The train of change: a community rejecting glyphosate with its bare hands

23 July 2020

Something wonderful is happening in the region of Carinthia, Austria. The entire local community has decided to mobilize to reject glyphosate, and they’re doing so with their bare hands: every person who wants to participate in the initiative spends two hours manually removing weeds from a 32 kilometer stretch of railway, so as to guarantee a glyphosate-free future for themselves and the next generations.

Herwig Ertl, President of Slow Food Carinthia

The history of the community

In the beautiful Gailtal Valley of southern Austria, between East Tyrol and Carinthia, there’s a long-standing respect for traditions and quality products, which is why Slow Food decided to make it the first Slow Food Travel destination in the world. Slow Food is active in the area through the Alpe Adria Convivium and its president Herwig Ertl. With his powerful charisma, Herwig has managed to convince the whole community of the importance of working together to ensure a good, clean and fair future for all.

The railway line

The Gailtal Valley railway line was inaugurated in 1915, connecting the towns of Arnolstein and Kötschach-Mauthen via Hermagor. In 2016 the Österreichische Bundesbahnen railway company decided to close the section between Hermagor and Kötschach-Mauthen because it did not make enough profit. A small group of local people opposed this decision, pointing out that leaving this 32 kilometer stretch without a rail link would seriously affect tourism in the area. It was eventually decided that ferrocycles would still be used, i.e. pedal vehicles used for the inspection and maintenance of the lines, but it soon became clear that a ferrocycles could not replace trains, and that something had to be done to make the line operational again.

Weeding the railway line

The discovery of glyphosate

In May 2020, a local family noticed a long train with several containers on the section of the railway that had been closed, and asked what they were carrying. The answer left a bitter taste: “These containers contain glyphosate, which will be used to weed the train tracks, so that they can be used again.” Glyphosate? In the world’s first Slow Food Travel region? This was unacceptable. The local Slow Food Alpe Adria Convivium—led by Herwig—decided to go and talk to the Gail Valley Railway Association to explain their opposition to this decision and to find an alternative that did not require glyphosate. But nobody wanted to listen.

Slow Food activism

The Convivium then decided to take matters into their own hands, organizing a petition against the use of glyphosate that collected almost 4000 signatures in three days, triggering media coverage in all the local newspapers and on national news. The mobilization involved beekeepers, local farmers, local government and Slow Food members. This made it possible to set up a meeting with the Austrian company that manages the railways on a national level and make an agreement that glyphosate would no longer be used.

The Slow Food Travel community in Carinthia, Austria

An entire community with its hands in the ground

Of course, glyphosate would have been a cheap and quick choice to weed the railway line, but at what cost? By putting at risk the work of hundreds of farmers, producers and beekeepers who have been working for years to provide quality products to the local community? This is where the local community decided to protect itself not just by signing a petition or waiting for others, but by taking matters into its own hands. They understood the importance of preserving their traditions and the health people, so they decided to weed the 32 kilometer stretch of the railway line manually.

Each family devotes two hours of their time to weeding a kilometer section of the line: all it takes is good shoes and gloves. But the result is more than just physical: in addition to cleaning up the weeds without the use of glyphosate, it creates an even stronger sense of community, because everyone works for their common good, to defend local nature and local producers; everyone involved feels united.

Being an activist is a must!

Nature is wealth

“We at Slow Food Alpe Adria have always gone beyond what we were asked to do,” says Herwig. “We have opened the eyes of a lot of people who did not see the richness of their region. If we think money is our only source of wealth, it will certainly be a sad future. But if we can understand that the nature of our region is our wealth, then we will have a happy and healthy future. We are proud to have stopped glyphosate, which allows us to continue to produce healthy products near the train tracks. Because we know that everyone has the right to have access to good, clean and fair food. And I can say with satisfaction that we are one of the first valleys in the world that has had this kind of mobilization.”

Newspapers and television report the news, underlining how the initiative is a good example of solidarity. A community that has joined together to protect its nature, its products and its producers, a community that has decided to take the situation into its own hands despite what the decisions made higher up: that is a true Community of Change. Slow Food is proud to know that the philosophy of the organization has played a fundamental role in this initiative, and is proud to be able to count on extraordinary men like Herwig Ertl who decide to fight for the protection of biodiversity. We’d like to extend our congratulations to the whole community for their success and and for showing the rest of the world that we are the force for change!

Learn more about Slow Food at the local level

As already mentioned, the Slow Food Alpe Adria Convivium is very active locally. Herwig Ertl is the president of the Convivium and the region’s ambassador, while his wife Marianne Daberer is the president of the world’s first Slow Food Travel region, Slow Food Alpe Adria. Marianne also owns a hotel that brings together all the local Slow Food producers, and will host the Terra Madre Sankt Daniel event in 2021. There is also the Slow Food Village in St. Daniel, a small village of about 250 people where every local activity (a restaurant, a small shop and a hotel) follows the philosophy of good, clean and fair.

by Giulia Capaldi

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