Comment: The ‘genocide’ of Romania’s rural poor

Yesterday I found myself watching a debate in Brussels about ‘good food’ and how the Common Agricultural Policy should be adapted to encourage the production of good food produced by smaller, traditional, family-run farms. It is something of a forlorn hope given the rigidity of the pan-EU CAP and the interests of others. On the one side the Commission talks about ‘mechanisms’ whilst the Slow Food organization and others talk ‘from the heart’.

After the speeches pronounced by the great and the good, the first speaker was a Willy Schuster (in picture, right) from Eco Ruralis, an organization that represents the smaller, ‘traditional’ farmers of Romania. Whilst the debate was about the production of good food, Mr Schuster chose to forthrightly mention the plight of the small farmers of Romania. He described their situation as it has evolved since joining the EU as a ‘genocide’.

Mr Schuster is himself a small farmer. He should therefore be well placed to observe and comment upon what is happening in rural Romania. His use of the word ‘genocide’ should not be ignored, it should be investigated.

Since the fall of communism and the collapse of organized agriculture there has been little rural employment. There are now only 60,000 employed in agriculture. Also, hearing figures mentioned such as 45 percent of Romania’s population lives in rural areas, should make it clear how many are highly dependent on their small farm for their food and livelihood. Milk from their one to five cows was their main source of cash income, as it was for the village. In Mr Schuster’s village, he says, the village herd has fallen from 400 to 40 cows since 2007. A decline that is likely as not common place.

The loss of dairy cows is evident in the national figures. The decline since 2006 has been dramatic. Sadly some of us knew this was going to happen and a few of us were even addressing the issue a decade ago. Tragically our project never got off the ground, a loss that was to have dire consequences for the rural populations. Joining the EU was always going to be tough, but it should have not been the disaster that it has been for much of rural Romania.

We knew that Romania had evolved post-1989 a farming structure that was dominated by small-scale farming. Was it an issue for Brussels and the CAP or was it was a social issue that was not solvable using mechanisms focused largely on ‘commercial’ farming? Whichever, the pre-EU-entry SAPARD program and its post-EU-entry successor both failed to come remotely close to addressing the three-million-or-so-small-farmers-in-Romania issue.

Romanian milk production was based upon 90 percent of the national herd being on small and micro-farms. Some 80 percent were in herds of two or less, another 10 percent in 3, 4 or 5 cow herds. Most travelers to rural Romania would have seen the village milk collection points that consolidated the production. These generated the village’s primary income. The system was, however, vulnerable to the implementation of EU milk hygiene regulations, controls that are considered necessary when supplying food to increasingly sanitized urban populations. It was not so much about the regulations per se, it was about the failure to prepare the milk production system for an impending, known-about situation.

Simultaneously, major changes came about in the milk and dairy products’ supply chains. With EU entry, accessibility to the Romanian market became easier for others. The rapidly ‘evolving’ food retailers could supply their stores from outside the country. We swiftly moved from products produced by smaller processors to products produced by a few major players and imports. Free-market dictates meant that costs and prices counted and that meant that the small local processors buying local milk could not compete. They could not compete in the retail market and they could not compete for the diminishing volumes of economical-to-source, locally-produced milk.

With the demise of the smaller milk buyers, the villagers had fewer sales outlets. The prices paid for milk declined as the processors considered hygiene-quality, the costs associated with village collection points and the poor winter availability of ‘village’ milk. The rural social issues around milk production were vast and they should have been of far greater concern to those in government but they were not the responsibility of commercial milk processors.

Hence, what has occurred within the villages is largely market-driven. It is also partly the result of regulation. It is also because too few recognized what was what and, hence, policy measures and mechanisms failed to address the real issues. Those concerned were just not as well informed as they should have been. Maybe they simply did not have the experience or the skills required. What is for certain is that there is now too little accountability between those who devised policies and implemented mechanisms and the consequences of their unsuccessful actions.

So one has to agree with Mr Schuster, there is massive distress in rural Romania from joining the EU. Its three million small farmers just cannot ‘measure up’ to the standards required or compete economically. Too little thought seems to have been given to the impact of joining the EU on these near-self-sufficiency farmers.

The situation for these small-scale farmers is critical, not least when one also considers the impact of this summer’s drought on household food supplies. If they have been lost, just where is the income to buy in replacement food, it will not come from milk sales anymore, their cows have gone. Those who can still leave to find work will do so. They will follow in the footsteps of the many who have left before. For the remainder, no food and no income can only lead to one eventual and tragic consequence. All-in-all, the demographic death of the rural community is inevitable.

Hence, maybe, Willy Schuster has a point with his use of the term ‘genocide’; it will be a ‘genocide’ created by failures to act to address an impending crisis long before it occurred. As to the ‘genocide’ itself, it is now being enacted by normal free-market economics and the otherwise ‘innocent’ actions of the markets.

Do we therefore now also have a new expression to conjure with, ‘economic-genocide’? It is one that those who make the big decisions should ponder. Actions have consequences and it is naïve to consider that the implementation of economic measures cannot have dire and very real consequences for some. And by that I mean premature death due to one’s inability to access food, fuel and/or medicines due to it simply becoming unaffordable.

For rural Romania, there was always the self-sufficiency ‘safety-net’ to rely upon, but this is in itself now under serious threat. In tough times, the rural smallholding enabled people to survive, but now it is in crisis. As observers, we can now but wait to see what the response to this crisis will be in these ‘austere’ times. Will there be any or will the rural Romanians just be asked to quietly disappear?

By Stuart Meikle, Guest Writer 

Stuart Meikle is an agricultural management consultant. He was a University of London academic and is an economist, a writer and a farmer. He has been involved within Romanian agriculture as an adviser, as an executive manager and as an observer for 15 years.  The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Romania

(photo source: Eco Ruralis; slogan in picture reads: Farmers can feed Romania)

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