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By Manlio Masucci – Extract from Navdanya International Report The Future of Food – Farming with Nature, Cultivating the Future – November 2019

The April tour in Trentino Alto Adige, organized as part of Navdanya International’s global campaign for Poison-free Food and Farming, gave the Navdanya team the opportunity to see first hand the state of degradation of an immense territory under assault of industrial intensive monocultures. The team met with numerous local organizations, farmers and citizens battling against the real consequences of an intensive industrial system of production that is damaging their environment, their health, and local economies along with the beauty of the natural landscape for which their Trentino valley in the Alto Adige is famous.

The surroundings of Gluderer farm before the monoculture’s invasion

Apple monocultures are extensive and pervasive, they occupy and reshape the entire mountain landscape of Trentino, with incursions up to, and even inside the towns. Apple trees as we know them are nowhere to be seen: instead there are rows upon rows of mutilated branches, individually propped up and attached to concrete or metal poles, like sentinels for as far as the eye could see, giving the impression of an immense cemetery.

Plastic tents over two meters high to protect the organic farm from pesticides

The local communities have deep concerns about the massive and unregulated use of pesticides that go into supporting these monocultures. Vandana Shiva said, “People’s concern is justified. The current epidemic of chronic diseases is also the result of the spread of toxic substances in our food systems. We are the first generation forced to watch our children become more ill than we are, particularly with cancer. We know that only 5% of cancers are of genetic origin, the remaining 95% are due to the toxicity of the surrounding environment”.

Apples monocoltures in Trentino

The UN estimates that 200,000 deaths a year are caused by pesticides. The effects of the industrial production system are not only perceived but also widely documented, as is the case in Trentino. The latest data from Ispra (Higher Institute for Environmental Protection and Research) speaks for itself: in the National Report on Pesticides in Water, 2018, the presence of pesticides was found in more than 90% of the points of surface water in the province of Bolzano and more than 70% in the province of Trento. This trend is confirmed by Istat data, contained in the Ispra Environmental Data Yearbook 2018, which certifies that, in 2016, an average of 62.2 kg of active ingredients per hectare were sprayed in Trentino Alto Adige, almost ten times the national average of 6.63 kg/hectare. It is difficult not to relate these data to the intensive monoculture of apples which in 2016 reached a production of 1,500,000 tons, equal to 70% of Italian production of apples and 15% of European production.

Figure 1: Data on active ingredients of pesticides distributed for agricultural use, per hectare of arable land


Protest is rampant: from the farmers to citizens and residents of the countryside

Safety distances not respected, treatments carried out without notice at all hours of the day and regardless of weather conditions, even on particularly windy days that facilitate the dispersion of chemicals at great distances. The stories are repeated identically throughout the region of Trentino Alto Adige which, for ten years now, seems to have turned into an immense monoculture. The lack of controls makes many farmers impermeable to protests from citizens and organic farms who see their crops threatened by contamination.

A manager of a local organic farm explains that “The safety distances between the treated fields and the other fields are rarely respected and often there are no protection hedges; to this we must add the arrogance of many operators who know very well that from the moment the irregular treatment starts to the moment the police intervene, enough time will have passed to complete the operation; once on the spot, the policemen, in the absence of any illicit activity, decide not to intervene despite the noxious air, still soaked with pesticides recently sprayed.”

The nascent coalition of organic farmers and citizens is simply the next logical step as is the case of Andrea’s agriturismo, part of the Ortazzo network, an organization that has begun to question institutions not only on ecological sustainability but also on long-term economic sustainability. Entering the city of Trento, the capital of the Province, you can see how monocultures have now broken through the urban defensive lines, positioning themselves in flowerbeds, traffic dividers and roundabouts.

But Trentino is only the tip of the iceberg. This phenomenon can be found throughout the country. Citizens are mobilizing to demand that safety distances be enforced as well as the obligation to forewarn be taken seriously. This is reflected in the petition of 25 thousand signatures presented to the Parliament by the Facebook group ‘No Pesticides’ as well as in the case of the Forum Marcia Stop Pesticidi (March to stop Pesticides) that (faced with the evidence of non-compliance with the rules) calls for a total ban on the use of chemicals in agriculture and an immediate halt to the expansion of intensive monocultures.

These requests come from an increasingly large section of the population which, on the basis of the principles of subsidiarity and precaution, claims the right to live in a healthy environment as enshrined in Article 32 of the Italian Constitution.

Paradise lost: how industrial agriculture is endangering organic production

Organic farming is increasingly under attack. It is in a state of siege and the most natural response to this appears to be the construction of a bunker to protect against chemical bombardment from industrial agriculture.

This is the story of the Gluderer family which was forced to spend over 150,000 euros to protect themselves from the surrounding pesticides. A heavy metal and plastic bunker of hundreds of square meters that protects crops, workers and members of the Gluderer family who, for four generations, have lived and worked in Coldrano, in Val Venosta, a beautiful valley in Trentino, in the North East of Italy. At the edge of the property the hedges have been replaced by plastic tents over two meters high. The organic farm gives the idea, at first glance, of a military camp surrounded by enemies, hundreds of hectares of monocultures of conventional apples ready to launch their chemical attacks on a daily basis.

The Gluderer family had to dig its surreal trench to preserve the health of its members and its organic farming activity, which is constantly threatened with contamination from toxic drift: “We could not do otherwise – explains Annamaria, 59 years old, looking worried at the bunker and the barriers that have covered the entire property for five years – it was the only way to maintain the organic farm and keep the job for our family”.

Annamaria’s daughter, Marion, holding Lena, her 6 years old child under the protection arches

This is what organic farmers are being forced to do in the face of the dangerous drift of pesticides, left alone by the authorities despite the repeated and obvious abuses: “We started the production of organic apples in 1990 and of organic herbs in 2005 – Annamaria tells us – on a total of 3.647 square metres; we began to suffer serious damage from pesticide drift in 2010 and since then we have submitted three criminal reports to the Asl; we won the lawsuits but the costs and the repetition of abuses have forced us to invest all the money to isolate our land from the surrounding intensive monocultures”. This is a drastic, partial solution that does not do justice to the beauty of the Trentino landscape.

Yet, seeing the children of the family playing inside the fenced space, one has the impression that the solution adopted by the Gluderer family is absolutely correct. However, the bitterness of the barricade in the face of injustice remains. The injustice of having to see children grow up with a background of plastic tents rather than uncontaminated countryside and mountains. A medieval castle under siege of the advancing chemical plague that provides only one other solution: that of escape.

Annamaria’s grandchildren continue to play among the huge arches of heavy plastic

This is the second option: Moving the production higher and higher, in the impervious but still friendly mountains, as far away as possible from the toxic miasmas. The Gluderer family have thus begun to explore the possibility of working where pesticides have not yet arrived, at least for the moment: “We bought a plot of land in Tubre, near Mals, at a height of 1,300 meters because there are as yet no problems of drift, so we decided to move all the hives there for the processing of honey”. A defense and retreat to the bitter end in an attempt to defend health, work and life itself. Showing a photo of the countryside, her countryside before it all began, the chemical war and bunker, Annamaria whimsically tells us “My dream is that they give us back what we had, the countryside where I grew up but where my grandchildren can no longer grow freely”.

While Annamaria’s grandchildren continue to play among the huge arches of heavy plastic, we wonder if that dream will ever come to be. Enjoying a fragrant herbal tea of organic herbs on the farm with Manuel, Annamaria’s 35 year old son, we ask him this. His opinion on local development is clear and at the same time disturbing: “It is a development model that works to promote a certain type of industry – he tells us, sipping his tea – supported by propaganda, because the truth is that we do not need pesticides or chemical fertilizers to grow, as evidenced by our production and that of other organic farmers; yields are very good and economic sustainability is ensured even without using copper or sulfur, but the industry pushes for so-called innovation, that’s to say, sell new products, new technologies, even if in this way we continue to threaten our health and destroy biodiversity; in our fields insects and pollinators have almost completely disappeared”.

The political choice: nothing to do with transition – the priority is to preserve the status quo!

Politics and business are intimately connected, in every sense, given the enormous economic interests at stake and the overwhelming power of the agro-industrial lobbies. This is the case of the Province of Bolzano, which with its resolution of 12 March 2019 authorized the use of a significant number of pesticides in drinking water even in areas where water is protected. And this despite the recent alarm launched by Ispra on the high level of contamination by pesticides found in surface and deep waters of Italy. Among the pesticides tolerated are not only Glyphosate, defined as carcinogenic by the IARC, but also Acrinathrin, Chlorpyrifos, Captan, Dithianon, Fluazinam, Mancozeb and many others.

A resolution that is not a novelty but, on the contrary, seems to fit into the national trend as in the case of the Decree 43/R of July 30, 2018 of the President of the Regional Council of Tuscany: “It’s a scandal – decries the oncologist Patrizia Gentilini of Isde, the Italian doctors for the environment – that we continue to grant permits of this type; with this Resolution of the Regional Council of Tuscany, authorization is given throughout the region in the areas of groundwater protection for human consumption, to the use of 29 pesticides with an extremely negative environmental profile, including Chlorpyrifos and Glyphosate, what is more five of which are not authorized in Europe such as Acrinathrin, Azinfos ethyl, Azinfos methyl, Demeton S-methyl and Omethoate; in the last three years – concludes Gentilini – 176 derogations have been granted to banned substances, so much so that the consumption of pesticides in our country, already among the first in Europe, has increased by 7.8%”.

And if the regions do not do well, nor does the Parliament which continues to approve decrees which at the least are questionable, triggering the protest of civil society organizations. This is the case with the recent controversial Emergency Decree which undermines the enforcement of the obligation to assess the environmental effects of plant protection plans. This is what the more than two thousand signatories of the open letter to Parliament claim, calling for the application of a key principle of the transition phase: the system of agricultural production, as well as the management of plant diseases has to be inseparable from social, environmental, climatic, food, health, landscape and economic considerations.

Provinces, regions and governments seem to be continuing along a path that is the opposite of that called by citizens, civil society organisations and organic farmers who no longer are willing to stand by and watch, and are ready to ally themselves to get out of the trenches in which they have so far been relegated to.

The transition is going on, despite politics

The change will necessarily have to start from the bottom up. From communities that democratically claim their right to a healthy environment to live and to healthy and nutritious food. This is what is happening in Italy. Spontaneous movements of citizens are giving rise to increasingly strong and cohesive coalitions that claim the constitutional right to live in a healthy environment. And leading this are the municipal administrations: in 2018, 65 Italian municipalities activated rules and regulations in favor of organic farming in urban and suburban areas.

The cumbersome state bureaucratic apparatus and the corporate interests continue, however, to build a wall against the beginnings of a transition. The story of the citizens of Mals, a small village in the Venosta Valley in South Tyrol, and its courageous mayor, Ulrich Veith is particularly telling. In 2014, the municipality of Mals held a popular referendum on pesticides, considering that in South Tyrol the average use per hectare is among the highest in Italy because of the monoculture of apples. About 70% of the population entitled to vote, participated in the referendum and, with a large majority of 76%, voted to ban pesticides from the territory of Mals. However, the Regional administrative tribunal (Tar) blocked the vote from becoming operational, and the Court of Auditors asked the mayor of Mals to reimburse the municipality the sum of twenty-four thousand euros, the sum spent on the organization of the anti-pesticides referendum.

At a press conference in the Italian Parliament, organized by Navdanya International, Mayor Veith declared that he intends to respect the will of his citizens by continuing to fight to free the municipality from pesticides. A commitment that has recorded a first important victory: the complete acquittal by the Court of Auditors in April 2019.

The implementing regulation on the use of plant protection products in the municipality of Mals, approved in March 2016, is a model for those responsible administrations that intend to enter a transitional phase to protect the environment and the health of their citizens.

Through the Regulation, the Municipality undertakes “to take all useful measures and actions according to the precautionary principle in order to avoid dangers to human, animal and plant health and to ensure the highest level of protection for the environment”.

The Regulation aims to “protect the health of residents and guests as “fundamental right of the individual and interest of the community” (Art. 32 Constitution of the Italian Republic) and to ensure “a high level of environmental protection and improvement of its quality in accordance with the principle of sustainable development” (Art. 37 Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU) through the regulation of the use of plant protection products in the municipality.

The Venosta Valley is an area of intense apple production with a high use of different pesticides. Life in the valley is no longer what it used to be. Areas famous for their clean air and pure water are now ruined and unhealthy by the daily spraying of chemicals. Air, water and biodiversity have all been affected because of this intensive production system.


The battle of Mals continues

On 1st October 2017, at Bhoomi, the Earth Festival in New Delhi, communities from the Himalaya who have been practicing chemical free organic farming partnered with pesticide free communities in the Alps and launched the creation of a Global Network of Poison Free Organic communities and Zones. Joining them in the launch of the Poison Free Network, were also the Chief Minister of Sikkim who, over a period of 25 years succeeded in making Sikkim the first 100% organic state in the world, and Mayor Ulrich Veith of Mals.

In April 2019 Dr. Vandana Shiva, during her visit to Mals in April 2019, and Mayor Ulrich Veith renewed their shared commitment for an immediate transition to agro-ecological production models that respect biodiversity and counter climate change.


Picture Credits: Manlio Masucci

This article was originally published in Terra Nuova magazine.

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