Sitting as it does at the intersection of three countries – Italy, Austria and Switzerland – it’s not surprising that the municipality of Mals has often been caught in the middle of one war or another, and the conflict chronicled by Philip Ackerman-Leist is very much a story for our times: the battle between local organic farmers specialising in biodiversity, and industrial agricultural interests (brilliantly referred to as ‘Big Apple’).
The production-line methods used by the latter in its inexorable advance into the region rely heavily on the use of pesticides, with inevitable effects on the farmers whose only defence against pesticide drift, and its threat to organic certification, was the punishingly expensive expedient of erecting greenhouses made of plastic and breathable fabrics. But the farmers of Mals, Ackerman-Leist writes, while ‘ordinary citizens, not practised in politics or particularly polished in activism’, are nonetheless Querdenkers – ‘diagonal thinkers’. In the David and Goliath battle which ensued, tactics varied. Goliath tended towards brute force: the town’s campaigning pharmacist suffered death threats, vandalism and litigious harassment.
The smallholders meanwhile, in defence of what they saw as their collective birthright, took a political approach, and when an overture to the regional governor resulted in a compromise that favoured the industrial concerns, ‘savvy local officials’ quietly made a change to the town’s municipal code allowing for direct democracy: the results of referendums would henceforth be binding. Not necessarily a foolproof strategy, as we’re all aware, but in the context of small-town activism and the campaign for a pesticide-free future, a useful tool.
Ackerman-Leist’s tale of a town ‘like any other… except that it had chosen to be different’ can be taken as a clarion call for action or simply as an account of one skirmish in an ongoing struggle. Either way, it’s an inspiring read.
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