The depopulation of marginal areas has become a great obstacle to preserving cultures and products. If young generations are to remain in mountainous areas and resist the lure of the big city, they must be encouraged and supported in pursuing pastoralist lifestyles. If this doesn’t happen, then generations’ of knowledge will be lost forever along with the products, varieties and animal breeds that are the fruit of mountain productions.
Sonia Chellini, vice president of Slow Food Italy and chair of the conference Mountain Stories: Products and Projects and Relaunching ‘Other’ Lands began the discussion by explaining the unappealing nature of the work of pastoralists in mountainous areas. Rearing animals, for example, is no nine-to-five; instead it’s a challenging commitment that applies 365 days a year, without the respite of holidays. It’s a struggle to attract people to this kind of endeavor, especially when there are less challenging equivalents that are more financially rewarding.
Juri Chiotti, a young chef who escaped urban life for the Meira Garnieri mountain refuge, argued that it needed to be made easier for young pastoralists to pursue such vocations, and cited bureaucracy as a barrier to working in dairy production in mountainous areas. He gave an example of two cheesemakers who had struggled to comply with Italian law, and as a result didn’t achieve a fully functional dairy for two years. Without the next generation of farmers and producers, knowledge risks being lost and mountainous areas risk depopulation.
The panel was aware of the disconnect between producers and consumers, and mentioned this as a hindrance in the preservation of mountain dairy productions. Cheesemaker Andrea Columbero was aware that farmers and producers are not always customer-focused in their approach, but insisted that this must change if mountain visitors are to develop and maintain interest in their products. At the same time he urged the audience to exercise their curiosity and engage in dialogue with producers and farmers, and talked about the importance of increasing consumers’ knowledge of products and their origins, ultimately helping to preserve mountain knowledge.
Chiotti agreed that many people have lost the link with their food and many often no longer realize where their food comes from. By welcoming visitors to marginal areas, including from a practical point of view by improving infrastructures and development of road networks, the relationship between producer and consumer is more likely to flourish.
A headmistress from a school in the Italian Alps shared her first-hand experience of this, explaining that some children are unable to attend her rural school owing to the absence of public transport and admitted that she didn’t even receive cell phone signal in her school.
As well as strengthening the link between producers and consumers, links between producers themselves must also be bolstered. Jean Bernard Maitia from Amalur (Terra Madre in Basque) praised the role of Slow Food and pointed to the seven Presidia as an example of increasing collectivity and interconnectivity between producers, highlighting these as crucial to fully exploiting the biodiversity of mountain landscapes – a great advantage at the disposal of pastoralists in mountain areas. He suggested that only two or three producers within the organization fully reap the benefits of mountain pastures and transhumance, and proposed that with greater interconnectivity pastoralists could learn from one another.
Fabrizio Ellena from Foundazione Montemale—a pastoralists’ collective close to the Italian-French border—explained the role of the organization in recovering and managing the land and explained how it had in fact helped to improve local roads. It is this kind of collective organization that really can reinforce mountain dairy activities.
If pastoralists are to thrive in mountainous areas, it is vital that young producers and farmers are encouraged to adopt the lifestyle. By raising awareness of the food we eat, how it’s produced and by who, we as consumers are likely to tighten our connectivity with the people behind our food. If pastoralists are also able to become mobilized as more of a collective unit – something that is clearly already happening – then the preservation of mountain products and pastures could be secured and the future of our food systems could be bright. But, as Chellini suggested, “There are no mountains without pastoralists and there are no pastoralists without mountains.”