Figures on the numbers of seasonal non-EU workers employed in Italian and European agriculture were released this week. Counting both permanent and seasonal workers, about 10% of the total agricultural workforce in Italy is supplied by workers from non-EU countries. This is a significant number, prompting a variety of reactions. Many people adopt entrenched positions and are reluctant to seek fresh perspectives. We see legislation proposed to limit numbers of workers entering and leaving to 60,000, concerns voiced about labour shortages and other views maintaining that there is a surplus—but few people stop to consider the social and cultural implications of this phenomenon, let alone what effects there could be for agricultural production and practice.
The effects of human impact on agricultural land have been colossal in many areas of Europe. They have been particularly extreme in Italy, partly due to our geographical circumstances. Human impact is the process by which society modifies natural land areas for human advantage: look, for example, at the Italian coastal areas, crammed with tourist and industrial developments, the plains packed with industrial plants, buildings and endless intensively-cultivated fields, the hills marked by monocultures that require large quantities of chemicals. We are all familiar with these and other examples. Perhaps we no longer even notice, but there is an increasing number of experts who are reporting that, due to these impacts, our soils are becoming impoverished and in some cases even dying, the biodiversity of agricultural and fishing resources is diminishing, and social structures in rural and coastal areas are being destroyed.
I am certainly not suggesting that we should remain or, rather, revert to living in wild pristine landscapes, but given that our use of land has for some time reached the limit of its capacity, it is at least time for a rethink.
Any attempt to reconvert and safeguard land usage will be difficult if people are not present, actively working on the land. Yet it is a fact that, year by year, the number of Italians working on farms is decreasing and rural society is disintegrating. We are less able to look after our soils and woods, maintain soil fertility and obtain sustainable benefit from the land which is compatible with the ecosystem and does not produce waste or damaging impacts.
If we look at the situation from this perspective, the statistics about the men and women coming to work in our fields assume a different significance. These people have usually come from places where symbiosis with nature is still strong, where human impacts have not yet completely eradicated traditional farming knowledge and know-how. If we realized that these people are not just labor—numbers to count and limit—but bearers of noble agricultural traditions, their contribution could be vital for the defense and revitalization of the environment and society in our rural regions.
I think of Africans—their intimate knowledge and respect for biodiversity, their ability to conserve and not destroy it; I think of workers from eastern Europe, where a peasant farming culture has survived that is very similar to what we had a few decades ago. It is simple and basic knowledge which we have forgotten.
Given that a culture is shaped and strengthened by mutual exchange and is continually subject to external influences, I wonder why we don’t welcome these people differently and in a more civilized way. They are familiar with living in the countryside: we could learn from them and exchange knowledge.
At recent events (such as the Slow Food Award for Biodiversity) bringing together small farmers from all over the world to one place around a single table, I was amazed and delighted to see how interested they were and how easily—linguistic difficulties apart —they could communicate their experiences to each other, comparing and learning from each other. It was incredible to hear the conversation between an Indian producer of mustard oil whose product had an oxidation problem and an Italian olive grower who changed his life by simply suggesting he used dark bottles. Or the discussion between the Mexican, who had to carefully measure out the rainwater he had laboriously and ingeniously collected, and our farmer who floods massive areas of land planted with a particularly thirsty variety of maize.
The Indian who milks our cows, the Mexican or Romanian who knows how to graft vines, the Senegalese who picks tomatoes—I reckon we need them just as much as they need us.
First printed in La Stampa on 09/02/2003
Translation by Ronnie Richards