Crisis Talk

18 Nov 2008

It’s a great pleasure to see you all here again at this extraordinary get-together of ours. To think that four years have gone by since we first gave life to this wonderful initiative. This third meeting marks the growth of the Terra Madre network, though it would actually be more proper to speak about Terra Madre networks, seeing that farmers, fisherfolk and nomad shepherds were joined the second time round by cooks and academics from all over the world, and this year we have natural fiber producers and musicians—all of them peasants and farmers—here too. They are bringing with them the music of Terra Madre to prove that agriculture isn’t another business sector like the iron and steel industry, say, but something much more complex. In reality, agriculture is the fruit of a holistic vision encompassing the sacredness of food, respect for the environment, sociality and conviviality and any manifestation of culture.

This year’s audience welcomes into its midst over 3,000 young people–students, peasants and farmers, cooks–who are here today to represent our future and give hope to Mother Earth with the passion they intend to fire within farming communities. Over the last few years, we have realized one thing: namely, that the seed we have scattered round the world is bearing fruit and growing. The tree is growing.

One hundred and fifty countries from all over the world, thousands of school gardens, developing farmers’ markets, a new alliance with consumers, who we intend to call co-producers … Plus, over the last few years you have organized a number of Terra Madre meetings in your own countries: in Brazil, in Ireland, in The Netherlands. And new Terra Madre communities have developed in at least 30 countries. The network and networks are growing; they are getting broader wider and gaining in strength.

Yet we have to be conscious of the fact that what has happened and is happening now, in 2008, is changing the meaning of history profoundly. Back in 2004, few of us imagined that things would evolve as swiftly as they have. Nor did we imagine the havoc that is being wrought all round the world or an economic crisis that is throttling sociality, people’s daily lives and politics.

We’ll remember 2008, most of all, because, in the first part of the year, it was demonstrated that multilateralism doesn’t work. The FAO meeting acknowledged that the goal of halving the number of malnourished and starving people in the world was and is not achievable. On the contrary, the number of those who suffer from hunger and malnutrition is about to top the billion mark. That means one person on the planet out of every six. This is an epoch-making debacle and it is happening because all the rich countries put together have failed to keep up their annual contribution of 30 billion dollars. To think that, over the last fortnight alone, they’ve managed to put together 2,000 billion dollars to help banks in distress on account of crooked finance! They couldn’t come up with 30 billion a year, but they forked out 2,000 in a fortnight. In the face of this, we shouldn’t just protest, we should have the pride to show our outrage.

If the FAO summit failed, so did the WTO summit. It’s no coincidence that the greatest discord was over duties on foodstuffs. The powerful just don’t seem to be able to come to an agreement over the food question. They agree over other things, they meet hurriedly to save the ailing economy, but they fail to do anything constructive about food. In mid-2008, after speculating on the homes of poor people, on energy and on oil, what many have defined as ‘creative finance’—but what I think of as crooked finance—ultimately decided to speculate on food and foodstuffs. In next to no time, the price of rice, grain, and corn rose fivefold, with a string of repercussions across the planet.

We Italians spend 15 percent of our income on eating, but in many countries they spend 50, 60 and, in some cases, 80 percent. The impact can be catastrophic in some countries: hence the number of malnourished has increased by 100 million in one year alone, and in 50 countries there has been rioting over the right to food. Now the speculative bubble has burst. Speculation on houses, oil and food has fallen flat. The crisis is now systemic. The whole economic system is suffering a memorable defeat. People who think this is a passing crisis are wrong. It is a profound one and it is going to last for many years to come.

This is a moment in time in which many of us are feeling mixed sentiments. The first is one of great concern. We are concerned about our future, our daily lives and our houses, about the dignity of the world’s poorest peoples. However, from a different point of view, we also feel a slight sense of freedom. The time had come for the hype to stop. The time had come to put an end to the disgrace of seeing people getting rich unashamedly and looking down on the humble labor of people as marginal and secondary. It was about time the speculative bubble burst.

We have to be careful, though. We have to weigh things up carefully and analyze the situation, because many of the analyses that are now appearing are basically wrong. For me, the analysis of someone who thinks the market economy is finished is wrong. That’s not the way it is. On the contrary, let’s hope the market economy regenerates itself virtuously, keeping its feet on the round and connecting more with the rural economy.

People who think that this situation has been caused by a handful of con-men are also wrong. No, the gangrene has spread everywhere–into politics, into life, into the minds of many people. So never as at this moment has it been necessary to reflect, to reason, to take care and to try to develop a deep understand of things. We can’t behave like certain deaf people who laugh twice over: the first time because they see everybody round them laughing, the second because somebody explains to them why they were laughing in the first place! Before we laugh, before we express our positions, we need a proper understanding of how the world is going to work with this new economy.

But one thing I’m seriously convinced of is that this crisis will lead to greater respect for the rural economy. There will be greater attention to agriculture and the real economy, the true economy, the one with its feet on the ground—the one you represent. We’ll start appreciating manual labor and the know-how it involves again, as well as craftsmanship and small-scale manufacturing. We’ll start caring about the people who work the land again, taking an interest in new technologies at the service of sustainability, the environment and the quality of life.

This meeting of ours represents all these topics. Setting out from food, we also tie in agriculture, climate change and the sustainability of new clean energy. For years they said that the economy of nature and subsistence was a marginal economy. For years they derided these economies. But these are the economies that will save he planet from the mad market economy and crooked finance. You can rest assured of that.

In the near future, politics and economics will become conscious of the vital relationship between food, agriculture, climate change and the protection of health, the landscape and the beauty of ecosystems—all interconnected problems. And they’ll also become conscious of the mistake made with intensive agriculture, which has expelled from the countryside millions of women who used to provide the base for subsistence agriculture. The Earth is a Mother above all because it is worked by the hands of women. To expel women from the production process is a crime.

Consumers will help us in our task. Many are worried about the consumption crisis, but I believe that they are getting ready to make important choices. Consumers will look for local, healthy, fresh, seasonal food. It will be a virtuous, large-scale process. You should get ready too, as all this will reward the food you produce. We only have to make sure that no one takes over your labor to transform quality food into a luxury. Quality is a right for everybody. As soon as you hear someone telling you to produce organically, to produce quality to conquer rich people’s markets, chase them away. We have to produce organically to provide quality for everybody, for the poorest people too.

To the many people who ask us how we are going to achieve all this, I say that the reality you represent is the simplest, most effective reply. It’s the simplest because what you do is virtuous already. (What you do is what your fathers did before you. Continue to do it. In some senses you are lucky: you haven’t got to invent something new.) It’s the most effective because it’s something extremely tangible. This is real economy: land, food, living creatures, things we can touch and taste, from which we can even receive pleasure. In short, it’s a matter of care and love for the local economy. You haven’t go to do anything other than what you are doing already. Maybe improving, boosting and supplementing it by networking together among yourselves. But try to see how, in many senses, your labor is already the future.

In the local dimension of your communities, your activities produce a long string of positive fallouts. Above all, you promote traditional diets, meaning healthy, tasty food … diets that are diversified and follow the seasons and provide sufficient nourishment.

Moreover, if food isn’t forced to make intercontinental journeys, but is part of a system whereby it can be consumed over short distances, we’ll be able to save lots of energy and carbon dioxide emissions. Think of what we could save from the ecological point of view without over-transportation, refrigeration, packaging that ends up on the garbage dump and storage, which steals time, space and portions of nature and beauty. In the local dimension, energies and resources are optimized and waste is avoided. In Italy alone that means 4,000 tons of edible food thrown away every day. Four thousand tons is a disgrace—for people who suffer from hunger, but also for the rich countries.

Farmers and peasants everywhere have always practiced reusing and recycling. They throw nothing away: the refuse from any given process serves to produce more energy and make tools and artifacts, and it can also be recycled, even for gastronomic purposes. Through a natural process it can be transformed into fertility for the soil. Water is stored and respected, not wasted. It is a precious commodity.

All this is made possible by working at the local level, and it is by working at the local level that we achieve participatory democracy. Today there is hunger for participatory democracy throughout the world: at a local level everybody can take part and be a protagonist. Everybody can play a role and become an active partner. And at the local level we defend biodiversity, the vital resource of this economy. Native breeds and varieties are the irreplaceable driving force behind small-scale agricultural economies.

At the local level, we achieve sociality too. From this point of view, young people will be called upon to help build a new rural sociality and a new conviviality. All of you young people, strengthen memory but, at the same time, be sure to express new social life in the countryside and take joy there. There are new tools available to help you: use cameras to film the wisdom of our elders and the know-how of old farmers and peasants. Otherwise we’re soon going to lose it all.

We all know that this type of economy is vital for a better future. That doesn’t mean refusing to collaborate or sticking to the past. Your feet are firmly on the ground and your gaze turns to others, attentive to anything that can improve the earth. Hence the network, your network, our network—a network formed of local food communities.

You couldn’t hope for a more open-minded response than this. Many people view the local dimension condescendingly. They say your products are too small, too marginal. In actual fact, joined as one, all you small-scale producers arguably form the biggest food multinational of all. You don’t produce standardization or leveling out, you don’t produce pollution or poverty. You produce wealth, diversity, exchange, conservation of memory and progress. This is the value of the local economy.

Your economy is the most modern thing in the world today. To all those who, in good faith, view Terra Madre as a pacific meeting of poor, marginal humanity, as if you here were representatives of a world of losers, I say: you haven’t understood a thing. Such people have failed to grasp that here is where the future is being played out, Insofar as it’s you who represent the huge mass of the world’s farming classes and villages. Half the population of the world today.

Farmers and peasants will be the leading players of the third industrial revolution, which will start in your villages, your businesses and your countryside. The first industrial revolution with the steam engine and the second with electricity both used fossil materials. The third industrial revolution will be the revolution of clean and sustainable energy. It will set out from the countryside because agriculture is the only human activity based on photosynthesis. For centuries farmers have been able to worked thanks to the sun, so I exhort you to develop and use clean, renewable energy. Produce solar and wind energy and energy from anything else you can come up with to produce wealth for your businesses and for your families.

This is the new deal of tomorrow. Get in touch with anybody you know who is working in this direction. To the many managers in the audience who wish to work in the field of sustainable energy, I say: ‘Go and pick the brains of farmers and peasants’. They know how to reuse materials, they have a close relationship with the land, they waste nothing. They already have plenty of the know-how it takes for the new revolution, the one that, to some extent, will characterize the revival of the real economy.

You should be proud of yourselves. You represent the world’s diversity, the greatest wealth of all, the finest resource of all, a guarantee for the future of humanity. Just as biodiversity exists in nature, ensuring survival, evolution and adaptation, so your identity, your traditions and your consumption are a part of the world that nobody can do without. The world itself can’t do without this cultural diversity, and it is in the meeting and exchange and liaison between diversities that each of us strengthens his or her own identity. If we were all equal, there would be no identity; there is identity because there is diversity.

Enjoy the next four days to the full. Don’t be afraid to express yourselves, don’t have reservations about meeting and getting to know others. Even though you speak different languages, even though you dress differently, even though your have different colored skins.

Let’s meet and talk together. Even if, at first, you think you won’t understand all it takes at times is a smile or a gesture or a handshake. Believe me this is a unique opportunity to meet the world’s diversity. To find out and learn, but also to assert yourselves and the pride of your own identity. And when you go to the houses of the Piedmontese people who are hosting you, take the opportunity to get to know them, to exchange ideas, objects, smiles, conviviality and culture. Our past experience of this event has taught us that no language barrier exists, that language isn’t a problem. You won’t have problems communicating. Farmers and peasants always understand each other, come what may.

Last but not least, take the spirit of this event back to your communities. When you go home to your villages, open them up to welcome others. The young people present here today are about to launch a marvelous idea. They want to devote a few months of their lives to come to work freely in your agricultural communities. Welcome them, open your doors to these young farmers and students. They have decided to dedicate two or three months of their lives to working for you: this will enrich you and enrich them. This huge mobilization will be the greatest youth and culture exchange the world has ever seen.

Let me deliver my final words to the young people among us. You are the future of this earth. Save the memory of farmers and peasants and the memory of your elders. There is no future without memory. Make the memory of your elders and of farmers and peasants in villages one of the cornerstones of the new frontier. Let the traditional wisdom of your elders come to terms with modern science and you will be the makers of your own future.

I’d like to say to the young man who preceded me, Sam,* that he comes from a great country. Maybe in a few days’ time that great country, the United States of America will give us new hope. Maybe a dream will come true that only a few thought possible. But you know, Sam, even this hope isn’t as strong as the final words of your speech to this meeting: ‘We will be the generation that reunites mankind with the earth’.

If you raise the flag, we’ll be behind you in this revolution. Mankind needs to reunite with Terra Madre, Mother Earth, and you youngsters can make this happen. So, Sam, when you go back to school, take with you the words of a great man and a great American, the Dakota Indian Red Cloud:

‘The earth appeals to humanity for redemption. This redemption lies in our common sense, in our rectitude. The earth waits for those who are capable of distinguishing its rhythms. Look at me, I am poor and naked, but I am the chief of the nation. We do not want riches, but we want to train our children right. Riches will do us no good. We could not take them with us to the other world. We do not want riches. We want peace and love’.

With this, the message of a great man, a great American, a great American Indian, I invite you all to live the next four days of Terra Madre intensely, with joy and passion. I hope you will conserve these days in your eyes and in your memory. A happy Terra Madre to you all.

*Sam Levin, a young student and organizer of a school garden in Massachusetts, who spoke before Carlo Petrini at the Terra Madre inauguration ceremony.

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