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Roma responding to gifts of farm land

The mayor of a southern Slovak town has taken a unique approach this year to cutting down on crop-raiding blamed on Slovakia's large Roma (gypsy) minority - he has given local Roma land of their own to cultivate crops, for free.
Ľudovít Feješ, mayor of Fiľakovo (population 10,500), said he had convinced city hall last spring to donate about 2,000 square metres of farm land to local Roma families. He said the move was aimed at preventing the Roma "from stealing from others people's gardens," and added he hoped the scheme would "teach the Roma to honour hard work in the fields, and help them build some connection with the community in which they live."
For several summers now, Slovak media have carried reports of Roma stealing potatoes, corn and other crops grown by local ethnic Slovak farmers. Some farmers have hired guards to protect their crops, but reports of theft have continued.

The mayor of a southern Slovak town has taken a unique approach this year to cutting down on crop-raiding blamed on Slovakia's large Roma (gypsy) minority - he has given local Roma land of their own to cultivate crops, for free.

Ľudovít Feješ, mayor of Fiľakovo (population 10,500), said he had convinced city hall last spring to donate about 2,000 square metres of farm land to local Roma families. He said the move was aimed at preventing the Roma "from stealing from others people's gardens," and added he hoped the scheme would "teach the Roma to honour hard work in the fields, and help them build some connection with the community in which they live."

For several summers now, Slovak media have carried reports of Roma stealing potatoes, corn and other crops grown by local ethnic Slovak farmers. Some farmers have hired guards to protect their crops, but reports of theft have continued.

Over the last weekend, August 10 to 12, local field guards from the Smižany farm in eastern Slovakia caught nine thieves on their farm, and another 17 were caught on farms around the eastern Zemplín region. Local farmers have met with Agriculture Ministry representatives and Košice district police to solve the problem, with the police promising help in guarding crops. The police have even promised to employ their specially-trained SWAT teams for the job.

Politicians have also joined the fray, most notably Robert Fico, an independent member of parliament and leader of the second-most popular political party, Smer. Fico's 'Farmer's Law', which made theft of any agricultural goods a criminal offence, was passed by parliament November 2000. Before, such theft could only by tried in court if damages exceeded twice the national minimum wage, or about 8,800 crowns ($170).

For all the repressive measures proposed and employed, few have, like Feješ, taken steps to address the root of the problem - poverty, unemployment and segregation.

While only 15 families of the estimated 2,200 Roma who live in Fiľakovo have actually started to grow vegetables on their donated 40 square metre plots of land, both the Roma and the 'white' communities have praised the unusual experiment.

While what Feješ refers to as a "learning curve" is only in its first year, the mayor was optimistic and believed that the experiment would ultimately help to eliminate a repeated summer of sleepless nights for local farmers.

"I'm not disappointed [by the low number of families who have responded]," he said. "I know what the reality here is, and I know that not everyone wants to work. Those families who have started to work their land have discovered that it's hard work, harder than stealing from others [farms]; but on the other hand, they have also learned to respect work, and they protect their fields very carefully."

The mayor added that for the coming 2002 farm season he knew of several more Roma families who wanted a chance to work their own land. He said that there were "never major problems" in Fiľakovo, and that he believed that "70% of my [Fiľakovo inhabitants] Roma are good Roma".

Some of these 'good Roma' have also been employed to clean up the town through local Roma activist Kazimír Berky, who is also head of the local branch of the Roma Intelligentsia for Co-existence (RIZS) party. Berky, said Feješ, had also been "the brains behind the plan" to give the Roma farm land for free, and had proposed the scheme to the mayor last year.

Berky said that he had come up with the proposal because he thought "the Roma have a lot of free time, because unemployment among them [in Fiľakovo] is about 70%. In this way they can grow a few vegetables for their kitchens, and use their time in a sensible way."

Next year, Berky believed, more Roma families would seed their own vegetables; he expressed the hope that Fiľakovo city hall would free up a bigger plot of land so Roma could start jointly growing corn or potatoes in greater amounts.

"We are very thankful to Mayor Feješ for being so helpful. If there were more towns like Fiľakovo, there'd be fewer tensions between whites and Roma than there are now. He has the right attitude, and we can see that he tries to be forthcoming whenever possible," said Berky.

Government Roma issues plenipotentiary Klára Orgovánová also praised Fiľakovo's approach.

"It's definitely a good thing. This is just one positive example, and it's a shame that the media don't try to go after more," she said, adding that there were several villages around Slovakia which, for example, had hired Roma as night-watchmen at endangered fields. She regarded the hires as a way of teaching Roma responsibility and respect for field work.

"Potatoes are a hot topic for the media," Orgovánová complained, saying that journalists tended to concentrate on "sensational cases which continue to widen the gap between the Roma and non-Roma populace.

Politicians have also taken criticism for seeming to fan public intolerance. Robert Fico's response to farm-theft, for example, has been broadly criticised as populist, but the young, left-leaning politician rejects such claims. "Do they steal potatoes? They do. What's populist about that?" Fico said in an August 8 interview with the daily paper Sme.

Last week, Vladimír Palko, a member of parliament for the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) and party mate Daniel Lipšic visited several troubled farms in eastern Slovakia to map out the situation. "It's catastrophic," Palko said.

"Some of our fellow citizens, especially those of Roma origin, know no limits. Wherever they go, they take what they like," Palko continued, adding that the Roma, "with their way of life, are becoming a big burden for other citizens."

"Yes, the Roma are behind petty thefts from many fields, but nobody has ever looked closer at how the big [crop] thefts are organised," Orgovánová responded. "It's often the case that the Roma are paid by non-Roma speculators to steal crops for them in large hauls. The 'whites' then sell the crops on to others. I haven't seen any such reports in the news."

-with press reports

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