The war in Ukraine has been at the center stage of foreign policy and media reports since February 2022. Little attention, however, has been given to a major issue, which is at the core of the conflict – who controls the agricultural land in the country known as the “breadbasket of Europe?”
This report addresses this gap – identifying the interests controlling Ukraine’s agricultural land and presenting an analysis of the dynamics at play around land tenure in the country. This includes the highly controversial land reform that took place in 2021 as part of the structural adjustment program initiated under the auspices of Western financial institutions, after the installation of a pro-European Union (EU) government following the Maidan Revolution in 2014.
With 33 million hectares of arable land, Ukraine has large swaths of the most fertile farmland in the world.1 Misguided privatization and corrupt governance since the early 1990s have concentrated
land in the hands of a new oligarchic class. Around 4.3 million hectares are under large-scale agriculture, with the bulk, three million hectares, in the hands of just a dozen large agribusiness firms.2 In addition, according to the government, about five million hectares – the size of two Crimea – have been “stolen” by private interests from the state of Ukraine.3 The total amount of land controlled by oligarchs, corrupt individuals, and large agribusinesses is thus over nine million hectares, exceeding 28 percent of the country’s arable land. The rest is used by over eight million Ukrainian farmers.4
The largest landholders are a mix of oligarchs and a variety of foreign interests – mostly European and North American, including a US-based private equity fund and the sovereign fund of Saudi
Arabia. All but one of the ten largest landholding firms are registered overseas, mainly in tax havens such as Cyprus or Luxembourg. Even when run and still largely controlled by an oligarch founder,
a number of firms have gone public with Western banks and investment funds now controlling a significant amount of their shares.
The report identifies many prominent investors, including Vanguard Group, Kopernik Global Investors, BNP Asset Management Holding, Goldman Sachs-owned NN Investment Partners Holdings, and Norges Bank Investment Management, which manages Norway’s sovereign wealth fund. A number of large US pension funds, foundations, and university endowments are also invested in Ukrainian land through NCH Capital – a US-based private equity fund, which is the fifth largest landholder in the country.
Most of these firms are substantially indebted to Western financial institutions, in particular the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the European Investment Bank (EIB),
and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) – the private sector arm of the World Bank. Together, these institutions have been major lenders to Ukrainian agribusinesses, with close to US$1.7
billion lent to just six of Ukraine’s largest landholding firms in recent years. Other key lenders are a mix of mainly European and North American financial institutions, both public and private. Not
only does this debt gives creditors financial stakes in the operation of the agribusinesses, but also confers a significant level of leverage over them. This was evidenced by the debt restructuring of UkrLandFarming, one of Ukraine’s largest landholders, which involved creditors including the Export-Import agencies of the US, Canada, and Denmark, among others, and led to important organizational changes including layoffs of thousands of workers.
This international financing directly benefits oligarchs, several of whom face accusations of fraud and corrupt dealings, as well as the foreign funds and firms associated as shareholders or creditors. Meanwhile, Ukrainian farmers have had to operate with limited amounts of land and financing, and many are now on the verge of poverty. Data shows that these farmers receive virtually no support compared to agribusinesses and oligarchs. 5 The Partial Credit Guarantee Fund established by the World Bank to support small farmers is only US$5.4 million, a negligible amount compared to the billions channeled to large agribusinesses.6
In recent years, Western countries and institutions have provided massive military and economic assistance to Ukraine, which became the top recipient of US foreign aid – marking the first time since
the Marshall Plan that a European country holds this top spot. 7 As of December 2022, less than one year into the war, the US has allocated over US$113 billion to Ukraine, including US$65 billion
of military aid, 8 which is more than the entire budget of the State Department and USAID globally (US$58 billion).9
The report details how Western aid has been conditioned to a drastic structural adjustment program, which includes austerity measures, cuts in social safety nets, and the privatization of key sectors of the economy. A central condition has been the creation of a land market, put into law in 2020 under President Zelenskyy, despite opposition from a majority of Ukrainians fearing that it will exacerbate corruption in the agricultural sector and reinforce its control by powerful interests.
The findings of the report validate this concern, showing that the creation of a land market will likely further increase the amount of agricultural land in the hands of oligarchs and large agribusiness firms. The latter have already started expanding their access to land. Kernel has announced plans to increase its land bank to 700,000 hectares – up from 506,000 hectares in 2021. 10 Similarly, MHP, which currently controls 360,000 hectares of land, seeks to expand its holdings to 550,000 hectares.11 MHP is also reportedly circumventing restrictions on the purchase of land by asking its employees to buy land and lease it to the company.12
Additionally, by supporting large agribusinesses, international financial institutions are in effect subsidizing the concentration of land and an industrial model of agriculture based on the intensive use of synthetic inputs, fossil fuels, and large-scale monocropping – long shown to be environmentally and socially destructive.13 By contrast, small scale farmers in Ukraine demonstrate resilience and a great potential for leading the expansion of a different production model based on agroecology, environmental sustainability, and the production of healthy food.14 It is Ukraine’s small and medium-sized farmers who guarantee the country’s food security whereas large agribusinesses are geared towards export markets.
In December 2022, a coalition of farmers, academics, and NGOs called on the Ukrainian government to suspend the 2020 land reform law and all market transactions of land during the war and post-
war period, “in order to guarantee the national security and preservation of territorial integrity of the country in wartime and post-war reconstruction period.”15 As explained by Prof. Olena Borodina of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (NASU), “Today, thousands of rural boys and girls, farmers, are fighting and dying in the war. They have lost everything. The processes of free land sale and purchase are increasingly liberalized and advertised. This really threatens the rights of Ukrainians to their land, for which they give their lives.”16
At a time of tremendous suffering and displacement, wherein countless lives have been lost and massive financial resources spent for the control of Ukraine, this report raises major concerns about
the future of land and food production in the country, which is likely to become more consolidated and controlled by oligarchs and foreign interests.
These concerns are exacerbated by Ukraine’s staggering and growing foreign debt, contracted at the expense of the population’s living conditions as a result of the measures required under the structural adjustment program. Ukraine is now the world’s third-largest debtor to the International Monetary Fund (IMF)17 and its crippling debt burden will likely result in additional pressure from its creditors, bondholders, and international financial institutions on how post-war reconstruction – estimated to cost US$750 billion – should happen. 18 These powerful actors have already been explicit that they will use their leverage to further privatize the country’s public sector and liberalize its agriculture.19
The end of the war should be the moment and opportunity for just the opposite, i.e. the redesign of an economic model no longer dominated by oligarchy and corruption, but where land and resources are controlled by and benefit all Ukrainians. This could form the basis for the transformation of the agricultural sector to make it more democratic and environmentally and socially sustainable. International policy and financial support should be geared towards this transformation, to benefit people and farmers rather than oligarchs and foreign financial interests.
1 UkraineInvest. “Agrifood.” https://ukraineinvest.gov.ua/industries/agrifood/; Leshchenko, R. “Ukraine can feed the world.” Atlantic Council, March 4, 2021. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/ukraine-can-feed-the-world/ (all accessed February 2, 2023).
2 Data on land leases was obtained from the Land Matrix https://landmatrix.org/ (accessed February 2, 2023) and compared with companies’ own documents as well as other databases such as
https://www.largescaleagriculture.com/data/. The various sources present sometimes different data, but the Land Matrix appears to be the more up to date.
3 President of Ukraine. “For almost 30 years, the Ukrainian people have been fooled about land reform, 5 million hectares have been stolen during this period – President in an interview for Ukrainian
TV channels.” October 22, 2020. https://www.president.gov.ua/en/news/majzhe-30-rokiv-ukrayinskij-narod-durili-shodo-zemel-noyi-ref-64785 (accessed January 30, 2023).
4 US Department of Agriculture. Foreign Agricultural Service. Ukraine: Households Agricultural Production. May 23, 2022. https://www.fas.usda.gov/data/ukraine-households-agricultural-production (accessed January 30, 2023).
5 Foote, N. “Small farmers: The unsung heroes of the Ukraine war.” Euractiv. April 20, 2022. https://www.euractiv.com/section/agriculture-food/news/small-farmers-the-unsung-heroes-of-the-ukraine-war/ (accessed January 30, 2023).
6 International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Program document for a proposed first economic recovery development policy loan (dpl) in the amount of US$350 million to Ukraine. June 1, 2020. https://documents1.worldbank.org/curat-ed/en/665101593482807601/pdf/ukraine-first-economic-recovery-development-policy-loan.pdf; International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Supplemental financing document for a proposed loan in the amount of EUR437.05 million (US$489.45 mil-lion equivalent) to Ukraine for the financing of recovery from economic emergency. March 4, 2022. https://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/752081647378220940/pdf/Ukraine-Financing-of-Re-covery-from-Economic-Emergency-Ukraine-Supplemental-Development-Policy-Loan-Supplemental-Financing-Document.pdf (all accessed January 30, 2023).
7 Masters, J. and W. Merrow. How Much Aid Has the U.S. Sent Ukraine? Here Are Six Charts. Council on Foreign Relations, December 16, 2022. https://www.cfr.org/article/how-much-aid-has-us-sent-ukraine-here-are-six-charts (accessed January 30, 2023).
8 Four packages of aid for Ukraine were voted by the US Congress in 2022. The first was for US$13.6 bn in March, the second US$40bn in May, the third US$12.3 bn in September and the fourth
US$45 bn in December. US Congress. “Ukraine Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2022.” https://appropriations.house.gov/sites/democrats.appropriations.house.gov/files/Ukraine%20Supplemental%20Summary.pdf; “Continuing Appropriations and Ukraine Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2023. Division B – Ukraine Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2023.” https://www.appropriations.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Continuing%20 Resolution_Section%20by%20Section.pdf#page=5;“Statute at Large 136 Stat. 4378 – Public Law No. 117-128 (05/21/2022).” https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/7691/ text; US Committee on Appropriations; “Fiscal Year 2023 Omnibus Appropriations Bill. US Committee on Appropriations. Division M— Additional Ukraine Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2023.” https://appropriations.house.gov/sites/democrats.appropriations.house.gov/files/Ukraine%20Supplemental%20Summa-ry%20FY23.pdf; See for more analysis: Freeman, B. and W. Hartung. “New Ukraine aid is a go — and it’s more than most states get in a year.” Responsible Statecraft. December 23, 2022. https://responsiblestatecraft.org/2022/12/23/new-ukraine-aid-is-a-go-and-its-more-than-most-states-get-in-a-year/ (all accessed February 10, 2023).
9 USAID. “Budget Justification, FY 2022.” https://www.usaid.gov/cj/fy-2022 (accessed January 30, 2023).
10 “Kernel to increase its leasehold farmland bank to 0.7 mln ha:Verevskiy.” Latifundist.com, October 4, 2021. https://latifundist.com/en/novosti/56910-kernel-nameren-narastit-zemelnyj-bank-do-700-tys-ga–verevskij (accessed January 30, 2023).
11 “MHP plans to increase the land bank to 550 thousand hectares.” Latifundist.com, September 12, 2017. https://latifundist.com/en/novosti/37041-mhp-planiruet-uvelichit-zemelnyj-bank-do-550-tys-ga (accessed January 30, 2023).
12 “Offering the Ukrainians to Buy Land for the MHP Agricultural Holding.” Ukraine Gate, October 17, 2021. https://www.ukrgate.com/eng/?p=22025 (accessed January 30, 2023).
13 HLPE. Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition. July 2019. https://www.fao.org/3/ca5602en/ca5602en.pdf (accessed January 31, 2023); Lindwall, C. Industrial Agriculture 101. NRDC, July 21, 2022. https://www.nrdc.org/stories/industrial-agricultural-pollution-101 (accessed January 31, 2023).
14 “Small farmers are the backbone of food security during the war – and must be supported after the victory.” The Center for Environmental Initiatives “Ekodiya.” May 20, 2022. https://ecoaction.org.ua/mali-fermery-opora.html (accessed January 30, 2023); Mamonova, N. “What does War in Ukraine Mean for Smallholder Farming?” ARC2020, November 24, 2022. https://www.arc2020.eu/what-does-the-war-in-ukraine-mean-for-smallholder-farming/(accessed January 31, 2023); Mamonova, N. “Food sovereignty and solidarity initiatives in rural Ukraine during the war.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 50, no. 1 (2022): 47-66.
15 Resolution of the Public Forum of peasant farms, farming households, civil society organizations, and academic community. Kyiv, December 15, 2022.
16 Direct communication, January 27, 2023.
17 International Monetary Fund. “Total IMF Credit Outstanding Movement From January 01, 2023 to January 30, 2023.” https://www.imf.org/external/np/fin/tad/balmov2.aspx?type=TOTAL (accessed January 30, 2023).
18 “Ukraine sees post-war reconstruction costs nearing $750 billion – PM.” Reuters, October 24, 2022. https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/ukraine-sees-post-war-reconstruction-costs-nearing-750-billion-pm-2022-10-24/ ; Dolan-Evans, E. “Ukraine’s debts to Western banks are destroying its social safety net.” Open Democracy, November 17, 2022. https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/ukraine-debt-freeze-western-creditors/ (all accessed January 30, 2023).
19 Ibid.; Relief, Recovery and Resilient Reconstruction: Supporting Ukraine’s Immediate and Medium-Term Economic Needs. Informal approach paper by World Bank Group staff Presented as background to Ministerial Roundtable for Support to Ukraine at IMF-World Bank Spring Meetings 2022. April 21, 2022. https://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/099608405122216371/pdf/IDU08c704e400de7a048930b8330494a329ab3ca.pdf (accessed January 30, 2023).
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