Grapes, Not Golf

Posted January 1, 2004

Categories: Europe, Food

Grapes, not Golf

 

Boris Fras is the Jose Bove of Slovenia. He hasn’t attacked any

McDonalds with sledgehammers. Nor has he made it into the headlines

for destroying genetically modified crops. But in his vineyards and

among his olive trees along the Adriatic Coast, Boris Fras is waging

the same battle as his farming comrade-in-arms in France.

 

Fras once lived in Yugoslavia but now he is officially a European. On May 1, Slovenia became the first ex-Yugoslav state to enter the European Union (EU). It is a small country of only 2 million people with a reputation for tolerance — though the government’s disenfranchisement of 18,000 non-Slovene residents in the 1990s and the lack of public outrage when this problem of the “erased” surfaced in

2002 suggest that the country’s relative ethnic homogeneity goes hand in hand with deep-seated intolerance.

 

Nevertheless, Slovenia weathered the Balkan wars of the 1990s with relatively little damage and is now widely considered the best-prepared of the ten latest additions to the EU. When it comes to agriculture, though, the country doesn’t have much in the way of exports — some wine, some chicken. It sees its niche as a garden of Europe, a place where Germans and English can hike in the countryside, admire the splendid mountains and caves, and even pass a few nights on an organic farm.

 

As an organic farmer, Boris Fras is integral to this plan. He doesn’t live in a farmhouse, just an ordinary suburban ranch not far from Slovenia’s port city of Koper, and he drives his truck to his plots to tend the vines and trees. He doesn’t have much land and it is divided into several plots. But the land he farms is idyllic.

 

One plot of grape vines stretches down to the sparkling waters of the Adriatic. Red poppies interspersed among young olive trees brighten another stretch of land. Everything Fras grows and produces is organic, including his wine and his olive oil. He sells locally and also at the organic market in Slovenia=92s capital city of Ljubljana. He was not born to this work, but came to it gradually. “I started farming against the advice of all the people who said I was crazy,” he says.

 

Fras is also the head of the Union of Slovenian Organic Farmers Associations (USOFA). Slovenia, he says, doesn’t have a choice but to go organic. Its geography

makes corporate-style agriculture  unprofitable. With their small holdings, Slovenian farmers struggle to make their conventional produce competitive against cheaper imports.

 

Last year, USOFA teamed up with its counterparts in Austria and Italy and persuaded the governments of Slovenia, the Austrian province of Carinthia, and the northeastern Italian province of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia to create the world’s first organic bioregion — the Alpe-Adria.

The area will not only be free of all genetically modified organisms, but committed as well to encouraging the spread of organic farming. The number of organic farms in Slovenia stood at 41 in 1998 and grew to over a thousand four years later. While this still accounts for only a little over 3 percent of agricultural land, organic farming

advocates hope to push this much higher in coming years.

 

It sounds like a grand plan. But there are no quick profits in organic farming. Organic farmers need subsidies from both Slovenia and now the EU.  Some of these subsidies fall under the “agri-environmental” heading that rewards farmers for such initiatives as reducing the density of herds or enriching the soil through cover crops.

 

Still, organic farming does not exactly resonate with go-go capitalism. Land is extremely expensive here, more expensive than in the center of the capital, Fras explains. Other interests are eying the property.

 

Istrabenz, based in the port city of Koper, is Slovenia’s largest energy company. It has teamed up with the Austrian company OMV to operate filling stations across the region (over 100 in Slovenia, 70 in Italy). Istrabenz also has invested in banking operations, Bosnian hydroelectric plants, and grand tourism projects on Croatia’s

Dalmatian coast.

 

And Istrabenz wants to turn some of the prime real estate along Slovenia’s tiny Adriatic coast into golf courses. In areas where vineyards grow and where there were once salt panning operations stretching back to Roman times, Istrabenz wants to build tourist facilities.

 

The golf courses, designed to attract a higher class of clientele, will consume precious water that farmers need. Local politicians see development, and so do powerful political interests in the capital, like the informal clique of politicians and businessmen in Forum 21 led by former president Milan Kucan.

 

“The local politicians expect a return to the Golden Age of tourism of the 1970s and 1980s,” Fras said, when rich tourists came and sprinkled their foreign currency like fairy dust. He is assembling a team to defeat the golf courses — an architect-activist, someone who can work the legislative angle, a former insider in the golf industry. “We have to activate people in the capital. It’s where the decisions are made,”

Fras strategizes.

 

The Slovenian government, despite its commitment on paper to bold

projects such as the Alpe-Adria bioregion, often does not put farmers

or the environment first. In 2004, it overcame civic resistance to site a wind power plant on the Volovja Reber ridge, an environmentally protected area. One could argue that in this case, at least, Slovenes confronted two different versions of sustainable development.

 

The golf course plan, however, is the antithesis of environment-friendly policies —

like the bioregion — and activist-farmers like Boris Fras rightly see it as a structural not merely an ad hoc threat. His anti-golf course activism has already resulted in what he calls “harassment” from the authorities. The inspectors descended recently on his wine-bottling operation and identified a series of changes that he will have to make, at considerable expense.

 

Boris Fras is waging a fundamental battle over the heart of Europe. Will multinational operations gobble up the land for dubious development or will organic farmers, environmentalists, and sensible government officials work together on plans for sustainable development? Boris Fras, Jose Bove, and thousands of farmers across the new Europe are holding their ground.

ZNet, July 27, 2004

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