The countryside of Slavonia in eastern Croatia feels like a dream during springtime. The flat fields go on forever. The endless shades of green soothe the eyes, even when the sun is high. Looking around, one can’t help thinking that Mother Nature is a shameless show-off.
Slavonia and the neighbouring plains of Vojvodina, in Serbia, were famous for their rich, black soil. Among the citizens of the former Yugoslavia, the fertile farmland was even the subject of a popular saying: You can grow coats just by scattering buttons across it!
That was in the past. Today, the people are fleeing a land that their hungry forefathers once rushed to cultivate. The villagers who remain are mostly elderly. The soil is still rich – but it yields only poverty and desperation.
According to Branislav Gulan, from the Serbian Chamber of Commerce, some 39 percent of the country’s villagers live in poverty. Unemployment has soared and land values have plummeted.
“In the last eight years, 69,000 agricultural workers lost their jobs,” he says. “In Vojvodina, you can buy a house with a garden for 5,000 euros.”
Many of the villagers have debts that they have no hope of repaying. They struggle to get a fair price for their produce. They are responsible for the food on our tables, yet society increasingly speaks of them as parasites. We only pay attention to their problems when they block motorways in protest.
This farmland once fed a country of 25 million people, and still had enough left over for export. What happened to the hundreds of agricultural companies founded in Yugoslavia? Why are people turning away from the land when global food prices are at a 20-year high?
After all, everybody needs food. Employment for farmers should be a certainty, no less than it is for undertakers. Why are times so hard? Are the people who work the land lazy? Ignorant? Are their business skills too poor to take advantage of a golden opportunity?
You can ask them what went wrong, but they don’t say much. They look to the ground when you question where the profits have gone. The battle has been lost, they say – everyone knows what happened. But has all the truth really come out?
Ana Benacic focuses on politics and business stories in Croatia.