Reed Magazine February 2005

Bitter harvest
Over the next decade, she watched as the transition proved both more difficult and decidedly less profitable than the villagers had hoped. Those who received the average 2.5 hectares found it nearly impossible to farm due to the prohibitive costs of industrial inputs like machinery and fertilizers.

These costs were exaggerated further by rampant inflation in 1990s Romania leaving many with little choice but to rent their land to tenant farmers for next to nothing. Meanwhile, these renters, most of whom are former state agronomists displaced when socialism fell, eke out a living on the narrowest of profit margins.

While the peasants finally gained rights to the land, they ultimately lost control of their property due to their inability to finance its cultivation. For Verdery, this dilemma points up a flaw in the way capitalist economists advised Eastern Europe's transformation, championing private land ownership without adequately addressing the other elements necessary to make such ownership profitable or sustainable.

Verdery takes up this issue in her most recent book, The Vanishing Hectare: Property and Value in Postsocialist Transylvania (2003), which explores the effects of the 1990s land restitution on Aurel Vlaicu. The book has earned the William A. Douglass Prize of the Society for the Anthropology of Europe, among other awards.

"It's a story of great hopes dashed," Verdery says. "They had some mythical memory of pre-socialist days. But you have to have outside income to make farming viable. Worldwide agriculture offers a low return compared to electronics and so on. If you don't have subsidies, it's impossible to earn a living from your [farming] product."

In outlining the plight of the villagers of Aurel Vlaicu, Verdery debunks the idea long trumpeted by the capitalist world that property ownership, by providing incentives, necessarily leads to stability and self-determination.

"Ownership doesn't do much if you can't work it," Verdery points out. "There are certain ideas we live with every day that we don't see as ideological, and property is one of them."

Greg Coyle is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.
Reed Magazine February