Agriculture’s Role in Reconstructing Disaster-Hit Communities

Earthquakes. Tsunamis. Forest fires. Civil war. Genocide. On Saturday at the Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre, representatives of communities afflicted by disaster in Bosnia, Italy, Chile, Sierra Leone and Japan told their stories in the conference “The Seeds of Reconstruction.” The audience heard about lives turned upside-down, families torn apart, collapsed houses and devastated landscapes. But they also heard about how the seeds of a new start had been planted by a return to cultivating the land and a rediscovery of traditional products, often with the help of Slow Food.

“Processes of laceration and recomposition often pass through food,” said Paolo Rumiz, a journalist with Italian daily La Reppublica, and the moderator of the panel discussion. “Food is not just something you eat, it’s also a marker of identity. And what, if not food, allows you to root yourself in your land following disasters?”

Hazim Duraković lost four of his siblings during the Bosnian war. He comes from Srebrenica, the epicenter of the genocide. To help with reconstruction following the war, the United Nations brought Dutch cows to the area, but they were poorly suited to the rugged landscape. When Gianni Rigoni Stern, a forestry expert with the Asiago Mountain Community in Italy, visited the area in 2009, he was struck by how many fields were still abandoned, 14 years after the war ended. He started a project, “TransuManza per la Pace” (transhumance for peace), bringing hardy mountain cattle from Trentino to the village of Sućeska and giving them to both Bosnian Muslims and Serbs. He went from house to house, interviewing people before deciding who would receive the cows, and makes frequent visits to check on the progress of the micro-economies that have been triggered by the gift of a single cow. “The peace is fragile,” said Roberta Biagiarelli, a film and theater director who first introduced Rigoni Stern to the area. “They need an economy. If there is an economy there can be a social fabric.”

Key to the success of the project has been the direct connection with the local people, not just authorities and administrators, as Duraković explained. Another example of a very direct—and effective—project, helping a community rebuild its economy following a war, came from Don Maurizio Boa, a priest who has been working for many years in Sierra Leone. The country was racked by civil war from 1991 to 2002 and is now one of the poorest in the world, despite being rich in natural resources. Together with Slow Food and the Sicily Regional Authority, he has helped the fishing community of Kent, near Freetown, acquire six fishing boats with motors and a refrigerator so they can store their fish. This helps them bypass intermediaries and sell their fish for higher prices. “In Sierra Leone, there is a saying: ‘When the fish cry, no-one sees their tears.’ That’s the situation of the poor,” he said. “They’re invisible.”

The small-scale model of farming is equally invisible in Chile. The country was hit by an 8.8-magnitude earthquake in February 2010, and then a year later a massive forest fire ripped through the Bio Bio region. Its severity was exacerbated by the fact that half the region is covered in intensive forestry plantations, with pine and eucalyptus monocultures, explained Eduardo Meza. “Even before the earthquake the communities were fragile and vulnerable,” he said. Following the disaster, the state tried to impose a centralized, aid-based model of assistance, applying the same solutions in urban and rural contexts. As with the Bosnian project, what the communities really needed were participatory processes adapted to their reality. Now, with the help of Slow Food, native seeds and plants are being provided to families affected by the disasters, recovering the small-scale farming economy and reviving the area’s rich farming tradition.

Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region was struck by an unexpected severe series of earthquakes in May this year, destroying buildings, including the vinegar house of the Lanterna di Diogene cooperative. Founded in 2003 by Giovanni Cuocci, the cooperative has an osteria and farm and provides employment to young people with Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy and other disabilities. Following the earthquakes, the vinegar barrels were rehomed in a field, along with tents, after housing was rendered unusable. Cuocci said that the “fertilizer of the seeds of reconstruction,” were the people who showed up to support the osteria, many encouraged by Slow Food. “The value of relationships was fundamental,” he said. “People moved towards the Lanterna, and said it must continue.”

Relationships were among the many things destroyed last March when earthquakes triggered catastrophic tsunamis and one of the worst nuclear accidents ever when the Fukushima power station was damaged. Yoko Sudo, whose family are farmers in the Fukushima area, said that there are still 320,000 internally displaced people in Japan, scattered around the country. “Before, two or three generations were living together in harmony,” the leader of the Slow Food Fukushima Convivium said. Now, families have been torn apart. “Before the catastrophe, the elderly would pass on knowledge, but children no longer receive these teachings.” This was not a natural disaster, she said, but was caused by cities and their overconsumption of food and energy. “We adults hold this responsibility, we are responsible for destroying the future of these children.” The Fukushima area was known for rice-growing, but now farmers are struggling to recover destroyed land, decontaminate fields and slowly restart their activities. She said coming to Terra Madre had made her realize the importance of the role of farmers not just in producing food but also protecting biodiversity and the landscape. “I think it is important to set up an economy where cities do not prevail, but where the priority is the survival of life.”

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