Terra Madre Balkans, the voice of farmers in Tirana

“Mother Teresa” Square stands at the end of the long boulevard which, during the years of Italian occupation, was to shape Tirana’s new identity, molded by fascist architecture. After 50 years of Communist parades and being largely abandoned during the period of transition that followed, this square has been re-established as a central public meeting place following the visit by Pope Francis (in September 2014, when the huge space was restored and cleaned up) and the wise decision to separate it from the capital’s hectic traffic by pedestrianizing it at certain times of the day. And it is here, in Tirana’s old yet new square, that the Earth Market set up shop: 50 stands manned by small producers and farmers from all over the Balkans, as well as tastings, concerts, conferences, workshops and a large open kitchen, where some of Albania’s best-known chefs cooked and put on shows over the three days of the event. This year, Terra Madre came to Tirana also because of the vital contribution Albanian chefs can make to the Slow Food network. During his opening speech at the Tirana edition of the event, Slow Food President, Carlo Petrini, reiterated how the Slow Food Chefs’ Alliance of Albania, which was set up a year ago, continues to grow, forming an industry that brings restaurants and small producers together, while bringing benefits in terms of the economy, tourism and exports.

Terra Madre Balkans

While such movements are still struggling to take off in the Balkans – as Michael Rumiz, Slow Food network coordinator in the Balkans, says – Albanian chefs have breathed new life into the country’s food culture, in terms both of quality and of relationships with producers. The aim of Terra Madre 2016 was specifically to “give a voice to farmers”, putting the focus of the event on small producers, to explore the opportunities provided by market access and by support policies; as well as to encourage local producers to move on to a surer legal footing and to make the fundamental shift from home-based production to artisan production: in other words, to standardize quality. Because from the point of view of Slow Food – and of the forthcoming unified food policy in Europe – the preservation of biodiversity requires this formal process of adjustment but, on the other hand, there’s no shortage of stumbling blocks: taxes, the fear of having to raise prices, thus becoming less competitive, as well as a regularization process that can be incomprehensible to the rural culture of Albania and the Balkans as a whole. The risk, as always, is that there will be insufficient investment to reach the required standards.

The age-old problem of hygiene rules, which were the central theme of the previous edition of the event, is more relevant than ever. As Professor Sonya Srbinovska explains, a dairy in Macedonia that came up to standard had to rebuild from scratch the building where cheese had been made for over 100 years. Unfortunately, cheese never tastes the same again in the aseptic splendor of stainless steel interiors.

The experience of event coordinator Pierpaolo Ambrosi, who runs Vis Albania and, as his excellent Albanian attests, has been involved in cooperation projects in the country for over 20 years, helps us take look at the bigger picture. Mr. Ambrosi draws attention to other problems, including fragmentation of farmland, a problem that is most acute in Albania, where some 86% of plots are smaller than two hectares. Plots of land of this size mean that farmers are not eligible for Community funding and, above all, cannot offer them a decent standard of living. Then there is the uniquely Albanian problem of title deeds, which farmers are often not in possession of, as well as the very widespread reluctance in post-socialist countries to join organizations that hark back to the cooperatives of the past. “As long as average plot sizes remain what they are today, we will see the countryside gradually abandoned. Some 80% of farmers will reach pension age in 10 years and in these circumstances there won’t be, and it is unthinkable that there will be, any generational shift.”

Carlo Petrini also spoke about legacy and innovation, calling for greater political attention to be paid to agriculture, so that the old and deep-seated wealth of traditions can be passed on by older generations to younger ones, “because tradition is nothing other than continuous innovation over time and through the ages.”

In the age of industrialization and technology, stories of young people choosing to return to the land to farm and rear animals are increasingly common in Europe, but it is still too early to talk about “farmers by choice” in the Balkans. In countries where agriculture has not been industrialized, the tendency to hide its humble origins is still to be overcome: this cultural shame, which in Tirana primarily affects thousands of urbanized families, overlaps with both the aforementioned problems of awareness regarding the potential of agriculture, and the countless uncertainties and suspicions about bureaucracy and the law. As pointed out by Dessislava Dimitrova, a researcher and Slow Food coordinator in Bulgaria, the lack of services in rural areas discourages people from staying in the countryside. Anyone who has a family, who has children, has to consider their education and medical services before anything else.

“The atmosphere and the legal framework do not work in favor of small businesses,” explains Ms. Dimitrova. In many countries national policies are slow to appear, while European directives, which are notoriously subsidiary in nature, get bogged down in the ineptitude of public administration. For that reason too, it is necessary to overcome this uniquely Balkan sense of mistrust and resistance both towards collaboration and towards the risk involved in a private business, where for a long time any initiative was prohibited and punished. “The challenge is understanding that collaboration and friendship do not necessarily have to go hand in hand, and taking responsibility for our own future,” she concludes.

Collaboration, at the level of small producers and of countries, featured several times in the topics discussed at the event, as a call to consider the cultural heritage of the region as a whole, not so as to iron out differences, but to acknowledge the fact that problems are often shared and solutions can also be shared. And why not, then, ventures Professor Srbinovska, also consider a “cross-border geographic indication”, in the spirit of cooperation, of course, but also in the hope of getting round the predictable controversies over the “real” place of origin of individual products? Because the heritage of our food and land, of course, should help to establish equality between everyone, not to celebrate the supremacy of the few.

These were the issues and thoughts. There was also a celebration of the senses in the square over these few days in Tirana, with the constant flow of visitors, unique flavors from all over the Balkans and joyful impromptu singing by delegates. In the Kitchen Theater, the area where chefs took it in turns to cook for hundreds of people, we spoke with a “Don Quixote” of food and of the Albanian Slow Food Alliance. He didn’t want his name published, “we are all equal here, I am just someone who has learned life lessons from dreams.” The anonymous philosopher stressed the need to use local products, but made no secret of what the problems were: from inflation of the designation “Albanian organic product” to the pollution of many areas due to industrial waste. But, as he pointed out, there is one main problem: that of making a choice between producing to make money and producing with quality and health in mind. And that, he explained to me, is an individual choice, something that comes from dreams, from within, from the bottom up.

Today, Terra Madre is “the bottom” and this is where the battlefield really is. Because six million of the 12 million small producers in Europe are now in the Balkans. But according to Michele Rumiz, 4.8 million full-time agriculture jobs were lost in the European Union between 2000 and 2012, 70% of which were in new Member States. “It’s a war and we’re losing,” he warns. “If we can’t save small farms here in the Balkans, where can we?”