Fences, and why they matter
Updated: May 20
More and more local people are reasserting their property rights, reclaiming abandoned family land after decades of communist dictatorship and disruption. But not everyone is happy about it.
On March 25, 2020, a property developer from northern Italy with a guesthouse business in the village, arrived in Copşa Mare from Bucharest to sit out the Covid-19 lockdown in one of his many houses here. For the first month, he kept to his backgardens and his lawn mower. But on the evening of April 27, while bringing down our horses for the night, we encountered him walking over our land above the village, land we have cleared over the last five years and fenced in for our animals.
The Italian has no need to trespass on the land of his neighbours in Copşa Mare. He owns at least 20 hectares of farmland in the village, none of which he farms himself, so he is not short of places to walk. Asked to keep to the path, which in any case exists not for his enjoyment but for the use of local people owning land alongside it (which he does not), he refused.
Gazing across a private, three hectare hay meadow, fenced in for horses, the developer cum 'albergatore' opined: "We don't have fences in Transylvania. What would Prince Charles have to say about your precious fences? I want to walk to this way. I used to go this way with my horses and I'll do so again. I'll cross your land if I want. Your fences don't trouble me."
So much for him. What investors in the 'sustainable' tourist industry want is by no means what genuinely sustainable development in rural Transylvania might actually require. Visitors see an open landscape and wonder in delight at the freedom to move across it, on foot, mountain bike, horseback, motorbike, and even in convoys of off-road vehicles. But much of this land is privately owned and much of it is being farmed again: it is not a playground.
The hills and valleys around the village are still mostly unfenced. However, in the last year or so, several local families have begun fencing in land. Florin & Marieta Cocoş have enclosed land to protect their young fruit trees, raspberry canes and walnut saplings, the produce from which will be turned into delicious jams, syrups and cordials, which they sell in nearby Biertan. Stefi and Mihaela Schneider with their son Mihai have spent a year fencing in some 12 hectares up a beautiful valley outside the village to keep their growing herd of water buffalo. They have around 2o today. Sile Moga and his father have been fencing in land to keep their small herd of cattle. Tibi Lenghel and his uncle Nelutu Bendorfean are clearing high hay meadows of thorny scrub, and have placed signs informing people that this is private land not to be crossed. The land has been in the family for generations. We too have fenced in about five hectares of grazing for our horses on land that we rent from our neighbours and from the townhall.
The same is happening all over this part of southern Transylvania. More and more local people are farming on a small scale and selling the produce. They are reclaiming abandoned family land, and reasserting property rights after decades of neglect caused by confiscation under a communist dictatorship.
The fences are new, there to keep livestock in and crops, including grass, safe. In the recent past, the village's cattle, buffalo and horses were taken out each day by Costica, grazing land held in common by the community. But Costica retired last year and apart from the shepherds, there are no herders to be found. Trespassing shepherds, often employed by powerful local businessmen seeking subsidies, with larger and larger flocks of overgrazing sheep, are slowly being forced to graze the actual land they have rented from the community rather than free graze on the grass of their neighbours.
These fences are an encouraging sign. They show that long abandoned land is being exploited once again, on a small scale, by local people. The times when bike tour operators could settle down for lunch with tables and chairs, and a large support vehicle, in the middle of a private hay meadow in June, and pretend all is fine, are gone. There may not be a fence, but there is likely to be a sign reading Accesul interzis. Proprietate privată.
It is those signs and those fences, erected by local people to protect local produce, that will ensure that villages like this one prosper when the tourists go home. Responsible visitors are very welcome, of course, but the commercial tour operator which organises their visit and the owners of guesthouses that accomodate them should respect private property.
One very helpful effect of the sudden disappearance of tourists this year may well be to restore real meaning to the word 'sustainable', and to rescue it from the abuses of the marketeers. Sustainable tourism is small, slow, local and diverse. These qualities are what makes it robust, better able to cope with the present situation.
Sustainable tourism in rural Transylvania supplements local incomes from the agricultural sector: it does not replace it. Noone gets rich, and yet a landscape and a way of life are preserved for future generations, not a make-believe version of that landscape and way of life for the duration of a tourist season.