Poland In Peril

Among the world's "decision makers," palms open to receive what the great corporations provide, few have proven more susceptible than the former Communist aparatchiks of eastern and central Europe. There is, at the same time, no greater corrupter of politicians and government officials than corporate agribusiness. In Poland, the convergence of a politically Virulent American corporation, Smithfield Foods, and a government made up of former Communists threatens the destruction of Europe's last oasis of traditional peasant agriculture.

Two years ago, Andrzej Lepper, head of Samoobrona ("Self-Defense") union received AWI's Albert Schweitzer Medal for his role in stalling Smithfield's initial effort to take over Polish pig production. However, in September 2001, Polish voters swept the shambling AWS (Solidarity Action) government from office and returned the post-communist SLD (Democratic Left Alliance), dominated by figures from the ancient regime, to power. With the change in government, Smithfield operatives gained key government positions, and administrative barriers to corporate agribusiness were swept away. Bolstered by a $100 million loan organized by the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, Smithfield began a massive offensive in the Polish countryside. By the end of 2002, operating behind front companies so as to evade laws forbidding foreigners from owning Polish agricultural land, Smithfield had gained control of over 30 large, former state farms and had already converted many of them into hog factories.

During the first months of 2003 Marek Kryda and I (accompanied sometimes by British organic farmer Tracy Worcester) toured the chief areas of infestation and met with local activists. We were stunned by the impunity with which Smithfield is operating, ignoring federal and local laws alike and overriding intense, often desperate, local opposition. The company's prison-like compounds contain packs of savagely barking police dogs. On at least two occasions we encountered English-speaking Poles who had been taken to North Carolina for training in Smithfield facilities. Every Smithfield hog factory building is flanked by identical feed silos that dispense feed automatically. In the area around Goldap in Northeast Poland, the number of workers on three state farms where Smithfield has set up hog factories was reduced from 120, before the company took over, to seven. As in the U.S., dead pigs are a ubiquitous, almost symbolic feature, of company operations. When dumpsters overflow, the victims are left in piles inside the buildings, as Kryda found in penetrating the appalling interior of a hog factory at Wronki Wilkie, or are dumped outside.

While five provinces have been violated, the most intense hog factory development is in former German areas seized by Poland after the war where large estates (including Otto Von Bismark's) were converted into state farms. In Warminsko-Mazurskie (former East Prussia) in the northeast, Smithfield operates on state farms previously leased by its Animex subsidiary. In Zohodnio Pomorskie (Western Pomerania) in the northwest, where the takeover has gained blitzkrieg momentum, Smithfield uses a front called Prima. Here, the situation is so out of control that on one occasion we found a hog factory, operating without licenses or permits, after noticing that liquid hog manure was being disposed of alongside the road. Everywhere we heard the same story: Attempts by local officials to enforce the law are overridden by the governors or by ministries in Warsaw. Protests by villagers driven half mad by the stench are disregarded. Press exposés have no effect.

However, Smithfield's "fix" is swirling in a larger vortex. Unemployment has reached 20%; much of Poland is locked in a situation reminiscent of the great depression of the 1930s. The top down corruption of the post-communist government was revealed when a secretly recorded conversation, soliciting a bribe of $17.5 million to SLD in return for passage of a radio and television bill favorable to commercial interests, was published in Poland's largest daily newspaper. Public support for the government has plummeted to 12% in the polls. A vote of confidence has been put off until after the June referendum on E.U. accession. Once this is over, the government will probably fall, new elections will be called, and opposition parties (including Samoobrona, now polling far ahead of SLD) will dominate the Sejm. Opposition parties decry corruption and promise Poland for Poles. The question upon which Poland's future depends is whether they can put words to practice.

Share This!