The protection of villages and rural areas is an integral part of the battle to defend gastronomic cultural heritage

Carlo Petrini at Terra Madre Salone del Gusto: “We want to see the first thousand Slow Villages in China by 2025”

“You need a village, if only for the pleasure of leaving it,” wrote Cesare Pavese in La luna e i falò. Because, he continued, “a village means that you are not alone, knowing that in the people, the trees, the earth, there is something that belongs to you, waiting for you when you are not there.”

Rural depopulation was talked about during the inauguration ceremony of Terra Madre Salone del Gusto, held September 20-24, 2018 in Turin, and the theme was returned to two days later at one of the event’s conferences (“Villages Standing Strong Against Depopulation”). Here the focus was on how to prevent the depopulation of rural villages, how to protect agricultural identities and how in parallel with growing urbanization we are also seeing a rediscovery of other ways of life, at both a tourism level and as a professional choice.

During his speech at the opening of the 12th edition of the event, Carlo Petrini had affirmed that the protection of villages and rural areas was an integral part of the battle to defend gastronomic cultural heritage. Now he repeated the message, even more forcefully. “This is the new frontier on which the Slow Food movement needs to intervene at a world level,” said the Slow Food founder.

“If they tell you that it’s a nostalgic, archeological battle, don’t listen to them: This is the real modernity. Villages are bulwarks of a daily life that can generate not only an economy but a different philosophy of living,” continued Petrini, making the point that the phenomenon of losing small villages and farms is a global one. In Italy in particular, the depopulation of historic villages is the result of a gradual impoverishment of social relations. “When the churches no longer have a priest, when the little shops and restaurants close down, then we lose elements of social cohesion. Then villages become at most dormitories for people who work in the cities during the day.”

But, Petrini claimed, it is possible to think about new meeting places, as he returned to an idea that he had already put forward in his inaugural speech. “It’s a question of helping young people to set up multifunctional spaces even in the most isolated places, which can serve as groceries, drugstores, internet cafés, tourist information centers and meeting points for local residents.”

Even in the era of virtual networks, he said, we need to preserve the physical locations of social relationships and empathy, benefitting both quality of life and the tourism industry, because, he said, “tourism only works in places where happy people live.”


From the “world of the defeated” to a return to the mountains

According to Italy’s national statistical institute, ISTAT, 5,543 of the country’s municipalities have less than 5,000 inhabitants, accounting for a total of around 10 million people. Despite the risk of depopulation still affecting 23% of Italy, in recent years there seem to have been signs of changing trends.

“We’re seeing a shift from the ‘world of the defeated’ described by [Piedmontese writer] Nuto Revelli to a new culture of mountain dwellers by choice,” confirmed Maurizio Dematteis of the Dislivelli association. He sketched out the profile of this new kind of mountain resident; relatively young, they’ve often chosen to return to their hometown after studying or working in the city or abroad.

The numbers are still not huge, but the signs are there of a cultural shift worthy of note: “In the mountains the phenomenon is visible,” continued Dematteis. “Dislivelli has carried out a study across the Italian Alps that shows a reversal of the depopulation trends. Alpine villages saw an increase of around 212,000 residents between 2001 and 2001, across 1,742 municipalities with a total of 4.3 million inhabitants.”

2017, named the “Year of the Italian Villages” by the Italian Cultural Heritage Ministry, concluded with the announcement of a long-awaited law to save villages. This is a first step towards the launch of a structural policy against depopulation, an essential precondition to improving the tourism supply in Italy’s interior.

According to UNWTO, the United Nations World Tourism Organization, the rapid growth of global tourism is set to continue in the near future, with the 1.3 billion travellers recorded last year to be joined by a further 500 million tourists a year by 2030. “If it’s true then Italy is very lucky, because the entire Apennine axis has until now remained off the international routes. This is the element of discovery that we can put forward,” pointed out Francesco Tapinassi, responsible for tourism policies at the Tourism Directorate-General of the Cultural Heritage Ministry. There the risk, however, of believing that the “monoculture of tourism” is the only solution to the abandonment of local economies. “Often one thinks of saving a village by turning every business into a restaurant, pizzeria or souvenir shop,” said Tapinassi. “But studies show this doesn’t work. On the contrary, one ends up destroying that sense of place that is the added value of experiential tourism.”

International experiences: China’s “Slow Villages” and the Carinthia model

One of the most impressive projects fighting against the depopulation of the countryside comes from a country that in recent decades has seen an enormous trend towards urbanization: China.

The local Slow Food movement here has launched the Slow Villages network, and by 2025 hopes to have created the first thousand, overseen by Professor Wen Tie-Jun. Known for founding the Rural Reconstruction Movement, Tie-Jun has inspired a rural regeneration strategy that is affecting a growing number of Chinese people.

In 2015, 2.4 million young graduates joined deurbanization programs, which are also involving returning emigrants, retirees and urban farmers. The Chinese government is promoting these policies with great conviction, with over 2 trillion dollars invested in agriculture since 2005.

According to Tie-Jun, this is a sign of a more general change in perspective: “China’s strategy for the 21st century is focusing on moving from industrialization to ‘ecocivilization.’ These days over 50% of the state budget is set aside for the countryside, where 700 million people live in 3 million smaller centers, and per-capita investment is much higher compared to the urban population.”

Closer to Italy, a successful model for promoting rural economies is being demonstrated in the Austrian region of Carinthia, which welcomes around 3 million tourists a year, with 30 million overnight stays.

Two years ago, under the supervision of the Carinthia tourism board director, Christian Kresse, a collaboration with Slow Food led to the launch of the pilot project “Slow Food Travel Alpe Adria” in the Gail and Lesach valleys, which have been recognized as a Slow Food Travel Destination.

A new project will be starting next week, with the aim of uniting the producers in Carinthia’s “Slow Food Villages” and involving the local population everywhere from kindergartens to care homes.

Slow Food Italy will also be continuing with its project for a General Assembly of Apennine Communities. Speaking for the new Slow Food Italy Executive Committee, Silvia de Paulis confirmed the desire to relaunch the idea: “The Apenines provide fresh air, water and fertile soil for the cities and the coast, and it’s time the cities started to look after them. Greater care for our mountains also means more appreciation for our villages, which are our most beautiful Italy.”


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