PEASANT FARMERS OF THE WORLD UNITE!
At Murghob, near the Chinese border between Akbaytal and Tukhmtamish in the mountainous east of Kyrgyzstan, yak herders were thinking it.
John Hooper reports
Wednesday October 20, 2004
The Guardian, G2 section, pp8-9
The same thought was crossing the minds of dried-mango producers in Burkina Faso, monastic brewers in Belgium and poultry farmers in Guatemala, while in the vast expanses of a royal palace in London, it will have entered the head of a familiar figure with an affable, eternally bewildered, smile.
The thought is - or was - "Time to go to Turin".
For the next three days, the old capital of Piedmont is hosting a conference of a reach and scale normally attempted only by the UN and other big international organisations.
More than 4,000 representatives of communities producing high-quality foods in more than 100 countries are to come together for what has been described as the gourmet community's equivalent of a world social forum.
Prince Charles will be addressing the final plenary session on Saturday. Other British participants include sea-salt manufacturers from Anglesey, Cornish fishermen, Cheddar cheese makers from Somerset and farmers rearing Herdwick sheep in the Lake District.
Unlike other monster global congresses, Terra Madre, as it has been entitled, is the brainchild of one man - Carlo Petrini, the ebullient founder of the Slow Food movement.
Since 1986, when it was created to protest at the opening of a McDonald's in the Piazza di Spagna in Rome, Slow Food has itself grown into something of an international organisation, acquiring 80,000 members along the way.
But Terra Madre is in a quite different category from anything it has so far attempted. Just tracing and contacting the participants was a vast challenge. Thousands of emails were dispatched, and Slow Food tapped into the representation abroad of both the Italian government and the Vatican.
"One of the problems was that a lot of these people didn't have passports. So we'd set about arranging that, and then we'd discover that they didn't have the documents they needed to get a passport," says Cinzia Scaffidi, one of the principal organisers of the event. "There was one group of indigenous people from Brazil who wouldn't have their photos taken either. We asked why and were told they were afraid it would rob them of their souls."
Accommodating the participants in and around Turin was another nightmare. Some are being put up in the city itself: in hotels, guest houses, religious institutions and the private homes of Torinese who have come forward to offer hospitality. But others are being lodged as far away as the Val d'Aosta, the French-speaking region in the Alps. Between these two extremes, hundreds of visitors have been found places to sleep in the homes of Piedmontese farmers, Ligurian fishermen and others involved in the food business in north-western Italy.
Care has been taken to avoid diplomatic incidents by ensuring, for example, that Serbs are not put under the same roof as Albanians. In some cases, the idea has been to match the hosts with the guests. Thus, a party of Russian fisherwomen has been lodged at Noli on the Mediterranean coast. In other cases, there is a distinct hint of mischievous provocation. Fifty hearty brewers from around the world have been found places in the classy wine-growing area of the Langhe.
During the conference itself, between the opening and closing plenary sessions, the plan is for participants to join specialist groups discussing a vast range of subjects, from honey-making techniques to farming in volcanic areas and high-altitude agriculture to pest management. So that they can understand each other, the discussions are to be interpreted simultaneously into seven languages (though whether that will be enough for the contributions of, say, Afghan raisin producers, remains to be seen).
So who is funding this remarkable extravaganza? The answer, it turns out, is the taxpayers of Italy in general, and Piedmont in particular.
According to Slow Food, the cash cost will be €2.6m (£1.8m). Notwithstanding the fact that Italy is meant to be struggling to keep its budget deficit within agreed EU limits, the agriculture ministry in Rome has seen fit to put in €1.8m of that, with the regional government of Piedmont stumping up a further €600,000. In addition, there is a cost in kind to the local authority in Turin that is reckoned at €1m.
What makes this all the more remarkable is that the bodies providing the cash funding are run, not by the left, but the right. When Petrini stands up tonight to open Terra Madre, he will be flanked by the governor of Piedmont, Enzo Ghigo, who belongs to Silvio Berlusconi's neo-liberal Forza Italia movement, and Italy's agriculture minister, Giovanni Alemanno, of the "post-fascist" National Alliance.
These are not the sort of people you expect to be backing a project which, in Petrini's words, aims to help create a "new planetary consciousness".
Part of the explanation for their odd partnership with the left-leaning Petrini lies in the broader strategy of the Berlusconi government, which is to promote Italy as a centre of gastronomic and agricultural excellence. Italians are still much closer to their rural past than, say, the British, and politicians and officials can see that their reluctance to depart from tradition, which is holding Italy back in many other spheres, offers considerable benefits when it comes to the production and preparation of quality foods.
Italy's Eurocrats lobbied furiously to get the new European Food Safety Agency headquartered in Parma, and the government has provided enthusiastic backing for a wide range of other initiatives, including Slow Food's foundation of a university of gastronomy near Turin.
Along the way, key figures on the Italian right seem to have been persuaded that, if they are to turn the country into a paragon of nutritional integrity, they are going to have to embrace causes normally associated with the left. This intriguing turnaround is most strikingly obvious with respect to genetically modified seeds.
Piedmont's governor, Enzo Ghigo, last year ordered the destruction of all the GM crops that had been planted in his region and tomorrow, the hard-right agriculture minister, Giovanni Alemanno, is hoping to get through cabinet an administrative order imposing severe curbs on future planting of GM seeds.
Terra Madre has unquestionably helped to consolidate a remarkable alliance across the usual political boundaries. But what exactly is it? The starting point for a new global movement? Or a pretentious, if well-intentioned, initiative by middle-class foodies hopelessly out of touch with the harsh realities of country life?
Petrini does himself no favours on that score when he describes conference participants as "intellectuals of the earth and sea". Nevertheless, the thinking behind Terra Madre departs from the fact that Slow Food and other similar organisations are indeed overwhelmingly clubs for prosperous food lovers from the developed world.
Petrini sees a danger that, "We all become top-class gourmets and connoisseurs of rare delicacies while ignoring the need to prevent the disappearance of those who actually work the land and supply the products."
To that extent, the venture has an element of self-interest. But Petrini's aim is to use Terra Madre for the creation of a series of new networks that will allow producers from the developing world to swap information among themselves and provide them with access to the technical expertise and marketing opportunities available in the richer north.
"The important thing about Terra Madre is not really what happens during the conference, but what happens afterwards when people go back to their villages," he says. "My hope is that they become involved in effective networks and that, having attended Terra Madre and met other people in similar situations, they will feel less lonely."
Everyone attending the conference will get a directory containing the names and contact details of all the participants. "They will take this book away with them, and I hope they use it," says Petrini.
It takes a stretch of the imagination, perhaps, to envisage Madagascan zebu herders swapping emails with Bulgarian pig farmers, but in the age of the internet anything is possible. Slow Food has already had experience of how a little expert knowledge can transform the prospects of poor food producers.
In the 1990s, a Moroccan university teacher helped set up a women's cooperative in the south of the country to produce oil from the argan or Moroccan ironwood tree, a plant that is thought to have medicinal properties and has caught the fancy of top chefs as far away as the US.
The women found, however, that the oil went off quickly when stored. Through Slow Food's mediation, two Italian experts were dispatched to Morocco where they found that the answer was to store the oil in metal, rather than plastic, containers or in bottles made of dark glass.
"That is an example of the kind of cross-fertilisation we are hoping will come out of Terra Madre," said a Slow Food spokeswoman, Alessandra Abbona.
Though Petrini has always tried to distance himself from the overtly political agenda of José Bové, the French anti-globalisation activist, it is quite clear that with Terra Madre he is nudging the movement he created a step closer to the anti-globalisation camp.
He describes the people he is seeking to help as, "Those who feel the repercussions, all too often negative, of the decisions taken in the international headquarters of WTO, the IMF and the World Bank". His aim is to, "create a counter-trend to that which the world believes is inevitable".
He adds: "It may be a dream. But I have always believed in the idea that he who sows utopias, harvests realities."