How do we bring people back to rural areas and support local food production?

This is the second in a series of posts about local food. The first one is: How do we fight big agribusinesses and talk to farmers to produce in a traditional way?

We have a model case of resistance: a strong opposition to development of small hydropower plants to be used as a graft for the rest of the country (Serbia). Our Facebook group “Let’s Defend the Stara Planina Rivers” has more than 100,000 members. These activities against the hydropower plants actually motivated young people to start returning to the areas which have been completely abandoned. In the village of Topli Do in the Stara Planina mountain, the members of the local community and our activists physically clashed with the developer having no other resort and attracted nation-wide attention. I couldn’t imagine, in my wildest dreams, that a God-forsaken village of some twenty people would be visited by Manu Chao. And yet it happened. The result? With young people returning and more activist visitors coming for pilgrimage, they started growing more vegetables and doubled the meat production.

Breathtaking landscape of the pristine old-growth forest in Stara Planina, the largest continuous evergreen forest in the Balkans. Protected nature area. No human meddling allowed.

I live in Belgrade but was born in Pirot, a town of 50,000 people close to the Bulgarian border - in the Stara Planina area. I’m a local patriot, my family and I spend every summer there, it’s much more liveable and relaxed. And this year, many more people started visiting this area because of the positive attention we made and the Covid-19 pandemics, buying local produce, for example the famous sheep cheese, and they sold it out by the end of August, even normally their stocks last until the start of the new season in April next year! So, the economical logic will lead the farmers to produce more and this is a wonderful example of synergy between seemingly unconnected phenomena: opposition to devastation of nature led to increased local production. This attraction made a huge dent in this big wall of misunderstanding and prejudices… It was our luck, but the case is exemplary: if people come, they will have to sleep, spend time and eat… Local products.

This is Dragan, my namesake living in the village of Topli Do, Southeast Serbia. On 7 October 2019, he was injured in a fight with the security staff of the SHPP developer.

The law enforcement forces didn’t intervene in this issue with the developer. The police constables are locals, they have to come and confront people who speak their own dialect, to face them tomorrow in the village or the town. So they refrain from intervention.

The bigger issue is that a conscientious environmental inspector makes the right decision, sues a developer, but some unknown hand at a court puts the suit somewhere on the shelf and waits until the case becomes obsolete due to lapse of time.

Whether it be agriculture or small hydropower plants, the big players are always connected with government structures in some way.

Most subsidies go to large-scale farmers, because they know how to ask for it. It is a tremendous task for us to do much footwork, visit many, many villages, talk to the locals and convince the government to change the policies, volens-nolens.

It is hard but true that small villages can feed the seven-million population of Serbia. If the people feel the taste of the local food, when they go home they are more likely to stop buying in the big markets and nearly everyone would benefit. Just the big players would be unhappy. That’s the key. Here in Belgrade I have a few farmers I trust, I have their numbers and I call them to order their produce. Word of mouth is a very important way for messages to come across, and I want to believe it’s possible.

On a global level, bailouts and subsidies can’t go on for long. No one is too big to fail, but many are too big to bail. The present situation is not unlike the Roman empire before its collapse. The rot is there, you don’t see it, it will take a few generations but it is there, and the calamity is waiting to happen.

In two villages we have young men being the heads of local government. We are planning to make a research and education centre in the Stara Planina mountain without any assistance from the state. If you depend on the state, the state will expect some payback from you. Imagine this: when our activists came to the village to talk with the members of the local community, people - as much as fifty of them - started coming dressed in white shirts, like going to a village feat. It was the first time somebody came and told the people what they want to do in their village. Empathy is the key for everything.

This is the key to approach local producers, to make them susceptible to your message, and convince them to stop using pesticides. In some areas, they are famous for local potatoes because they are not pestered by the Colorado beetle as it can’t live at high altitudes and one doesn’t have to spray the potato. You can tell them: people, you don’t have to spray, you can fertilise naturally as you have sheep and goats and huge heaps of manure laying around. It will need a bit more of manual labour, but it won’t harm you. They are smart people and they started sending their produce with courier services all across Serbia.

Locally produced cheese, delivered by courier service

This is a thriving herb patch. No spraying, no fertilisers, just compost. I call it “asylum for endangered insects”. One day, I counted six different pollinators rarely seen elsewhere.

If you attract enough people to come and visit you, they will have to buy something and then they will continue to buy from you even when they go home.

A few words about me. I have a full-time job (a one-man company), but I think, I live, and I breathe environmental activism. Together with my family. My big worry at the moment is that Rio Tinto, an Anglo-Australian mining company, recently started plans to mine precious lithium ore in Serbia. You know, lithium as in lithium batteries in your mobile phones. Manufacture of one kilogramme of lithium-carbonate needs 23,300 litres of water, which is afterwards returned to the waterways, polluting and poisoning them. But it’s a path of devastation and immense, awful pollution. If it happens, half of the nation will be poisoned in this or that manner. And it is not going to happen, if it needs force, so be it. In our activist network, everyone has a lawyer available around the clock. I am not afraid of being arrested, not me, not anybody. I’m telling this jokingly, don’t take it literally: it’s not a bad idea to introduce an ‘’eco-shariat’’ to punish people who overuse pesticides. Sometimes we need to learn things the hard way.