SLOW – Georgia On My Mind

12 Jun 2001

Dear Friends of Slow Food,
As well as being a member of the Movement, I am a farmer and an agronomist. I live and work in the Colline Metallifere in Tuscany, although I often travel for business.
During the last two years, I have been working as a consultant for the World Food Program in Georgia, a country I have visited many times. As many people will remember (although perhaps not the younger ones), Georgia was the Soviet Union’s benchmark for quality of life. Georgian restaurants were the most popular in Moscow; many members of Soviet science academies and erudite men of letters, such as Mayakovsky, were from Georgia. The area’s range of climates and farming conditions, with tropical, Alpine and semi-arid conditions as well as Mediterranean, its fine foods and especially wines, the longevity of its inhabitants, its history and widespread higher education and, therefore, culture, were all contributing factors in making Georgia a model state. The rest of the population of the Soviet Union, from the colder areas and steppes, went to Georgia for a good life of sea, health spas, food and art.
When relations with the Soviet Union were broken off in the early 90s, the bottom fell out of Georgia’s world. The closure of protected trade channels with the USSR badly affected the tourist trade and the export of key agricultural products, such as tea, wine, tobacco, fruit and vegetables. The importation of essential goods and energy sources was cut off, bringing industry and agricultural trade almost to a standstill.
Since then, there have been – and there still are, to some extent – dark, cold, hungry years (or rather, winters) for many Georgians. In Tbilisi, the charming capital loved by Dumas, the winter nights still hum with the sound of generators, for those who can afford them. The rest is often just dark and cold. I had only seen similar situations, albeit without the cold, in Ndjamena, the capital of Chad.
The WFP has been working in Georgia since 1993. At first, it was necessary to provide assistance for the refugees from the wars that were tearing the country apart. Then action was required to relieve the extensive poverty. Even today, 53% of Georgia’s population lives below the poverty threshold, which means living on less than US$ 50 per month. This caused the terrible social, economic and cultural crisis of the early 90s, and the reorganization of agricultural infrastructures in particular. To cap it all, there was a drought last year for the first time in the nation’s recent history (a result of global warming, perhaps?). To give you an idea of the scale of the problem, the WFP has attempted to provide aid for 540,000 people out of a total population of around 4,500,000 with food supplies to help them survive the 2000-2001 winter or with seeds to avoid the longer-term negative effects.
From this point of view, Georgia is not really worse off than many other countries. The paradox to which I am trying to draw your attention is how a nation with a flourishing, varied and age-old agricultural system, as well as a high standard of living, was suddenly plunged into such a desperate situation.
Farming areas are not exempt from these processes. For example, I visited Kakheti in December. It’s the wine-producing area par excellence with wonderful farming landscapes, vineyards scattered over hundreds of hectares as far as the eye can see, and so on. The farmers who have jealously held on to the vines – mainly white grape varieties – that they acquired after privatization are among those who will have most difficulty surviving the winter unharmed. No one wants their grapes anymore. The wineries are no longer operating, or if they are, they only use black grapes because there is no demand for anything else. Their ancient viticultural heritage has been laid to waste by conditions of poverty and worrying social and technological stagnation. Meanwhile, the growers wait and hope that someone (a centralist state? A humanitarian organization?) will come and save the day.
Wine areas are just one example. Excellent cheeses are made more or less everywhere, especially in the east, with its sub-tropical climate. Sulguni, for example, is a fresh mozzarella-scamorza type cheese, which is sometimes also smoked. Then there are all the vegetables and fruit, including some varieties I had never even heard of.
To complicate matters further, international co-operatives sometimes get involved here. For example, the Dutch who, certainly in good faith, want to launch a Gouda production project with the milk now used to make Sulguni! Then there are the multinationals that, knowing that this is easy land to conquer, try to introduce genetically modified produce, such as potatoes.
To cut a long story short, at a Slow Food event in Castagneto Carducci today, I saw the Slow Food 2001 brochure, and in it the note on Friendship Tables. There was also a reference to the Presidia to be launched in countries that seemed to me to be similar to Georgia in 2000. I think this combination of an age-old heritage of farming, fine food and culture with all-pervading poverty is worthy of attention and perhaps a Presidium could follow.
If you are interested, I am willing to do my part as a Slow Food militant and take the matter further.

Thank you for your attention,

Tomaso Ceccarelli

Photo: http://www.nrc.no/tv-aksjonen98/Presse/Georgia.htm

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