Lessons from the Garfagnana valley













This year, I was fortunate to go on a guided walking tour of the mountains in the Garfagnana national park in North West Tuscany. I was fascinated to hear from our local guide Pierreluigi about how the development of this valley has been managed, because of its potential importance to our current debates about the Lake District and Snowdonia.

Back in the 50s and 60s the Garfagnana valley was covered in sheep. The hillsides were close-cropped grass and there was an ongoing serious concern about floods and landslides with the public authorities under constant pressure to assign more money to schemes to protect the people. The economy at the time was under pressure with the traditional shepherding life resulting in a very poor existence and many people leaving the area.

As I understand it, three things happened that were of significance. Firstly the hillsides were reforested. Douglas Fir was then the tree of choice, but these are now being replaced by broad-leafed trees. As a result the area is now green and diverse. With the forests came the animals. There are now deer all over, wild boar in abundance, golden eagles and some wolves have been reintroduced. One day in our tour we passed a herd of around twenty wild boar with their young and saw a pair of golden eagles soaring. The pictures here tell the tale.

















The second development was to recruit the farmers to help manage the water and landslide protection scheme. The farmers were inspecting the hillsides regularly anyway and cared about floods, so why not ask them to keep an eye on the flood protection measures? The farmers were paid for this task, which helped them and the public bill for flood protection was significantly reduced.

So they produced a reforested area, gave new work to farmers and the third development was that they introduced tourism with many farms registering as agriturismo, taking in tourists at the same time as running their farm, producing wine, chestnuts, olives etc. The local economy is now resilient and sustainable though it supports less numbers of people.

I wondered at our own Lake District, Snowdonia and other national parks. What would reforestation do? Could it achieve similar outcomes?


The Alliance – a new localism

tressmIt is now obvious that only one party stands any chance of being elected in June this year. Traditional party loyalties have dissolved in the face of Brexit and our opposition now lacks coherence. Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens each have their own ‘tribe’ of supporters backing a particular agenda and, bar a little inconsequential horse trading, they are incapable of meaningful collaboration.

So where is the future of British politics? I believe there may be a future in a renewed localism. This would take the form of an alliance that calls together all who are concerned to work together in practical action towards becoming a welcoming, earth-friendly city region.

In Bristol we already have thousands of committed people daring to say ‘there is an alternative’ and working as co-operatives in initiatives around food, finance, energy, housing and land. It would take just a spark for these people to become a movement that could ultimately form a new political reality. This alliance would be committed to localising those parts of the economy that, in an earth-friendly world, should be localised. It would be committed to an openness to a rich diversity of people, welcoming those who are fleeing persecution and hardship abroad and including humanity in all its vibrant complexity.

City regions are the place to do this. Many have just elected their first Metro Mayor, but the local political processes otherwise remain moribund. This movement would begin below the radar. It would not try to be part of conventional politics, but would be open to everyone to join. It could include all political parties, religious groups and social enterprises that wanted to affiliate, because it would cut across the old invisible barriers. The focus would always be practice, creating new expressions of co-operation, like community food systems, local finance and renewable energy. Political discussion would then focus on politics in practice. Things that could be achieved and which have a substantial track record would be persuasive. Idealisms would fall away. That is part of the magic of the city. It forces a certain pragmatism that can duck the dogmatism. A new spirit of co-operation would emerge as more and more people found meaningful lives working with others to achieve things that everyone could see were good and worthwhile. No longer would we be content to be ‘consumers’. We would be citizens, forming powerful communities across the city region, creating new avenues of co-operation and creating a city region we can genuinely be proud of.

I think it could happen. And now might be the moment to start.

Why rules are necessary and free trade is an attractive myth

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or how the erosion of trust is expressed in the symbolic tearing up of agreements

As the Brexit saga continues its agonising journey, it is worth reflecting on the realities of trade between countries and why rules are necessary. Free trade sounded great in the words of the Brexiteers. Suddenly we would be free of all those unnecessary rules from Brussels and be able to trade with whoever we like. What a wonderful opportunity we might have thought. Yet making such a bonfire of rules is actually part of the erosion of trust that is sweeping across the world. It comes from people who do not appreciate the more subtle realities of trade in a civilised society.

If countries trade ‘freely’ with one another, without any rules, then the field is open for one partner in the trade to undercut all the others because it is abusing people or the environment, or creating unsafe products and suchlike. So, it is always necessary to create a trading platform between nations in order to ensure a ‘level playing field’ for competitive trade.  That is what the European Union achieved for its member countries. We may not have liked all the laws it generated, but the vast majority were of real importance and the system was relatively efficient.  More than that, having lived with this trading platform for years, our industries have adjusted to its demands.  Our farmers, for example, are absolutely dependent on the schedule of subsidy payments that they have learnt to live with over the years.

The Great Repeal Bill, as it has been called, translates all those Brussels rules into our own law. This seems like a very strange thing to do if we are looking for ‘free trade’, but it is vital if we are to make any sort of transition to a different future. We cannot live without a set of rules. The Brexiteers respond by saying, ‘Aah but now we can adjust these rules ourselves. We have taken back sovereignty over these rules.’ But the truth is that whoever we want to trade with in the future will require a set of rules to be developed and the danger is that we will now become consumed with the mass of trading negotiations involved.

Yet there is opportunity in all this, if we can grasp it. Whilst we now have to develop new sets of trade rules with a whole host of countries, then we would do well to take note of some serious inadequacies in our existing systems. Take the food system, for example. James Rebanks, a shepherd from the Lake District, recently travelled through Kentucky and witnessed the tragic decline of rural areas there. His article in the New York Times pointed to the fact that we have all colluded in the process of driving down food prices such that traditional farmers can hardly make a living[1].  Another way of putting this would be to point out that we have allowed supermarkets to dominate our food system, force suppliers into a dependent position, drive food prices down and duck a whole range of social and environmental problems that the supermarkets are responsible for creating.

The great difficulty with today’s context is that the free traders will look for less rules as a rule of thumb, because they do not adequately appreciate the positive benefits of trading rules. What they might best consider is not less rules in principle, but wiser rules. Only wiser rules can create the economic conditions for genuine well-being and long term harmony with the earth.

This is the political struggle that we must now engage with.

[1] Thanks to Bristol Food Network for this reference

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