Terra Madre Seen From Africa

22 Sep 2008

Ettore Tibaldi, aged 63, a great friend and tireless collaborator of the Slow Food movement died on Sunday August 24. A former lecturer in zoology at the University of Milan, taught zoology at the University of Gastronomic Sciences of Pollenzo/Colorno. Here we publish an article of his on Terra Madre 2006, first published in Slow 54.

Terra Madre, for me, means Africa. I realize that the other continents are also part of the biosphere and also that the Food Communities represent an extraordinary mosaic, But everybody has their passions, after all.

Just think … Africa is crossed by the equator and the tropics and is the third largest continent on earth. It stretches roughly 8,000 kilometers from north to south and about 7,500 km from east to west. The highest point on the continent is the summit of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania (5,895 m), the lowest is Lake Assali in Gibuti (150 m below sea level. A fundamental natural feature is the Sahara Desert, which occupies one fourth of this enormous territory. The basins of immense rivers such as the Nile, the Congo, the Zambezi and the Orange often flank those of the great lakes found of the Rift Valley… Need I go on?

This is the geography that so many scholars have criticized, pointing out that this is a way professors and generals — and even the savage colonizers who once lurked like disgusting worms in the bowels of the Black Continent — represent Africa. Ever since the days of ancient Rome, imperial eagles have supplied the triumphant image of one nation exploiting another. But those eagles should have been replaced by bugs and lice, bloodsuckers and wriggly worms: colonizers are not comparable to a predator, but rather to parasites. A tapeworm or a duodenal ancylostoma on a flag wouldn’t have been as popular or evocative, but they would have been enlightening. It’s a question of history getting its geography mixed up. And geography can do nothing but resist and be human.

It has to relate not only the contours of the landscape and the backgrounds of the people photographed by the anthropologists, but also the stories of these people, their relationships with each other and with the environment.

It has to be intelligent, like that defined by Ted Botha, the great South African writer and journalist, author of Mongo, Adventures in Trash (Bloomsbury, USA 2004), in which he recounts real-life experiences of trash recycling that take place not in the famous dumps of Nairobi, but in the ‘Center of the Center of the World’, New York City. Trash ultimately ‘becomes’ the city.

I’m often reminded of the dynamics of the waste and decay by the Milanese (human) geographer Giorgio Botta: the systematic ‘extremization’ of the elements that combine to form an image of Africa conjure up a sociocultural vision that, in the minds of westerners, is nonetheless backward and retrograde. Yet maybe it is this idea of Africa that needs to be reconsidered. Many of the places in the west where we live in a comfortable, natural way are seriously degraded and devastated by a sort of progress that is not always real.

My friend Ibrahim Ouedraogo claims that having communities of farmers (and shepherds and fishermen) come into direct contact with each other is the most significant success imaginable. He is right I think, partly because his opinion is based on his valuable experiences working with African farm workers’ associations.

As a result of a western cliché that is quite the reverse of the one we have constructed for Africa, we expect to live in a globalized world that either constitutes or imitates the assured and civilized West. ‘Even though we have a progressive economy, herbicides and pesticides have made our farmlands largely sterile since the post-war years. Surface and subterranean waters are polluted and unfit for animals and people.’ (Giorgio Botta’s introduction to Valerio Bini, Martina Vitale (eds.), Le ricchezze dell’Africa, Harmattan Italia, Turin 2005).

During Terra Madre 2004, I accompanied a delegation of African farmers through the rice fields of Vercelli and Novara as far as the Cascina Caremma farm in the Ticino Park. The farmers saw how difficult it is even for us to grow ideal crops that guarantee nutritious food, respect the health of workers and do no harm to the environment.

During the tour, I tried to show them the more problematic sides to soil tillage, water management and the distribution of herbicides. But I didn’t say that we have successfully overcome problems and that they have to learn from us. If they want, they can learn from our mistakes, but we have to tell them about . If we praise agriculture as if it were heavy industry, we create damaging commonplaces both about our continent and about theirs. As a result, as Botto points out, Africa continues to remain far away.

Yet there is another Africa, whose rich, deeply-rooted culture scholars analyze and disseminate: its literature, its music and much more besides, including traditional agroecology, the local knowledge of soils and understanding of things animal, vegetable, and mineral in rural areas. highly refined and closely tied to real needs. How useful it would be for us too to learn to know and recognize this practical wisdom for the management of complex realities such as the land, a lake or the sea!

Once over, our old farmers in our country possessed this kind of knowledge, which linger on, albeit to a limited extent in the memory of people like hunters and fishermen. In the agricultural sector, alas, things are different. The ‘pushers’ of chemical fertilizers and pesticides have made farmers forget almost everything. Why distinguish one terrain from another and try to analyze its conditions when chemical fertilizers are applied to nourish the plant and not to improve the soil? Why differentiate useful insects from harmful ones when, in general insecticides eliminate them all indiscriminately? Why bother to tell one weed from another when a single weed killer can eradicate them all, and in so doing kills the reason for their presence and associations, and even the fact that many weeds actually play a positive, commensal role?

In this sense, the presence of African farmers can be helpful to us and really does enable us to imagine a reversal of perspectives. Every meeting produces change. Yes, we urgently need their help!

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