Lucy Cunningham, RSPB
What Remains in Romania
On first sight, rural Transylvannia is the picture of beauty and nature in abundance. Conical haybales dot the bucolic, sleepy landscape, and birdsong fills the air. Compact fields of corn or wheat surround a single steading; onions hang to dry under the eaves, and squash grow on small compost heaps. Communities are close and interdependent; extended families still live together here. Land is fertile and productive; life takes place outdoors in the gentle sunshine. My first impression is of idyllic abundance, of toil in fair exchange for a balanced and natural life.
Often three generations still live in one house, building extensions as they become necessary, on lands which have been in their families for generations. Families have a few chickens, pigs or goats, and fruit trees for jam, wine or brandy; knowledge within the family of the plants and animals local to the area is not considered specialist; it’s commonplace. People are fit and healthy, taking their time, but always working. The whole family is present, and people seem grounded and connected with each other and the land. Biodiversity is all around – from the grasshoppers jumping with every step you take in fields full of autumn crocus, celandine and amaranth – to the knowledge that wolves, bears and lynx still populate these hills – this feels like nature incarnate, an outdoor lover’s ideal. Most of the life takes place outdoors – cooking, eating, harvesting, tending – while indoors is only for sleeping or retreating in bad weather. In short, my first impression is this is The Good Life – what so many of my own contemporaries are hankering after.
It’s almost a cliché now, the extent to which we have lost our connection to nature and the land in the UK. We can feel the effect on our society of the lack of physical effort for reward, of the apathy and abject misery of people so disconnected from the world around them they are stressed, obese and depressed. Suicide is the most common cause of death among men aged between 20 and 49; in part at least, they are victims of the toxicity of over abundance from living in an utterly unjust economic system. While we may have been some of the ‘winners’ in terms of GDP, it has come at the cost of our quality of life. Much of our land has been ‘developed’, i.e. poisoned, in favour of the manufacture of goods and services. Many of our people are in meaningless work, automatons in service to the capitalist juggernaut, gaining money but making no contribution to their community, feeling no sense of value from those around them, eating processed food made in factories miles away, seeing people purposefully but sensing there’s nothing holding them together anymore. And to a large extent, there isn’t. While I’m not saying it’s the only factor at play, the vast majority of people appear to be embodying these shockingly sick and troublingly sad states with no idea how their mental and physical health might be affected by this dire lack of connection to nature. However, many people DO realise – and wish daily for the abundance Trasylvannia never lost.
Transylvannia contrived to avoid much of the over-development the UK has been subject to, for reasons I’d need a PhD to go into, and to be quite honest don’t fully understand. Many of the places we visited still maintain skills and knowledge which have existed since medieval times – such as creation and maintenance of thatched rooves, the scything of long grass, and using plant dyes for textiles and architectural décor. Many still ‘own’ smallholdings – although they don’t have any papers, they’ve simply owned them as far back as memory serves – and through complex, time-honoured systems, work together with other local farmers to share resources at various times – such as the community still for brandy making, the community pastures, or the bartering of one’s excess produce in exchange for another’s. However, this seemingly idyllic life has its issues.
What we might see as self sufficiency is just as easily seen as poverty, depending on your point of view. As one farmer pointed out, yes, he can easily grow enough organic food for his family on his land (although they just call it ‘food’) – but he can never go on holiday due to the demands of the crops at diferent times – and he can’t afford to pay anyone to help him out. One way to create a little extra income would be to increase the yield by spraying his crops with pesticides – and if this is one way in which the western world have managed to escape the shackles of what he sees as a hand-to-mouth existence, why shouldn’t he? He can hardly rely on his family carrying on his business – young people are leaving these regions in droves, with passage to other EU countries with better money-making prospects now a tangible reality. An encyclopaedic knowledge of plants and animals seems quaint and parochial to youngsters when there’s a whole wide world out there. In the city, there are careers where your world isn’t so limited, and the work is not so physically demanding.
We meet with Emil, a wine maker with vast fields of grapevines well known in the region. His wine is excellent – it is easily on par with those from Chile and France being sold in UK supermarkets. So why aren’t we seeing Romanian wine on our shelves? Part of the issue, he explains, is the bureacratic hangover from communism. Just trying to set up an enterprise or obtain start-up funding requires satisfying so many levels of government, and performing such bureaucratic acrobatics, many people are put off before they’ve begun. They find ways to avoid the paperwork, such as providing their services privately. Rather than go through the costly process of bottling, labelling, and paying the 45% tax imposed by the government on wine sold commercially, Emil provides wine in plastic flagons for private parties and weddings. He makes a living, and he can focus on his farming. His story is repeated throughout the land. Without government support to help businesses like his thrive, many are forced into the black market in order to survive.
Without the support of the government, wise, sustainable decisions cannot be made about the natural wealth that there is in Romania – people struggle to eke a living out of the system, and profit margins must come before sustainability. Many people blame the EU for this situation, but the amount of tax and crippling paperwork is not decided at EU level – suggesting it’s the Romanian government itself that needs restructured and streamlined to support a new way of doing things.
In some areas, the need for change is acute, and new ideas are being trialled in the attempt to preserve age-old ways of life. Municipalities in the Apuseni mountains, who have seen a huge exodus of young people over the last 20 years, are literally offering newcomers rent-free land and free building materials in return for a commitment to stay in the village. Despite this, they are still struggling to get people to come – the work is hard, the life archaic, and the area remote. However, a new road is coming – the great hope many villagers have waited generations for – but there is a fear that this will be used by incomers, who will buy land cheap and build their own place in the sun, where they’ll holiday for two or three weeks of the year, or rent out for others to do so, making no commitment to the place, oblivious to the fact that the sense of community and abundant local skills many hanker after so longingly in the UK are being lost in these very same places.
An openness of this kind to new ideas could be key to the sustainable development of Transylvannia and many other places like it. Outsiders could come to live in these remote regions, enticed by the free land and materials, and make a commitment to work the land – undertaking to do the hard graft, and to learn from the community, before these skills are lost. There is huge interest from people in the UK and beyond, who recognise this need to get back to the land, who would undertake this – within a system they can trust, and that works for everyone. If the new road leads to developments in infrastructure which eventually allow faster internet, then a whole new raft of possibilities open up to people working part time on the internet for some income, but remaining committed to small scale farming practice – knowing its value from having seen the results of over development in their various countries of origin. An extra clause of this kind, that beyond committing to stay, people commit to making a continual contribution, might go some way towards bringing life back to these villages and preserving a way of life which has so sadly degraded on our own small island.
As yet, human connection to nature, and its benefits, is still very much apparent in Romania – one can only hope that lessons in sustainable farming from other EU countries such as the UK can be assimilated, and that learning put to use in the creation of a truly sustainable system which serves humans and nature into the future.