TERRA MADRE – Homero Like Odysseus

18 Jan 2005

Saõ Paulo Airport: our group of four Minas Gerais raw milk cheese producers arrived to catch the direct connection flight to Italy. While waiting at the boarding gate, we realised that our flight would be crammed full of the most diverse food producers from all over Brazil and that they were all traveling to the same destination: the Terra Madre (Mother Earth) conference in Turin.

The right atmosphere for fraternizing was created there and then. Our group was introduced by Gabrio Marinozzi of SF Brasilia to the raw milk cheese producers of Santa Catarina, which lies about 2,000 kilometers to the south of our state To tell the truth, we were only vaguely aware that there was any such production in the south of Brazil, but they knew all about the battles waged by Minas producers against the ban on producing raw milk cheese in Brazil. We immediately found common ground on the problems encountered by both our communities, and we vowed to continue our conversations during the conference in an attempt to establish a future framework that could promote our common interests.

We discovered that experiences similar to our own were being repeated amongst all the various groups who were chatting enthusiastically, exchanging addresses, brochures and even samples of chestnuts or the other products in their hand luggage. It was as if the whole of Brazil had been compressed into that airport boarding gate. Similarities and differences in our experiences formed the basis for an ongoing conversation with each and all. Once on the plane, we were already a fully integrated group and the sparkling atmosphere turned the twelve-hour flight to Milan into a pleasure in itself.

Back on the ground, we realized that there was something more than just the 150 Brazilian delegates. Some, such as the ‘Fortelezas’ or Brazilian Presidia, had brought a vast amount of luggage containing the foods of their areas that were to be presented during the Terra Madre conference and at the Salone del Gusto: the Canapu bean produced by the Picos and Campo Grande communities in Piauí and guaranà produced by the Santaré Mawé in the Amazon.

This huge group looked decidedly different from the usual tourist influx, starting from its often rather exotic dress – two Krahos friends were wearing their proudly colored headdress – but, surprisingly, had problems with neither customs nor immigration since, once it had been established that we were attending the Turin conference, we were directed through a preferential channel, despite the fact that most of us could speak no Italian and were unable to explain anything.

Cheerful young guides were waiting for us in the arrivals area, anxiously checking names in order to herd us on to the various coaches in waiting. The very overcast weather increased our confusion whilst we made our way through the maze of roads and motorways leading us to the Palazzo del Lavoro. It felt like some kind of initiation rite, and from that moment on, we felt we had now truly left behind all that was familiar. The sense of anxiety increased together with the murmuring, comments and questions about the fog-bound scenery, the next steps and the pending conference.

Once we arrived at the conference centre, we began to perceive the real dimensions of the whole encounter. There were a multitude of coaches that, just as ours, stopped only for the time needed to disgorge their passengers. By now we were not just the vastly diverse Brazilian community but a sea of nationalities, tongues and costumes. After a brief moment of hesitation over the welcome for such a surge of guests, we could see that there was an excellent set-up for sorting us all out and we quickly found our Portuguese speaking guides who could give us tips on credentials, the events program, the following phases of the day and where we would be staying.

What was most surprising was the atmosphere of calm and contentment that surrounded so many and such very different groups of people. The Africans and Asians with their clothes that were an explosion of colors, tones, patterns and ornaments left all the others open-mouthed and, in a common moment of impulse, everyone grabbed their cameras in a veritable profusion of flashes. All of a sudden I felt embarrassed by the drabness of my urban, westernized, globalized, and insignificant clothes.

Time pressed on and we set out to reach the various communities that would be putting us up. Like docile tourists, the groups followed their guides, who all bore identification tags and banners with the names of the locations to which we would be directed. Despite the multitude of people being organized into their respective groups and remounting dozens of coaches, it did not take long to empty the conference center, leaving only a few late-comers and the organization staff. It was then that I realized that something was wrong with my folder: none of the labels bore the name of my destination. Of the 150 Brazilians, only my companion, Carlos, and I had not been put on a coach.

Night had fallen quickly and all the organizers who were trying to work out where the destination printed on the folder actually was, seemed to be faced with a veritable enigma. At long last, when there were only a few people left in the Palazzo del Lavoro, it was decided that we would be put up in Turin together with another multinational group of late arrivals. What had appeared to be a problem, in fact, gave us the unusual opportunity of meeting and exchanging views and information with a number of Californians, Canadians and even someone from Prince Edward Island. The fruitful relationship with these new friends continued throughout the conference, in every meeting between workshops, during the coffee breaks and during the collective meals.

The following day – the great official inauguration day of Terra Madre – began with the by now familiar arrival at the conference center and we all rapidly took up our places in the auditorium for the opening ceremony. At this point, with a pervading realization of the responsibility implied by participation in such a pioneering event, we tried not to miss even the most insignificant detail of the welcoming speeches. Applause upon applause followed, applause that signified a sense of deep pride since, in this very moment, we perceived the appreciation of small-scale food producers that is often only too rare but was now declaimed on a universal scale.

The huge number of delegates of all the communities present represented an exceptional backdrop for the various speeches that moved us deeply, at times because we all felt part of a historic moment as exemplified by Carlo Petrini’s speech, at others because of the familiarity with the subject, such as when Frei Beto spoke about the Zero Hunger program in Brazil and was enthusiastically applauded by the African delegates, at others for the sheer beauty of ritual expressed, for example, by the moving traditional chorus of the Piedmontese peasants.

Once the ceremony was over, it was the turn of the ‘workforce’. Each one was to head for the programmed workshops but only after indulging themselves at the wonderful buffet that offered us a moment when we could recoup our energies and fraternize with the other groups. In the end, we were afforded hospitality at the affectionate Sannazzaro household on the outskirts of Racconigi. This intimate and very personal experience rewarded us with unexpected human warmth, fellowship and friendship that went far beyond any limits of language or geography. All these things served to highlight the very nature of the Terra Madre experience.

We traveled for three days between the hosting community and the Palazzo del Lavoro. This daily journey permitted us the time and opportunity for debates and discussions about all the subjects that concerned the Brazilian communities. These continuous and intense conversations generated a collective statement that was later presented to the Latin American Slow Food coordinator from Mexico, Raul Garciadiego, with the request that this be included in the acts of the conference. The them workshops on subjects linked to the activities of each group were, first and foremost, an exceptional source of information on procedures and the most varied kinds of knowledge from all around the world.

Our own group was able to discover techniques, products and experiences of raw milk cheese producers from, amongst others, Italy, Britain, Rumania and Cyprus. We were able to appreciate the difficulties the African communities have had to overcome in order to make the most of small producers or the experiences of trying to educate the palates of children and youngsters in Ireland and the USA. During a meeting held for the Brazilian communities, we discussed with the representatives of the Brazilian government and the associations for collaboration between Brazil and Italy about future projects and paths for creating new associations.

But, even more important than these global discussions, were the possibilities for immensely significant conversations among Brazilians. The road back to Racconigi brought us to an atmosphere that was welcoming and all-embracing. The evening meal on the long church hall table was always a hotbed of cheerful exchanges of information, addresses and contacts for the future. We were able to understand more intimately some Brazilians who, surprisingly, we did not know and some distant and difficult to contact colleagues living in extreme corners of our country and beyond.

When I had taken all of this in, I was already back at the boarding gate, ready for the journey back to Brazil with the immense satisfaction of having participated in such a pioneering event as part of my baggage. The expression ‘Food Community’ has, in itself, proved effective as it provides an identity for a group that is spread out across the world, that is complicated but carries great weight and acts as a vital beacon for the development of humanity over the next decades. I am convinced that Terra Madre is the embryo of a new global Forum that will create a significant channel of communication and framework for the Food Communities. This is just the boarding gate for a very long journey.

Homero Vianna is the leader of the Slow Food Belo Horizonte Convivium, a member of the Slow Food Award jury, and events organizer for the Ópera Comunicação agency in Belo Horizonte

Translation from the Portuguese by Dialogue International, Turin

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