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Terra Madre and the Future of the World

October 31, 2008

By Anastatia Curley

I’ve been in Italy for the past week, and I haven’t seen Obama or McCain speak in ages. Polls have shifted, gaffes have been made and challenges hurled, but I’ve been preoccupied with another piece of political theater. In Italy, at Slow Food International’s biennial conference, I witnessed the most interesting political moment of my life.  The players: the Italian Foreign Minister, Carlo Petrini, and 7,000 food activists.  The scene: the closing ceremonies of Terra Madre.  The stakes: the world food system.

At the closing ceremony, the Italian Foreign Minister spoke about the G8 and the slow food movement (he spoke on a pre-recorded broadcast, but he spoke.)  The broadcast was too long, and the translation not so great, and I was in a haze of four days of intensive eating and serious conversation, so it took me a moment or two to realize what was going on: he was saying that the global food system was in a crisis, that this needed to be addressed at the next G8 summit, and that delegates from Terra Madre should be present at G8 and make a case for the kind of food system they believe in. Italy holds the presidency of the G8 this year, and his offer seemed genuine, for whatever it might be worth.

Suddenly about half of the people in the (thousands strong) audience stood up and literally turned their backs on the offer. This sounds like it ought to have happened in silence, but it was accompanied by a chorus of boos that drowned out all the translations, so that it was impossible to even tell what was being protested.  Once the minister’s overlong speech finally came to an end, the boos crescendoed.

Then Carlo Petrini, founder and president of Slow Food International, came to the stage.

Petrini’s relationship with the members of Slow Food is something like that of a preacher’s with his flock. He’s the leader of the global movement; unlike any politician (even one you trust), he’s unequivocally on their side, as far as they are concerned.  He projects an air of wisdom, a little bit of remove, but he’s the kind of person that people call “Carlo” and not “Petrini.”  He walked up to the stage, took a long quiet look at his audience, and said, “Our fathers were peasants.  Our fathers were patient; they knew how to listen.  The time has come that we should not be patient any more, but we must remember that wisdom of our fathers: we must listen.  Our minister has made the mistake that many politicians make: he talked too much and too long.  But you must listen.  When you go to the people of power, you do not go bowed down, with your hat in your hand.  You go and you look them in the eyes and you tell them your story, but first you must listen.” In this vein, with jokes that soothed his audience and rebukes that subdued them, he went on to make the case for being present at the table of power.

By the time he was done, all the people who had turned their backs were giving him a standing ovation.

Carlo’s finesse with a crowd is impeccable, and I don’t doubt that he genuinely loves his flock. The question is, was this the right advice?  What’s the next step for Slow Food?  The slow food movement has been fighting an uphill battle for years now, working in the dark, crying in the desert, and suddenly powerful people are paying attention.  This seems like the moment when movements flounder, because it’s the moment when they’re given a certain amount of power-if G8 is listening, there’s a chance to really get things done-but it’s also the moment when they have to start compromising.  Purity is for separatists.

So what’s next?  Where will Carlo lead, and will his flock follow?  Right now, there are 7,000 very impassioned (if conflicted) people making their way home to their communities.  But change is in the air, and both farmers and policy-makers are going to need to have a role in making it happen.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 31, 2008 4:18 pm

    I am so happy to hear the ministers offer and Carlo’s response to the audience. I was a TM delegate two years ago and I know how powerful that space is, an almost unbelievable gathering of food producers from every corner of the planet, producers that are so committed to doing it right. They are right to be upset with the G8, and to express it, but Carlo is also right and their timing is poor. To communicate you must first connect and there is no connection without listening. Without communication there is no understanding of the other side, this goes both ways no matter who is right or wrong. This is an incredible opportunity, an invitation from the highest levels to explain ourselves and why our way is better. We will not succeed in making our case if we cannot connect and we will not connect if we cannot listen. This does not mean that “purity is for separatists,” but there is nothing pure about ignoring others, or rejecting them outright. We are all here, we will all be here before and after change, we all need to be acknowledged no matter which side we are on.

  2. Rob permalink
    November 1, 2008 4:42 am

    Great news, in a way, but given that the Foreign Minister spoke on a pre-recorded broadcast one has to wish for a dialog more than a speech. The crowd my be right to doubt the sincerity of the offer, given the history of G-8 summits to accomplish anything memorable in recent history. Now, if the Minister actually meets with SF key players to formulate some proposals and introduce them himself, then we get a stake at the table. I just hope it does not end up as a group of petitioners getting their 5-minute audience before the world leaders who listen but don’t carry anything forward.

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