When Big Apple Comes to Town

How a small community in the Italian Alps put out a clarion call for a pesticide-free future

For hundreds of years, the people of Mals — a tiny village in the South Tyrol province of northern Italy — had cherished their traditional foodways and kept their local agriculture organic. Yet the town is located high up in the Alps, and the conventional apple producers, heavily dependent on pesticides, were steadily overtaking the valley below. Aided by climate change, Big Apple crept further up the region’s increasingly warmer valleys and mountainsides, its toxic sprays drifting with the valley’s ever-present winds and falling on the farms and fields of Mals — endangering the town’s health, biodiversity, organic certifications, and thriving tourism economy. The advancing threats gradually motivated a diverse cast of characters to take action in a display of direct democracy that has inspired a movement now coursing its way through Europe, the United States, and beyond.

photo of applesPhoto by Rob MacEwen In Mals, Italy a group of citizen-turned-activists took on Big Apple to preserve their town’s traditional foodways and keep their agriculture pesticide-free.

Soon a group of citizens-turned-activists was born and they named themselves Hollawint, an exclamation of warning in Tirolean dialect. Composed predominantly but not exclusively of women, Hollawint nonetheless became the face of the women of Mals. For Beatrice Raas, owner of the local hair salon, women offered something different from the movement for a pesticide-free Mals: “I believe when one is a mother, then she simply has a completely different feel for what life is, and she is then really responsible for one’s own children. She simply wants to guarantee a great, healthy future for her kids and from that simply arises a motherly sensibility.”

June was a reminder that time was of the essence. With every passing summer, more apple orchards were creeping into Mals. The infrastructure for sprinkler systems was almost in place, with supporters promising that it would bring possibilities for farmers to plant crops that would earn them significantly more money than hay, grains, and vegetables.

The rapid advance lured Margit Gasser to the newly formed group. A kindergarten teacher, she had married Peter Gasser, the town veterinarian, and moved to Mals where they began to raise a family. Her hometown of Schlanders, a little farther down in the valley, had already been taken over by orchards. “Twenty years ago when I came to Mals I could never have imagined that this monoculture would arrive here, too.”

The childhood she recalls before Big Apple came to her town is as idyllic as a scene from the film Heidi. “When I was three or four years old, I could run around between the meadows and orchards, where I could smell flowers that came up to my nose…. I have these memories inside me still.” Those meadows eventually vanished. “And then I realized how we lost them, step by step…. It happened so subtly — only grass, no more flowers. They were just mowed down, with the views everywhere suddenly blocked by cement posts.”

As more and more joined Hollawint, Martina Hellrigl, mother of two and leader of the activist group, had already hammered out a long list of projects to catch the attention of the media, the public, and the politicians. No media maven but one determined soul, she had gone from being kein Facebookerin, no Facebooker, to a reasonably competent user who knew whom to call when she needed backup. Social media, it turned out, was a critical way to engage the younger generation and get word out beyond the bounds of the group’s immediate circles. It was also useful when word needed to travel fast.

Photo of A Precautionary Tale Cover

Within a few short weeks Hollawint had a logo, a website, and a standing biweekly meeting open to the public. By the end of June they had more than fifty members, and a following. It was time to send a message that couldn’t be ignored. They decided to recruit women and their families to turn bedsheets into banners. And once they had, they would transform the villages of Mals into a political statement, hanging the banners from balconies, windows, and cultural icons — all under cover of darkness, and all in a single night.

As the group discussed what message they wanted to send, Pia Oswald, a gardener and homesteading guru in the South Tirol, weighed in with a piece of wisdom that would become the guiding star for the rest of the campaign. Martina explained: “From the beginning, Pia saw our work as somewhat spiritual and positive.” When it came time to work on the banners, she said, Pia made sure that positivity was reflected. Yes was everywhere. Against, anti, and no were nowhere to be found. The guiding rule was simple: Focus on what you want, not what you oppose.

What could have been a campaign against pesticides became a clarion call for a pesticide-free future.

It always pays to have a journalist in one’s ranks, too, and Hollawint had recruited the expertise of Katharina Hohenstein, a freelance writer and editor with a penchant for pithiness. With Pia’s counsel in mind, Katharina brainstormed various slogans and sent ideas to Martina via email. Suddenly the Malsers weren’t calling for anything outrageous — they were simply asking for what any mother, father, or citizen might want. Vielfalt und Gesundheit für uns alle! Diversity and health for us all! Für eine gesunde und vielfältige Landwirtschaft! For a healthy and diverse agriculture! Gesundheit und Vielfalt für unsere Kinder, Tiere und Pflanzen! Health and diversity for our children, animals, and plants! Pestizidfreie Gemeinde! Landschaft nützen und schützen! Pesticide-free town! Use and protect the landscape! Frei von Pestiziden — für uns und unsere Gäste. Free from pesticides — for us and our guests.

Hollawint members rallied and set to work collecting bedsheets and turning them into banners over the next few weeks. They also encouraged other women to come pick up materials for their families to make their own. While everyone added their own flair to the banners and even some wooden signs, the goal was to be consistent in appearance and messaging, making it clear that there was unity across the township’s villages. People traded stencils and art supplies, slowly and quietly building an arsenal of positive messages and allies willing to hang the banners and signs in prominent locations.

Martina was shocked at the enthusiastic response by women across town. When the banners were done, she said, “They were ripped out of our hands!” Even women who hadn’t yet joined the cause got involved. Pia went to visit the Bäuerinnen, the women farmers, in the small villages of Ulten and Plawenn near her home, and they surprised her with their willingness to hang banners on and around their farmhouses.

Despite the flurry of activity, the denouement was all under the radar. The night finally came when, after town lights had flickered off, the banners were unfurled. Many people didn’t even realize that their neighbors were also hanging banners until the next day. It turned out to be a case of stealth solidarity.

Mother Nature was given the honors of the unveiling, and on the morning of July 31, 2013, the first rays of light began to creep over the mountains as if they were inhaling the lingering shadows of the night. Down in the valley among Mals’s scattered villages, farmers pulling wheeled milk cans clanked their way toward the pickup points along the medieval labyrinth of village thoroughfares. In fact, it was probably the milk truck drivers who first realized the scope of the overnight mission as they wound their way from village to village, sucking milk from each farmer’s containers and passing on news from one farmer to another of the overnight blossoming of banners and wooden signs. Undoubtedly a lot of heads were shaking around those milk cans, but there were certainly some wry smiles among that independent lot of farmers, some of whom had come in from the fields and barns to find their wives stenciling old linens for a campaign that had yet to unfold. In the end no one had more to lose than the dairy farmers. With an average of 124 acres (50 ha) around them transitioning to apples every year, almost everyone was likely to have some new neighbors soon.

By the time the sun crested the highest peaks, Mals was fully “woke.” Word of the banners had spread from village to village, and townspeople were already making the rounds with their cameras and cell phones, taking photos and gathering in their usual cafés to exchange impressions. No matter what one thought about the messaging — and not everyone was happy to have the town’s laundry aired in such a dramatic fashion — everyone marveled at the stealth and surprise of it all.

Banners hung from hotel balconies, farmers’ fences, shop windows, village entrances, and in front of one of the more prominent World War II–era bunkers — anywhere that would attract attention or add an element of irony.

Hollawint.com was stamped, stenciled, or painted on almost every banner, leading viewers to the new website to discover that women and mothers were on the move. Hollawint’s Facebook page touted a colorful statement of intent: “Everyone is talking about it. It’s best if we talk TOGETHER about it: our quality of life, our habitat, our children, our local products, our health, our future, and the diversity of our landscape.”

In the spirit of Pope Francis and his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, even Abbot Markus at Marienberg agreed to having a banner hung prominently in front of the abbey, just outside its new pesticide-free vineyards.

It was a fitting precursor to yet another campaign in the works, one that would wake up people the world over. The idea of countering an insurgency through direct democracy was gaining ground. The women of Hollawint had written their wishes across the landscape. The next step was to find a way to post them on a ballot.

In September 2014, after several years of strategic advocacy and consensus building, the citizens of Mals accomplished their goal and became the first place in the world to ban all synthetic pesticides by a referendum vote, setting an international precedent and a model for other cities and towns to follow. In light of the EU’s recent approval to renew the license for glyphosate, a controversial herbicide, for another five years, the story of Mals is more important than ever. It illuminates an effective path forward for the future of pesticide-free communities, focusing on grassroots local action, rather than waiting for change at the national level. As Vandana Shiva writes in the foreword for this book, “The movement for freedom from poisons in our food and agriculture is the most important freedom movement in our times. Read the story of Mals to get inspired. And act.”

Excerpted with permission from Philip Ackerman-Leist’s book A Precautionary Tale: How One Small Town Banned Pesticides, Preserved Its Food Heritage, and Inspired a Movement (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017) and reprinted with permission from the publisher.

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