I’ve slept in some interesting places when cycle touring: from the entrance path of a modern French school, with its sinister flashing lift-door always poised to open and reveal some unknown fate; to a Miami-esque Police station garden in Georgia, complete with pond, pink flamingos and neon lights. I have respectfully borrowed the verandahs of lakeside summer houses and hay barns without their owners’ permission. I’ve stealthily pitched my tent: half on roads (albeit now unused) next to megalithic tombs, in hazelnut groves, in bus stops, and on the edge of seaside cliffs. I go to sleep tentatively, worried who or what will find me, but experience has taught me to rest easy (well with one ear open for anything creeping or the sound of approaching cars).
No matter how restless my night, the dawn always comes. The Turkish workers in the hazelgrove work silently around the tent, so as not to wake us. The men and women coming to collect water from the spring apologize that their homemade water carts are making too much noise this morning. The Romanian husband and wife ask ‘Did you sleep here?’ smiling curiously at me as I stir my porridge, and point to their haybarn whilst handing me freshly picked apples to complement my breakfast.
A Rude Awakening
I have cycled and pitched my tent in a dozen countries and only once have I been rudely awoken by a furious farmer banging on the tent shouting:
‘This is my land! You’ve got 5 minutes! Get off my land!’
He didn’t specify what fate I and my companion would meet should the allotted 5 minutes expire but it didn’t seem likely to involve tea and cake back at the farm with his jolly wife. My blurry attempts to apologize and to explain that it was dark when we pitched the tent, that we were tired and had no other option at the time, were unheeded by his fury-filled ears. This was in the Wye Valley, a so-called Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, on the border between England and Wales.
Later that day, after a refreshing dip in the River Wye, another incensed man drove aggressively up to us, wound down his window and wagged his finger “Did you swim in the river?’
‘Yes,,its lov…’ I started to tell him.
‘What?! This is a private river. You have ruined the anglers’ catch. Do you know how much they have paid for a day’s fishing rights? £1000 and you f&*@ing idiots come splashing and frolicking here!” He was crimson and spittle flew from his mouth speckling the front of his khaki rangers shirt.
‘We own this river’ his voice was quite shrill by now. My Brazilian friend and I looked at him bemused, I had rarely seen such anger.
‘It’s a river’ I replied calmly. ‘No one ‘owns’ the river.’
The Changing Landscape
Land and water are a commodity these days, bought and sold for profit. In much of North Western Europe we’ve grown accustomed to those neat bundles of land – fenced in, uniform green and yellow expanses, sheep-dotted, patchworked in stone or wire. Over our lifetime we may have seen more of the hedges, that hem the bucolic tapestry of rural England, be unpicked and replaced with vast fields full of fodder which will be harvested by gigantian mechanical beasts. When I was a child they still made hay in the fields of Lancashire; now plastic-sheathed silage sweats under the August deluge. The nourishing nettles weaving through the remaining hedgerows are sprayed with toxic poisons, lest they stray onto the farmer’s field where the over-nitration of the soil by synthetic fertilizers contributes to their flourishing. The weeds, also known as food and medicine in less ‘developed’ places, turn brown and we all wither with them.
I do not believe the English forgot the ‘old ways’, they have just been ploughed over. And given the right encouragement I am confident that those broken roots of knowing and respect will take stock again. “Don’t mess with the hawthorn’ said my Uncle Ed as we passed a lone tree that had survived the fate of others. “It’s where the spirits live’. Ed, like my father, had worked on small local farms as a boy, but he went on to manage a large farm estate in the East Midlands. During his career he saw the industrialization of food production and it didn’t always sit easy with him. Ed turned a healthy profit for his boss, the inherited land owner, but he never forgot the rhythm of the natural world he worked with.
Leaving The Land
The Common land of England was seized long ago. In school they taught me about the agricultural revolution. I remember textbook images of giant turnips and muscle-bound stock, cows bred for their yield. A marvel of british ingenuity and progress, the legacy of which means a modern cow often struggles to give birth naturally and calves must be delivered by cesarean section. But I think we skimmed over the part where they whipped my ancestors off the land and into the mills. From the 14th century until today the ‘common’ land has been under attack from those who wanted to own and make a profit from it. Land was ‘enclosed’ and became private property, under the guise of making it more productive, and the landed gentry continue to benefit – hugely. It was not by dint of hard graft that you made it, at home or in the colonies, it was by taking land from those who had lived on and with it for centuries. People not only lost their land, they lost their homes, their source of food and livelihoods and were thus forced to move to urban areas and work in the mills and factories to earn a wage to survive.
The rural population of England and Wales fell from 65% in 1801 to 23% in 1901. Today that figure is less than 17% of the population and falling, mirroring a global trend of rural flight where more than half the worlds’ population now live in cities. Should I wish to go back to my roots and buy myself a little plot of land in rural England it will cost me roughly £17,000/hectare. A bargain compared to the €63,000 you would need in the Netherlands but eye-wateringly expensive compared to the €2,000/ hectare in Romania, the cheapest land in Europe.
Make Hay While the Sun Shines
They still make hay in Romania and 46% of the population still live in rural areas. In August many families gather in the meadows to undertake the sweaty, itchy, exhausting work of scything, raking, tossing and lifting. It is communal work; a communion between land, horses, insects, plants, birds, the sun, and people. The meadows are buzzing with diversity. The flowers and grasses,harvested and dried,create fragrant and nutritious haystacks. The animals of rural Romania eat well and so in turn do the peasants.
You’d be a brave woman to call a farmer a peasant in the UK. But here in Romania the Ţărani are proud. This is an honourable way of life but I am careful not to romanticize what is a daily toil. And it is a lifestyle fading like an old sepia print before my very eyes. On the edge of the city, tractor showrooms pop up like mushrooms after the rain. At a recent conference on land conservation I attended, a Romanian lecturer explained the challenges of preserving the last few areas of biodiverse-rich meadows in the countryside surrounding the city of Cluj Napoca. ‘No one is interested in farming in the traditional anymore, it is too hard work. My students all want the latest tractors with all the gadgets, the bigger the better. They are begging their farming parents to get loans’. It is hard to see the value of hand-mown grasslands when pitched against the glossy-packaged high-tech, world-feeding myth of Big Agro, with its drones and GM-seeded cash crops.
Roll up, Roll up! Land for sale!
Romanian land, some of the richest yet cheapest in Europe, is being bought at an alarming rate, mostly by international investors. Villagers watch as common grazing areas are fenced in and state-owned lands are sold off. Since the end of Communism and after joining the EU, Romanian land has been fair game for investors and speculators. The enclosure process lasted over three centuries in England; today in Romania the same appropriation of public land for private profit is happening over the course of three decades.
Dutch pension holders, Arab Sheiks, Austrian Counts and English Princes all profit from the cheap cost of Romanian land. The United Arab Emirates’ Al Dharba owns Europe’s largest consolidated farm on Brailia Island in the Danube River; it is the biggest animal fodder farm in the world. It’s where they grow alfalfa to feed dairy cows in the mega-dairies of the Arabian peninsula, one of the driest places in the world. This is not just about peasant rights in Romania, this is about intensive agriculture where biodiversity has no place; the mechanisation of food production; the death of the soil and waterways from dependence on artificial fertiliser and over ploughing; the carbon emissions and climate impacts of shipping fodder to feed cows in the desert; animal rights; antibiotic resistance; consumer health and nutrition; the impact on water quality and levels in the Arab peninsula; and the escalating tensions caused by water shortages and the race to secure new sources in neighbouring territories.
A Broken System
The list of environmental impacts of intensive agriculture is relentless, and the international community is only tentatively beginning seriously to broach the subject. In the recent special report on Climate Change and Land the IPCC outlined the serious impact that land use is having on our biosphere. Emissions from agriculture, forestry and land clearing make up some 22% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Include the entire food chain (including fertiliser, transport, processing, and sale) and the figure rises to a third of global emissions. This summer, as we watch the Amazon burn to make way for more cattle and soy farms, global consciousness is hopefully rising.
Industrial agriculture uses 70% of the worlds agricultural land and provides only 30% of the food to feed the 7 billion people on this plant. It is a food system that is proven not to function and creates climate change, poverty, inequality, disease and deaths by its action.
However, the soundbite most populist media seem to highlight is the individual lifestyle choice of reducing meat and dairy consumption. All well and good but not enough to bring about the radical changes we need to our food growing and production system.
You might wonder why it matters, it is only land and dirt after all. Or you might buy into the argument that people have to eat and that intensive agriculture is progress. But soil is life and it is rapidly becoming exhausted and depleted. The UN has warned that the world has only 60 harvests left, a radical claim that seems to have gone unheeded, yet when the land dies the custodians of the land – the peasants (we) – die, and it won’t matter who owns it!
To be continued…….
This post is one of a series of blogs that I am writing in support of ALPA (Acces la Pământ pentru Agroecologie), a Romanian not-for-profit orginasation that I volunteer with.
My colleague Andrei Girz is cycling 2000km from Finland to Romania to raise funds for ALPA and to document how land use is changing across Eastern Europe. He has set a target of raising €2000 (1km =€1) and you can support him and the work of ALPA by donating to the Andrei’ s Cycling Adventure for ALPA fundraising page.
ALPA is a Romanian Access to Land initiative that works to support and protect an equitable, healthy and environmentally- friendly way of growing food. ALPA buy, lease or are gifted agricultural land, which is then lent to new agroecological farmers who are struggling to access land. ALPA acts as a Land Bank ensuring that the rural landscape stays farmed in a nature-friendly manner, while providing healthy food for local people.