Farming, fences and 'eco-tourism'
Updated: Mar 3
More and more local people are reasserting their property rights, reclaiming abandoned family farmland after decades of dictatorship and disruption. But not everyone is happy about it.
On March 25, 2020, Paolo Bassetti, a property developer from Italy and the owner of at least a dozen farmhouses in the village, arrived in Copşa Mare from Bucharest to sit out the Covid-19 lockdown in one of his numerous properties. For the first month, he kept to his many back gardens and his sit-on 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 property developer likes to provoke. He has no need to trespass on his neighbours' land. He owns some 30 hectares of his own in Copşa Mare, none of which he farms, and 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 Italian opined, adopting the pluralis majestatis: "We don't have fences in Transylvania. What would your Prince Charles (sic) 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."
What foreign investors in the so-called eco-tourism business might 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 close to the village are still mostly unfenced. However, in the last year or so, several local families have started fencing in small pieces of land. For example, 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 farmland, and reasserting property rights after decades of neglect caused by confiscation under a communist dictatorship.
The fences are new, there to keep livestock in, brown bears out, and crops, including grass, safe. In the recent past, the village's cattle, buffalo and horses were taken out each day by the village herder, but he retired last year and apart from the shepherds, there are no herders to be found. Trespassing shepherds, often employed by powerful local businessmen seeking EU 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.
For some investors in 'eco-tourism', these fences are a nuisance. One such investor went so far as to call fences "a sign of fear and petty greed". Before developing his Transylvanian guesthouse business - with EU funding, naturally - in a tourist Mecca made famous by Prince Charles, this investor worked for many years in a senior management position for the Bucharest branch of one of the world's largest commercial real estate agents. His opinion on fences is ignorant, hypocritical and insulting to local farmers. Let him tell these farmers to their faces that they have erected fences out of fear and greed!
The fences around Copşa Mare are an encouraging sign. They show that long abandoned land is being exploited once again, on a small scale, by local farming families, not outside investors such as the gigantic Karpaten Meat Group in nearby Hârtibaciu Valley. There is a substantive difference between the two.
It is these fences, erected by local people to protect local produce and livestock, that will ensure that villages like this one prosper when the tourists go home - or if they stop coming because of a pandemic of the kind we are going through today. Responsible visitors are very welcome, of course, but the commercial tour operator which organises their visit and the owners of guesthouses that accommodate them should respect the private property of farmers.
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.
Genuine eco-tourism in rural Transylvania supplements local income from the agricultural sector: it does not replace it. No one 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 or two.
** Paolo Bassetti acquired a part of this farmland directly from the state - it had been confiscated under Communism and collectivised - and a part came with houses he bought from private owners. These houses are now for sale again, but the farmland that once went with them is not, according to information on his website. The property developer drives a green Landrover, but he does not farm. Who knows what will become of all this fertile land now owned by someone who prefers to ride a lawnmower?
One thing is clear: The practice of stripping farmhouses of their agricultural land threatens the future of small-scale peasant farming in the village. This would be a great loss indeed. The wood pastures and hay meadows above Copşa Mare are part of a landscape that has been farmed, slowly and without chemicals, for 800 years. It is the farmers and their husbandry that preserve the exceptionally rich flora and fauna in this part of Transylvania. Farmhouses without farmland are good for second homeowners and weekenders, the kind of buyers Paolo Bassetti is seeking, but they are useless for people who wish to produce food, both for their animals and for themselves.