Features

Land regulation leaves a mess between farmers and millions to companies (I)

Mark Lasku has invested a great deal in his house in Qerim, a small village near Gjakova. He lives with the fear of the mess made by land regulation, a border-drawing process that started in the ‘80s and continues today, that could lose him the land he has worked so hard for.

According to Mark, a teacher and village leader in Qerim, the private companies hired by the Ministry of Agriculture to carry out the land regulation, also known as land consolidation, have been taking millions of euros in profit, half-finishing projects and letting their contracts expire so that the registration of the land consolidation is never completed.

Complications in the situation of land ownership in Kosovo have left people in numerous municipalities in the dark about the borders of their properties, and despite citizens and municipal land regulation commission officials raising objections, nothing has been done to fix this problem.  

According to Mark, the lack of clear property boundaries has always caused tension within communities, with  guns fired just 500 meters away from his home because of these issues with land and property regulation, and one fight that broke out next door ended in murder, he said.

“People need to fix their land borders in order to be aware of where their property stands,” said Mark. “Right now, they don’t even know how to share it with their own brothers. It is a big issue. Brothers and neighbors have become entangled in dispute. There are a lot of complaints.”

Land consolidation snags since the ‘80s

The aim of land regulation is to correctly register plots of land and agricultural parcels in regular geometrical forms, rearranging the land and its ownership in order to provide better irrigation infrastructure, drainage and access to the roads for all.

Yet the potential for entanglement remains. For Mark, the agricultural benefits that he expects from his land are secondary, while regulating his property’s boundary is his urgent concern.

“It’s a worrying problem. People are killing each other: this is my property,” he said.

In 1983, in Gjakova and some other municipalities of Kosovo, the project of land regulation was carried out with the aim of encouraging agricultural development. It lasted six years, but funding ran dry, and it remains unfinished today.

Illustration: BIRN.

New projects of a similar nature have been launched in the last decade. The changes in the social and economic dynamics of Kosovo since the project began has resulted in dramatic changes to the land regulation program that was envisaged in the ‘80s.

Consequently, many plots expected to benefit from land regulation are not listed on the Immovable Property Rights Register, IPRR under the factual owners of these plots of land. This has made property transactions, applying for grants, subsidies and mortgages impossible for these landowners, and the problems continue.

The formula that does not work

The Ministry of Agriculture began to experiment with new plans for land regulation ten years ago in a pilot process held on 20 hectares of land in the town of Vitia, giving millions of euros to private companies in the process.

The pilot, which was financially supported by the European Commission, showed that many stages of the project are easily achievable, but the final phase is intended to fail. This final phase involves preparing the documentation for each plot and owner and their integrating into the IPRR register.

During the piloting phase, the Ministry of Agriculture concluded contracts with several economic operators. According to the contracts, these operators would be paid only upon the completion of the registration of properties on IPRR, the final phase, without which no land regulation can be considered final according to the Law on Land Regulation.

The first contract for the pilot was signed with the company Geo Kos in 2008, when Idriz Vehapi was the minister of Agriculture. Although the contract was valued at 453,000 euros, Geo Kos was given 855,000 euros in total between 2008 and 2010.

Another company, Consulting MM, was to be paid 55,000 euros between 2010 and 201, while the company Intershped was paid around 210,0000 euros in 2012 and 2013.

For all of these companies, the contract was the same: the payment should have occurred when the contracted works were completed and registered, but this was not the case, and the work on the pilot project was never completed.

Since then, the contracts issued by the Ministry of Agriculture have been amended to  contain a new payment formula. Payments for land regulation contracts and agriculture inventory, a recording of agricultural data and statistics for future policy development by the ministry, began to be made in 2014 to two companies, Consult Engineering and Geo&Land. These contracts were designed so that the payments are provided following the completion of different stages of work.

This means that completing the final, integral phase, the preparation of documents to be registered in the IPRR, would award the company just 10 per cent of the remaining money set out in the contract. As a result, these private companies are able to receive 90 per cent of the payment for their services without ever finalizing the plots’ registration.

The biggest contract concluded with the Ministry of Agriculture is with Consult Engineering. According to this agreement, the final phase of land regulation requires the fulfillment of two technical specifications, which are essential to the project because the registration of new owners depends on it.

Point 17 states that, in the case that old decisions regarding the plots that need to be regulated do not exist (or when they do exist, but there is a need to update the ownership), the implementing company must “conduct its measurement according to the plot’s factual situation.” After this, each land regulation municipal commission must issue new decisions and prepare all the documents needed for this plot’s registration, as part of the documentation required for IRPP registration.

Point 18 clarifies that the implementing company sends the final documents to the land regulation municipal commission.

Unfinished contracts with unlawful outcomes

Muje Shabani is almost retiring, and throughout his working life he has dealt with the land regulation documentation in Gjakova as head of the land regulation municipal commission in this town.

Shabani saved a letter which he sent to Ministry of Agriculture in April 2014. In the letter, he expressed concerns that the contract with Consult Engineering was unlawful, and the company did not even aim to finalize the land regulation.

“We weren’t aware that the Ministry of Agriculture signed a contract with Consult Engineering until Perparim Ahmeti, the representative of the company, came and brought it to us,” said Shabani. “In the past, we were informed about the contracts that affect us by the representative of the Ministry and they also introduced us to the representatives of the contracted company.”

“It is obvious from this contract that the company can be paid up to 90 per cent of the full cost of the contract without actually finalizing this project,” Shabani reads from his letter. “We think this contract is illegal because there is tremendous room for manipulation, to receive the payments for the supposed finished work (which is never done) and in the end, for the responsibility to fall upon the land regulation commission in Gjakova.”

Shabani asked Kapllan Halimi, the secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, to make some changes to the contract, including the section that adjusted the form of payment, after swearing that he would not approve any application for registration of the land if the provisions of payments for the private companies remained the same.

Contract interventions were made following a meeting between Shaban, Perparim Ahmeti and officials of the ministry. The section concerning payment that was raised by Shabani was left untouched.

The Ministry of Agriculture, who did not respond to BIRN concerning why they changed the payment formula for land regulation projects, gave Consult Engineering 500,000 euros in 2014, 908,000 euros in 2015 and 630,000 euros in 2016.

Strong connections

According to more than 1,000 page file from the Ministry of Agriculture accessed through the Law on Access to Public Documents, as well as other resources accessed by BIRN, connections between these two companies as well as between the companies and the Ministry of Agriculture were discovered.

On top of these previous contracts for land consolidation and for conducting an agricultural land inventory, in 2017 the Ministry of Agriculture signed another contract with Consult Engineering and Geo&Land for a period of three years.

According to this contract, for the work that this consortium of private companies will do, both of these companies will receive roughly 1.5 million euros each.

Besim Ajvazi appears to be the manager of Consult Engineering, on the land regulation contract, even though the communications in Gjakova were conducted through Perparim Ahmeti, who appears in a company report.

Ajvazi appears as a manager even on the consolidation and agricultural land inventory contract frame, implementation of which is done by both companies, meanwhile Ahmeti appears to be project manager in a report about the same contract that takes place on December 18, 2018.

Perparim Ahmeti has a brother named Tahir Ahmeti, who is the head of division on the Ministry of Agriculture. Tahir Ahmeti’s son, Shkelqim, is employed at Geo&Land.

According to the website of the Kosovo Agency for Business Registration, ARBK, Geo&Land was registered in 2013. Besim Ajvazi was employed there but moved to Consult Engineering, a company that according to ARBK was registered in 2016, meanwhile the contract with the Ministry was signed years before. Ajvazi is an assistant in the Geodesy program at the University of Prishtina, which is headed by Perparim Ahmeti.

Sandra Murseli, who has shares on Geo&Land, is the wife of Besim Ajvazi, that works at Consult Engineering.

Habil Zeqiri, another head of division in the Ministry of Agriculture, was responsible for supervising some of the contracts implemented by these companies, as chairman of the Implementing Commission in the ministry. Zeqiri’s son, Arbnor Zeqiri, worked for several years at Geo&Land, even during the time that implementation of the contract was being supervised by his father.

Out of the individuals mentioned above, only Habil Zeqiri responded to our questions. He confirmed that his son worked at Geo&Land but did not consider this as a conflict of interest, as his son was not part of management. He claimed that he himself had no influence in the decision making process at the ministry.

The others chose not to respond to questions about the family connections and about the chances that these connections could have affected the contracts. The contracting companies also refused to comment.

Ymer Kuka is a colleague of Perparim Ahmeti at the University of Prishtina, and both of them graduated from the University of Zagreb. Kuka is the director of Geo&Land, while Ahmeti is the general manager of the same company.

Jakup Kuka is the only shareholder at Consult Engineering, and the brother of Ymer Kuka, the director of Geo&Land, the second company in the consortium.

Two months after Ahmeti expressed his readiness to provide BIRN with all necessary information, he said that he could only talk as a university professor and not in the name of Geo&Land where he works as a general manager. He would also not answer in the name of Consult Engineering, even though Ahmeti’s name features on a number of reports by Consult Engineering related to the implementation of their contract. He maintains that he has no connection to the projects detailed on the reports.

Unfinished business in Drenas

Since 2008, Geo&Land and Consult Engineering have been contracted multiple times by the Ministry of Agriculture.

While millions of euros of public money dedicated to these projects are being poured into the accounts of these companies, the land regulation process of these agricultural plots remains unfinished. Drenas is one of the municipalities that serves as an example, as it is the territory with the most land included in the regulation process.

When the Municipality of Drenas was asked about the project that Consult Engineering considered to be finished in 2015, it said “The Cadaster, Geodesy and Property Office was not informed by Hakif Hasi, the director of the Commission for land regulation, how the procedures of regulating and consolidating this land went.”

“Regarding to the registration on IRPP, we did not receive letter, neither from Hakif Hasi nor from the Agricultural Ministry,” the reply to BIRN continues.

Hakif Hasi did not respond to a request for comment.

A program for economic reforms in Drenas was designed by the Kosovo government in cooperation with European Commission that was concluded seven years ago. The Drenas program was mentioned in a 2018 report as an example where the project of agricultural land regulation was implemented.

The EU’s support for land regulation was offered in the form of developing the legislation and an institutional framework for implementing the land regulation within a pilot project.

According to the EU Office in Kosovo, they are aware that Kosovo is stuck on the process of agricultural land regulation.

“The regulation of land remains a huge issue and there’s been no progress during these years. The process of the plot consolidation is slow and complicated,” reads the reply from the EU Office. “The progress of the project is not pleasing.”

“While the regulatory framework and all the other legal prerequisites for the land regulation exist, the full implementation of the land consolidation was not possible, mainly because of the complicated ownership situation in Kosovo,” they said.

Chaos in Gjakova

The EU’s conclusion resonates in Gjakova’s land regulation process, too. In the last 10 years, three companies have been contracted by the Ministry of Agriculture to finalize the land regulation in this municipality, but in Qerim and the surrounding villages, not one company has completed their contract.

In December 2013, the Ministry signed a 36-month-long land consolidation contract with Consult Engineering. During the original unfinished land consolidation process of the ‘80s, the price of 191.40 euros per hectare was set. In 2013, the starting price was envisaged as 462.85 euros per hectare.

It was first thought that the land regulation was going to be take place over a 300 hectare area, but the area that was eventually given to the company to regulate was much bigger than that mentioned in the contract.

The contract contained 18 technical specifications for the project, and the payments were foreseen to go through in four phases. According to this contract, 30 per cent of the total payment was to be transferred after the first phase came to an end, and this included the works described in the first five specifications. These requirements related to informing of the institutions and farmers about the project, but also gathering notes and documents and determining the legal status of the plots.

The second phase to be finalized indicated the execution of 40 per cent of the whole contract cost, which required carrying out the work after the collected data had been processed and ensuring the cadastral zones were correctly drawn.

Illustration: BIRN.

The third phase, related to 20 per cent of the contracted payment amount, required the fulfillment of the technical specifications including public discussion, interviewing owners in each of the cadastral zones where the project was going to develop, and sending requests to the municipality’s land regulation commission in this regard.

The final phase was calculated to make up only 10 per cent of the work set out in the contract. It contained two technical specifications that were essential for the project. It required the issuance of new decisions for the properties that needed amendment, and the submission of all the necessary documentation according to the legal dispositions to be forwarded to IRPP.

According to point 18 of the technical specification, the implementing project company should submit its final documentation to the municipality land regulation  commission, a mechanism which had the power to approve the submitted data. This data should have been technically and legally corrected before being submitted to the municipality’s cadaster office, ready to be registered in IRPP.

The contract implementation began, regardless of the fact that Muje Shabani, a leader of the Municipality’s land regulation commission, raised the concern that the contract was illegal and that, according to him, the company had the right to be paid up to 90 per cent of the contracted cost, “without finishing any of the working process of this contract.”

In the first phase of the contract, the land owners where the regulation was taking place were not pleased. Mark Lasku and some other farmers that owned land located in Qerim signed a petition against the way that the work was to be conducted.

“People in the field had problems. The company wanted to determine the property borders only in their offices, and we objected to this,” said Mark.

“There are a lot of problems here. The property borders were messed with. Even the roads that were made 35 years ago were moved,” he continued. “We knew that the land consolidation was coming and we hoped that they would regulate the land properly, but when the process arrived, they decided to work on paper in the office but not in the field.”

Mark raised concerns about the practical problems with the consolidation process to the companies involved in the project, but that this proved fruitless.

“We told them that on paper the land borders look correct, but the problem is in the field, because roads were closed etc.,” he said. “They replied that they would not go out into the actual field.”

The company eventually stopped their work not only in Qerim, but also in two other cadastral zones where work had started, in Meqe and Dobilbare.

Ahmeti did not explain why the work stopped, saying that he was not engaged in the project and he was not an employee of the contracting company, although correspondence accessed by BIRN, written four years ago, contradicts Ahmeti’s claim.

The company did not respond to questions relating to this, or other issues relating to the Ministry of Agriculture.

A complaint made during the consolidation process contains accusations of abuse of the land registry records that were prepared in the ‘80s. The report alleges that the municipality’s land regulation commission offered partial information, and that out of the total of 192 plots of land that were included in the consolidation process for the cadastral zone in Qerim, only 14 were ready for further processing in the commission that was led by Shabani.

“The other parcels are subject to change, which are a result of the previous decisions dating from 1986 to December 31, 2013. For most of the previous rulings, the graphic aspect or ownership background of the plot is not completed,” reads the report, which added that decisions on the divisions of plots of land lacked legal justification and authorization.

“We think that the [municipal land regulation] commission should have not done the municipality’s cadastral work, making physical plot divisions or plot exchange,” the report continues.

“For this reason, the land consolidation documentation has been subject to changes from its initial state and has been severely damaged overall as a registry, thus creating small and numerous lands within the land consolidation.”

This document notes that the aim of the land consolidation process it to gather and adjust cadastral plots, and it emphasizes that since 1985 in Gjakova, these plots have been continuously split.

“Our conclusions do not intend to make legal accusations, but they only aim to prove the chaos created in the land consolidation process in the areas [Qerim, Mece, Doblibare] dealt with in this project, and the inability to prepare the cadastral documentation for these areas as a result of the lack of a whole chain of documentation for the majority of plots,” the report concluded.

Failure in Vitia

At the request of the municipal authorities, a volunteer consolidation project in Vitia was to be carried out by 2013, even though a previous pilot project in this municipality was unsuccessful in 2008.

The piloting was developed in the village of Pozhoran. The process started well and no problems were identified until the plot owners had to exchange land and new plots were required to be put under their name. At this point, the process stumbled. Consequently, the process was never completed in all 20 hectares.

Sokol Hamiti, Vitia’s mayor, refuses to define it as a failure.

“Since it was a pilot project, we don’t give any evaluation if it was successful because it was only a testing phase relating to only 20 hectares,” he said.

Even though the test was never completed, the Municipality of Vitia made a request to the Ministry as a volunteering municipality to consolidate a surface 120 times bigger than the one that was piloted. The Municipality, where Haliti was mayor both then and now, arranged for the land consolidation to take place in seven cadastral zones: Germove, Viti, Drobesh, Sadovine e Jerlive, Sadovine e Cerkezeve, Pozhoran and Sllatine.

The borderline proposed by the Municipality was 2,370 hectares with 1,838 parcel plots.

No procurement procedures took place to select the company that was to implement the land registry process. These procedures took place earlier. The Ministry of Agriculture signed a contract with Consult Engineering. The framework contract was only to last until December 5, 2013, while the municipality’s request for this process to take place was only registered on November 12, 2015, almost two years later.

The agriculture ministry approved this request a day after it was submitted.

These hazy procedures were not the only problem.

Article 10 of the Law on Land Regulation requires that “the approval of the application for land regulation is to be published on the Official Gazette of the Republic of Kosovo and on the Municipal Assembly notice board.” When asked for proof if the Ministry published this decision in the Official Gazette, the ministry did not provide any proof.

Article 9 of the same law states that the land regulation process can not be completed if “the costs of the project are not in proportion to  the profits and interests that are expected from the land regulation.”

Based on the contract, 462.25 euros are to be paid to the company for regulating one hectare of land. For the seven cadastral zones, the total amount would be over one million euros.

Photo” Atdhe Mulla.

But the farmers have not benefited from the process. The job remains half done, yet the large part of the contract payments for land regulation have been transferred to the company’s account. This is because according to the Ministry, Consult Engineering completed two phases of the contract.

“After completion of each phase, the implementing company prepared the report for the works carried, the municipal commission also prepared a report and the payments were made by the Ministry,” reads a report that the Ministry sent to BIRN. ”Due to the fact that the contract expired on December 5, 2016, the company was not able to complete the other phases of the project.”

In Vitia, the head of the land regulation commission was Perparim Sylejmani, who worked as a taxi driver on a daily basis but also played music at parties. He told BIRN that these jobs helped him, as the head of the municipality’s commission for consolidation, to convince the people to be part of the process because they knew and trusted him. He said that he has not been made aware of the progress of the project in the last two years.

However, it did not prove so easy for Sylejmani to convince the landowners to agree to the land regulation process.

According to the law, “the project of land regulation can only be implemented if two thirds of the involved parties agree to participate.”

This provision requires written consent from the majority of plot owners that are part of the cadastral zones included in the project.

For five days during May 2016, and a day in July, the company attempted to gather signatures for approval in Germove. The approval did not work out because there was a boycott of the process.

Consult Engineering admitted this in a report published following these attempts.

“This made us interrupt gathering of declarations from our teams in that cadastral zone,” the report reads. “As a result, in the cadastral zone of Gemove, a big percentage of land owners disagreed that the land regulation process should be continued.”

The report noted problems of the same nature in Sadovine e Cerkezeve area.

“The unfinished land consolidation of the ‘80s brought up suspicions from the landowners in some villages of this zone, and the consequences are that this project remains uncompleted,” the report reads. “Another reason why the landowners of this cadastral zone reject this regulation is the regular shape of some plots and their access to the road, so the owners did not see any reason why this process should take place on their property.”

Despite this, the project’s support in Germove reached 64.8 percent, less than the two thirds required, and in Sadovine e Cerkezve 67.5 per cent, reaching the legal condition by only a percentage. According to the same data, two thirds of approval was barely reached in Sllatine and Pozhoran, both with 68 per cent.

The company had a solution. They changed the boundaries of cadastral zones, by cutting off some of the disagreeing landowners or by increasing the percentage of the ones that agreed to the project. This way, the legal condition was fulfilled so that they could continue.

In Germove’s case, where the owners of 130 parcels refused to be part of the process, the zone’s boundaries shrunk, cutting off 19 plot owners. After this, the scale of confirmation to be part of the project increased from 64.8 to 67.9 percent, so they fulfilled the legal condition that two thirds of land owners agree to be part of the process.

Therefore, in almost all of seven cadastral zones, new boundaries were designed.

Despite the fact that the company received most of the contract’s value and that the completion of the contract remains unfinished, Vitia’s Municipality spoke highly of the project. The mayor, Sokol Hamiti, refused to classify the project as a failure. He gave the same explanation as the company itself.

“The company’s request that in order to continue the final phase of the land regulation process, the legal basis must be clarified, because 90 per cent of the properties do not have factual owners,” said mayor Halimi.

“Vitia’s municipality was engaged and participated in multiple workshops with the ministry and with foreign experts to implement the necessary changes. After the clarification of the legal basis, the land consolidation process can be continued.”

This publication has been produced with the assistance of the European Union. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of Besnik Krasniqi and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union or BIRN and AJK.

TAGS

15 April 2019 - 11:52

read more: