish farm. Such ecologically sensible diversity is matched by very low synthetic fertilizer and pesticide use.

Marcin Hyla of the Federacja Zielonych (Green Federation), an organizer of the Polish environmental movement, considers agriculture in Poland to be an environmental asset and hope for a sustainable future. "Quite paradoxically, we have a huge potential for sustainable development."

Similarly, Urszula Soltysiak of the Warsaw Agricultural University claims that "there is probably no other country in Europe that can today equal Poland in quickly and efficiently reaching an ecological agriculture." Along with Professor Mieczyslaw Gorny, Soltysiak is helping usher Poland toward greater eco-agricultural health. In 1989, they founded Ekoland, an organization that assists farmers in developing organic standards.

For Professor Gorny, a respected soil scientist and long-time advocate of ecological farming methods, Ekoland is the realization of long years of struggle. During Communist times, Gorny was forbidden to teach seminars on organic techniques, but did so anyway, playing a kind of shell game with the authorities by holding seminars in different remote locations. Accused of trying to retard Polish agriculture, Gornys activities cost him several faculty posts. Nevertheless, he persevered and today his desire is to see Ekoland certify the first 200,000 organic farms in Poland.

Unfortunately, protecting the long-term viability of organic agriculture in Poland may be difficult. Politicians continue to offer little support for initiatives such as Ekoland and instead speak of "modernizing" Poland along the lines of idealized "western standards." They express the need to develop a national superhighway network to facilitate truck transport, construct hydroelectric dams on Poland's large free-flowing rivers, and transform agriculture so that it way compete on world markets -- expensive projects requiring foreign capital. Courting such investments has indeed become a kind of obsession here and is sought without serious regard for total (environmental and social) costs. Sustainability and sustainable development, although a part of the new democratic vocabulary, is little more than rhetoric.

Some foreign interests have shown a reciprocal intent to grab a share of the Polish pie and have been busy sharpening their knives and making the first cuts. For example in 1989, approximately $60 million worth of pesticides were donated to Poland through the European Union's PHARE structural reconstruction program. Tygodnik Rolniko w, a Rural Solidarity publication, reported that the donated pesticides were banned in either the U.S. or Europe and included known carcinogens (including mancozeb). Although the "donation" was largely a failure, with little of the material used, the event marked the beginning of an unfortunate trend.

Professor Gorny complains that banned pesticides are still being brought into the country and that appropriate regulatory mechanisms are virtually non-existent. In addition, small Polish farms do not allow for the efficient and economical use of pesticides and farmers are unfamiliar with proper application procedures. Nevertheless, the pesticide culture continues to develop its roots. Ciba-Geigy's recently completed pesticide warehouse in Warsaw, from which four to eight thousand tons of pesticides are hoped to be distributed annually, signifies what some believe is inevitably in store for Poland.

Clearly, Poland stands at a critical crossroads. Whether it will become the eco-agricultural heart of Europe or follow the well-worn path toward industrialized agriculture is uncertain. Efforts of environmental organizations such as Ekoland will be crucial in countering the tremendous pressure on Poland to "develop." Their work will help foster the idea that a rare opportunity and spirit have survived in Poland. Too often, the depictions are simply disparaging.

In its Agricultural Strategy for Poland, the World Bank characterizes the peasant way of management as "based principally on a logic of survival and not on a logic of development." The Bank would clearly like to see this mindset change. Of course, not all stand to profit Massive unemployment is just one of the very real threats of bringing industrialized agriculture to Poland.

One small Polish farmer, whose opinion recently appeared in a Warsaw newspaper, summed it up the best: "The Polish peasant was able to survive through numerous hardships, thanks to his faith and the love of the land cultivated by his ancestors. He will survive today if he isn't tempted by the promises of quick and easy profits made possible through large investments, large costs, using chemicals, pseudo-modern farming machinery and production specialization. Ecological farming makes it possible for farmers to defend their profession."
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Title Annotation:Poland
Author:Nagiecki, Janusz
Date:Aug 1, 1995
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