“Rural Areas in Upheaval”

Renovabis – “Active solidarity of the German Roman Catholics with the people of Central and Eastern Europe” – will hold its annual conference on 1-3 September 2011. This year’s conference is devoted to the erosion of the quality of life in the Eastern European countryside. Theme: “Rural Areas in Upheaval”. Can the Churches in Eastern Europe somehow contribute to a solution?
In the Western world, life in the countryside has changed profoundly over the last hundred years, sometimes with unwanted consequences. In Eastern Europe things are far worse. As a matter of fact, what city dwellers may call picturesque, traditional or untouched by modernity and secularisation often hides a life of serious deprivation. The local population is ageing and, with a life expectancy of about 70, many actually suffer from bad health brought about by poor eating habits, drinking, smoking, bad healthcare and so forth. There are almost no private farmers, and production is for personal use or the local market. It is impossible to make a living out of farming. To put it bluntly, if anything is expanding rapidly, it must be the village graveyard. The idyll is an ambiguous one – as is modern city life.

For sure, the countryside is no refuge or safe haven that keeps the evils of today at bay. Sometimes, it seems, the rural dimension just adds to the problems at hand: social control forcing villagers into conventional behaviour, mass unemployment, the absence of any significant pastime, and rampant materialism. Young people are leaving the countryside en masse. They move to the cities or travel abroad only to return as a tourist to their native countries. Millions and millions have left Eastern Europe over the last twenty or so years.
And looking at the economy of the countryside, there is only one possible conclusions. The peasant’s life - which can be identified as a focal activity (Albert Borgmann) - is now part of a highly industrialised, high tech, global phenomenon called agribusiness.
Globalisation has had and will have serious and enduring consequences, for Eastern Europe as well. Agro companies are leasing thousands of hectares for future use or to prevent rivals from using them, e.g. in Ukraine. Local producers in Romania, who are lacking storage facilities, have to sell their grain far below the market price, that is, before it starts to rot. The so-called “market discipline” makes the agribusiness profitable to food brokers. With an economic crisis at hand, consultants advise their clients to speculate on the food market.
How can the Churches in Eastern Europe address the specific issues of life in the countryside? The next Renovabis conference, 1-3 September 2011, will try to come up with creative solutions. (FH)