Migrants can help revive European agriculture, says Michele NORI, Research Fellow at the European University Institute. In a wide-ranging interview, Nori explains how youthful Africans and North Africans are already reviving rapidly aging areas of Europe and providing essential labor to till the fields.
1. How are migration and agriculture interlinked within the Mediterranean basin?
The Mediterranean region is perfectly suitable to assess impact and dynamics of rural migration.
The Southern shore suffers from water scarcity and difficult access to resources. Agricultural land accounts for only about 10 percent of the whole territory. Political instability and economic weakness produce a grim picture.
In many Arab countries, rural work is still regarded as the fate of those who have been unable to find a professional alternative. Those who would not have worked in the fields of their own country sometimes accept to do it abroad, far from the judgment of their community of birth.
The countryside has been progressively abandoned in Northern Mediterranean areas, but for opposite reasons. In Europe, demographic crisis and inadequate generational replacement have led to a reduction of 25 percent less employees in agriculture during the past 10 years.
In countries such as Italy, there’s no shortage of water, infrastructure or political stability. The problem is the lack of people. This situation creates a significant imbalance between potentially fertile lands and available workforce.
2. So migrants represent a vital resource for Italian agriculture?
Migrants have largely replaced Italians in agricultural work and constitute a remedy against rural exodus. They’ve been a mostly illegal but extremely flexible source of workforce for years, which has allowed several agricultural enterprises to survive the crisis and then a highly competitive market.
The presence of migrants has literally revived rural communities on the brink of disappearing.
First, there are those brutally exploited. This phenomenon characterizes at the same time Italy’s richest and most backward areas. It is known by the term “caporalato”, a word that reflects how structured and widespread it has become.
Second, we can refer to more organized form of works, where migrants find themselves interacting with tradesman and residents of the local social fabric, although still as external bodies from the society.
Third, there are migrants perfectly integrated who provide such an important contribution to local economy to let survive entire rural communities on the brink of collapse.
3. Are migrants in Italy divided by nationality?
Skills and knowledge are the basic factors which determine migrants’ distribution over a territory. If you do not know anything about working the land, you cannot hope to find an employment on a farm.
A sort of informal hierarchy has emerged. In Italy we have second-class citizens, such as Romanians and Bulgarians. Although they come from EU countries and provide a decisive contribution to the country’s agriculture, they are often object of widespread prejudice. Third-class citizens, or people coming from outside the European Union. These include Moroccans and Albanians. Africans end at the bottom of the ranking: people coming from Ghana and Eritrea can hardly find a well-paid job.
4. Is this a new phenoma?
No. Farming has survived in Maremma and Central Italy thanks to Sardinians from the Gennargentu massif, who came to the continent looking for a better life. They took lands abandoned by locals and integrated.
The same applied to Italian in Southern France during the 19th-century. They settled as shepherds and then climbed the social ladder after becoming the owner of their own flocks.
A system of ethnic turnover has emerged. Italians move to France to pick olives, Tunisians come to Italy, Nigeriens work in Tunisia.
Today, however, this system no longer works because of bureaucratic hurdles and excessive control measures. This prevents the integration of vital human resources in our economy.
5. What’s your take on EU agricultural policies?
The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is a pillar that provides revenue rather than income. But the worst thing is that it fosters a system of exploitation where landowners hold the power and workers can be oppressed with no respect of their dignity.
Ironically, CAP pays attention to animal welfare and environmental sustainability but does nothing for workers’ rights. If you exploit 200 people whilst protecting the wolves, you get a subsidy. The other way round, and you lose it.
Now that the entire CAP is undergoing a reform process, some kind of punishment and reward mechanism should be introduced. Today, agriculture is controlled by lobbies which trade few products. This pushes producers to cut salaries trying to get reduced costs and lower prices. It is a short-sighted vision.
6. Going back to the Italian case, is agriculture a port of entry into society for migrants?
In agriculture, one worker out of three is not Italian. This sector has been able to survive to the crisis also thanks to the migrants’ contribution.
Agriculture is just the first step for people willing to integrate and often remains the only one. Migrants stay on the threshold of society for years waiting to enter it.
Since career opportunities and a viable future are hard to find, vertical mobility is a rare commodity. It is difficult for a migrant’s son to receive a higher education. He risks spending 25 years picking tomatoes.
7. Could you end with a positive story?
An instance of good practice can be found in the Casentino valley, in the north-east of Tuscany. Forestry was born there thanks to the work of some monks in the 15th-century. Nowadays, most forestry workers are Romanian and Macedonian. They keep a tradition alive. It is the opposite of the opinion of those who accuse foreigners of destroying our culture.
In the same way, Romanians produce cheese in Abruzzo adopting methods from their native Bacau county. This represents fruitful hybridization.
I met Mario in Veneto where he succeeded in establishing an agricultural enterprise together with a friend from Romania. In this way, the Romanian migrants are become true Italian entrepreneurs.