E German farmers seek way out of land maze: Ownership claims are adding to the problems of dismantling the unwieldy and inefficient collectives. Steve Crawshaw reports from Altentreptow

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The Independent Online
'IT'S usually the owners' children who come. For 40 years, they didn't look. Now, they've come back, suddenly. And what can we do? Nothing.'

The bitterness of Josef Monter, 57, a farmer in the district of Altentreptow, in the east German state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, is widely echoed in the region. One of Mr Monter's neighbours, Heinrich Voss, argues: 'It's usually people from the west who do best. Here, we've got a countess, who has got her land back.'

Getting rid of the unwieldy and inefficient collective farms has proved to be a difficult task throughout eastern Europe. In east Germany, those problems have multiplied because of endlessly conflicting claims of ownership.

Thus, one single piece of land might have claims on it from the family of an owner who was driven out or killed by the Nazis; from a family that was expropriated, as part of the Communist land reform, between 1945 and 1949; from a small farmer forced to give up the land, during collectivisation, or who fled East Germany at that time; and, finally, from a farmer who has tilled the land for the past 30 years.

Finding a way through this maze has proved a legal nightmare. Almost four years after German unity, legislation to set out a framework for how to proceed is still being argued over.

There are many reasons for disillusion amid the rural tranquillity of Mecklenburg. The LPG, or Agricultural Production Association - East German equivalent of the collective farm - provided a secure source of income for the entire community. Now, villages are dotted with disused LPG buildings, left-overs of another era.

In Pripsleben, near Altentreptow, only 40 people still work in farming. Before the collapse of the old East German regime, the number was 300. Some have taken early retirement, others have moved away, or have found other kinds of work. But unemployment is high; one in five is common. The successors to the old LPGs also have to cope with the Communists' financial legacy - what Mecklenburg's agriculture minister, Martin Brick, describes as 'the debts from the Fourth Reich'.

East German farmers believe they have repeatedly lost out. During the 'Socialist Spring', small farmers were forced, under threat of jail sentences, to sign over their land to the LPGs. Now, attempts are being made to unscramble that legacy.

Some have been lucky. Hans Platzeck, with his sons Andreas and Werner, has been able to regain the land that he farmed before, without (for the moment, at least) conflicting claims from outside. Twelve-year leases are encouraged, with rent paid, in effect, to the state. The theory is that, once the lease runs out, tenant farmers may be able to take over the land. If land were sold off now, it would be snapped up by westerners, since nobody in the east could raise the necessary cash.

But even Mr Platzeck has his problems. He says that it is 'fantastically difficult' to get credits for essential investment - a view that is echoed by Arend Hummel, a Dutch farmer who has settled near Altentreptow. Mr Hummel berates west German banks for their reluctance to give his east German neighbours the back-up they need.

Jochen Borchert, federal German Agriculture Minister, acknowledges the 'extraordinarily difficult' problem of property ownership - though he also mentions, without apparent embarrassment, that he has himself taken back old family property, in the east. Mr Borchert notes the pain of the changes in recent years. 'This has been a dramatic process of adjustment such as the West, thank God, has never gone through.'

Proposed new legislation, already approved by the federal parliament, looks set to receive a rough ride in the Bundesrat next week, the parliamentary chamber representing the regions. According to the new proposals, those expropriated between 1945 and 1949 would receive partial compensation, in cash or property. But the new law remains the subject of bitter controversy.

As on so many other issues, there is a clear west-east divide. East German farmers are angry that they will lose out to the new arrivals from the west. West German landowners, previously from the east, are equally indignant that the Communist reforms will not be fully reversed.

The slogan for the land reform carried out between 1945 and 1949 was 'Junker land into farmers' hands'. Even now, that phrase has resonance in the east. Recently, a Communist-era monument to land reform was toppled into a Mecklenburg pond, reportedly by those wanting to restore the pre- 1949 status quo. The villagers hauled the monument out, and cemented it back into place.

(Photograph omitted)