Czech towns employ land consolidation to make rural areas greener and less flood-prone, for the benefit of farmers and the public alike.
“Do something about it, or we won’t extend your policy,” the insurance agent told Hana Blechova after her house flooded for the sixth time, when a downpour sent water and mud from the fields into her garden and then the ground floor of her home.
“But what could we have done about it?” she recalls.
Runoff flooding had plagued Cervene Pecky, a small town 60 kilometers east of Prague, since the 1960s. During heavy rains, water and topsoil from the fields above the village flowed into houses, gardens, and streets.
Cut to 2020. Flash floods triggered by rainstorms hit many Czech villages that July, but not Cervene Pecky and neighboring Dolany, also once prone to flooding. They stayed dry, thanks to the 2013-2018 transformation of the surrounding agricultural land.
Today, the field that used to channel water into Dolany is divided by a wide grass strip of grass. “It’s planted with trees and there are also ditches to capture some of the water and divert it,” says Cervene Pecky Mayor Lubomir Jirku.
“Water that manages to flow through the green belt runs into a polder lying just above the village as the last defense,” the mayor adds.
Grass belts and tree alleys now soak up water from storms on fields in the Cervene Pecky area. Even during the rain this past May, the water flowed into the polder and grass belts, “and it did no damage. It soaked in nicely, just as planned,” Jirku says.
A Powerful Land Use Tool
Cervene Pecky made its farmlands greener thanks to land consolidation, an administrative tool that allows officials to work with landowners to resolve longstanding problems resulting from the patchwork of land use patterns. Officials and landowners redraw property lines and add improvements such as water-management features and roads, with the aim of making the land more useful to farmers and the public alike.
What is land consolidation?
In land consolidation, local landowners and public authorities work together to make improvements on rural land and introduce more sustainable practices. In the Czech Republic, the beginnings of land consolidation can be traced to the abolition of feudal labor duties in the 19th century and the subsequent possibility for landowners to increase their holdings. The current program was established in 1991, after four decades of Communist land planning that had turned small fields into huge collective farms. For Central and Eastern Europe, the objective of modern land consolidation “should be to improve rural livelihoods rather than to improve only the primary production of agricultural products” and further to support “community renewal through sustainable economic and political development of the whole community, and the protection and sustainable management of natural resources,” according to the UN Food and Agriculture Program.
“Land consolidation is a ‘win-win,’ ” says Roman Smid of the Prague geodetic services company Gepard, who designed the consolidation projects for Cervene Pecky. “If you know what you want, then basically you can have it.
“Those who want to consolidate their properties can do it. Those who want to move their properties, those who want to divide up land in joint ownership – it works for them.”
Smid says rural landowners now have a good idea of what problems land consolidation can resolve. “It settles disagreements about land registration, quarrels between neighbors that ran on for years. This is an immediate plus.”
Project designer Zuzana Skrivanova has worked on several land consolidation projects. She calls the method “the most powerful and complete tool for landscape planning there is in the Czech Republic today.”
Land consolidation is managed by the State Land Office. There is one big caveat, however. The owners of the majority of land in one cadastral area must agree before the Land Office can start work. Majority agreement is essential, because land consolidation can affect all landowners in the area.
“The biggest landowner here at that time was baron Hruby. The first step was to persuade him,” Jan Dvorak, a former mayor and now a town councilor, recalls the start of the process.
Cervene Pecky filed its application for land consolidation with the local State Land Office branch in 2003-2004.
“And then there was the waiting phase, until the Land Office had the money. Then came the project design, and that dragged on, because it’s a complicated thing,” Dvorak says. With Smid moderating, negotiations on land swaps and deciding what physical changes to implement took years.
Above all, landowners in Cervene Pecky wanted to stop rainwater from sweeping topsoil from the fields into their homes. They also wanted to build roads through the fields for better access.
“I have a framework for suggested changes,” Smid says of the talks. “Then I have to fit all the people into it. Their interests often collide. People are jealous of one another; family members don’t speak to one another; and they can’t agree on anything. We sit with them for two to three days in the town hall and talk about their fences.”
To make the plan work, private owners of land designated for improvements such as roads, polders, and grass strips had to transfer ownership to the town, in return for replacement land elsewhere.
The project team also held individual meetings to solve special problems with about 30 landowners, sometimes meeting with them up to 10 times, Smid says. He made some 50 visits to Cervene Pecky and Dolany during the long negotiations.
Land consolidation is considered successful if at least 60 percent of landowners agree to abide by the negotiated solution. In Cervene Pecky, this point was reached in November 2011. The building work began in Cervene Pecky and Dolany in 2013, after yet another flood that April.
“The time period is long because relatively extensive measures are required, and they must be implemented gradually,” says Lenka Ruzkova, a spokeswoman for the State Land Office.
From Drawing Board to Transformation
Even after all the necessary changes are approved, from roads to dikes, work can’t begin until the State Land Office finds the money. In the great majority of land consolidation projects, that does not happen immediately upon final approval.
Lack of funds brings another limitation: it is usually not possible to make all the changes proposed in the original plan. This is almost a rule of thumb for complex land consolidation projects: You have to prioritize. In Cervene Pecky and Dolany, the priorities were flood control and new roads. This involved an unusually large investment in grass strips and tree planting, compared to other land consolidation jobs.
The plan included running asphalt roads through the fields. “Sometimes roads are criticized from the environmental point of view,” says Smid. “But roads are a priority, because in the end the local people are responsible for caring for the land. If there are to be beehives, they need to reach them. Because of roads, land consolidation makes it possible to use the land.” In some cases, the promise of new roads is the major factor in convincing landowners to sign up.
Cervene Pecky Mayor Jirku says asphalt was favored because it provides a firm surface for farm machinery and for recreational use by cyclists and skaters and requires little maintenance – a key point because the town is responsible for maintaining the roads.
Road building may be the most desired outcome by most landowners, but it is also by far the most expensive part of land consolidation. In 2019 – the most recent year for which figures are available – expenses for building roads in such projects amounted to 1 billion crowns ($45 million) nationwide. Spending for water management came in at 203 million crowns; other measures, such as erosion control and ecological improvements, totaled about 150 million crowns.
Czech land consolidation by the numbers
- 5,501: Number of completed land consolidation projects in the Czech Republic, as of 2019
- 35.3%: Amount of arable land on which land consolidation has taken place
- 12.6%: Amount of arable land on which land consolidation projects are under way
- 3,464 kilometers: Total length of roads built within land consolidation projects
- 34.1 billion crowns ($1.6 billion): Total costs of land consolidation, 1991–2019
Paved farm roads are not universally popular, however. It’s unclear whether asphalt is more economical than gravel in the long run, according to Radim Jarosek of the Czech Nature Conservation Agency, who through his affiliation with the regional landscape protection authority helps assess land consolidation projects in northeastern Moravia.
One big supporter of the paved roads is the biggest local farmer, Robert Hofman of the agribusiness Poline. But the new roads bring more people into the fields, and with them problems such as litter and, for a while, illegal waste dumps.
“Many roads were built, and they now get a lot of use. “Hofman says. “Cyclists and people on skates think that now that there’s an asphalt surface, it’s for them and not us. So when we use the roads in the fall when it’s wet and leave mud there, they complain they can’t ride there.”
Asphalt roads also come in for criticism from environmentalists, who say they worsen the water situation by increasing the speed of runoff, raise the temperature, increase evaporation, and have a negative influence on organisms such as invertebrates and amphibians.
Communities do tend to prefer asphalt, says Smid. There is also rising demand for copses – preferred by hunters as they provide hiding places for game animals. And, of course, water. “Every village wants its pond,” Smid says.
The new green belts are a hit with the residents of Cervene Pecky.
“It’s great, we take walks there with the dog and our granddaughter,” says Marie Belzova, whose house is near a grass strip. Other residents say they enjoy bike rides with the kids on safe, paved roads.
And the village no longer gets flooded.
“It works,” says Blechova. Her house on the town square has been free of flood damage for seven years.
The State Land Office also is satisfied. The evidence shows that the project was correctly carried out, with adequate anti-erosion protection and sufficient protection against heavy rain in built-up areas, says spokeswoman Ruzkova.
Compromises had to be made, however, and the project’s designer is somewhat critical of the result.
“I don’t like the flood control system,” Smid says. “It’s a technical measure.” The main water-absorbing grass strip runs in a straight line, 7 meters wide. Grass belts in the landscape don’t have to have regular shapes, but farmers prefer straight lines for easier maintenance.
Mayor Jirku notes the benefits of land consolidation but also the expenses, mainly for maintenance. The town bought two large mowers to maintain the grass strips. “We paid 2 million crowns [$92,000] for the two machines alone.”
Some critics argue that land consolidation projects don’t always deliver the promised returns.
“The experience gained by many offices of the Nature Conservation Agency shows that in many cases, some expected results aren’t fully realized,” says Jarosek. He mentions soil protection and reclamation, runoff control to limit the effects of floods, and improved ecological stability as areas where results have failed to match expectations.
Still Waiting for the Promised Landscape
The country around Cervene Pecky and Dolany still falls short of the designers’ original vision. Seventeen years after the two communities applied for land consolidation, just 40 percent of the recommended changes have been implemented. The rest awaits the day when the State Land Office finds the money.
This is not an exception. With most land consolidation projects, the larger part of the proposed measures remains on paper only. As the Agriculture Ministry admits in its most recent report on the state of farming, published in 2019, even taking into account the duration and costs of land consolidation projects, “they still do not meet the needs of municipalities, owners, land users, and the relevant organs of the state administration.”
Another challenge for land use in the Czech Republic is adapting to climate change. While the country remains prone to summer flooding, drought could become just as serious a challenge. Years of low precipitation have left the soils parched in many areas. In 2020, the Agriculture Ministry introduced a drought-fighting strategy for the next decade, stressing the role of land consolidation and especially the need to implement follow-up projects.
Jarosek says the strategy has until now not delivered any significantly innovative proposals.
Lack of funds is the main barrier to “greener” land consolidation, says Smid. Pressure to select the lowest bidder in public tenders forces design offices to slim down their projects. “It could be done better if there was more money,” he says.
In the past few years, the state budget has allocated 700 million crowns ($32 million) annually to land consolidation. Other sources, mainly EU funds, substantially increased that figure to 1.6 billion crowns in 2020, according to the State Land Office. The budgeted amount for 2021 is about 3 billion crowns.
The demand for land consolidation projects is much bigger, however. The Land Office estimates that 2.6 billion crowns would be needed to meet the annual need, Ruzkova says. Lack of qualified staff is also holding back approval of new projects, she says.
Land consolidation makes the countryside at once more productive and answers many of the needs of those who work the land and live nearby. Sometimes it can also add greenery to the fields – mainly where flood-control measures are built. The potential is far from being fulfilled, however. Of the hundreds of projects awaiting approval, many are designed to retain water and plant trees and shrubs.
Cervene Pecky and Dolany can be counted as successful projects, at least as far as the 40 percent of the original plans that have been implemented is concerned. This year work began on another field road, and work to seed a biocorridor of trees and bushes across the fields will start in the fall.
Over the 17 years of planning and building, Cervene Pecky has held three local elections. Lubomir Jirku, who took over as mayor from Jan Dvorak after one election, has a message for other mayors who eye his town’s success: “You can count on the fruit of a land consolidation project being enjoyed by your successor.”
Zdenka Kovarikova is deputy editor in chief of the Czech environmental news magazine Ekolist.cz. Translated by Ky Krauthamer.
Photos by Zdenka Kovarikova/Ekolist.cz. Reproduced under a Creative Commons license.