A Conversation with César Lema: On a Rural Return

Wanting to learn from those who have spent their life observing the wonders of the world around us, Lives and Times spoke to César Lema Costas, a man who has spent much of his fifty two years on Earth  learning from the marvels of the natural world.

This biologist of tranquil voice and calm countenance has worked at recovering the lost forms of connection between the human species and our natural environment, writing books on the culinary uses of the acorn, an encyclopaedia on edible wild flora of Galicia, and giving talks and countryside walks to whoever has an open ear. Our talk, held in the house of mutual friends in the Valle Miñor, centres on his development as a naturalist and the evolution of his ideas.

The Mountain Philosopher

Born on the land of a farming family, César discovered the natural word was larger than his corner of Galicia through the window of the television, watching documentaries such as Botanic Man as would an astute student, taking notes in his notebook on what he saw and heard. Later, as a young man, instead of taking the well-trodden path of discotecas and nightclubs, César would spend his weekends on mountainside sojourns with a friend, going to the hills “to philosophise”, he laughs, and to taste wild herbs and fungi “without even having any idea of whether you could eat them or not”.

“I don’t want anybody to govern me, I want to govern with my equals”

– César Lema

His formal study of the natural world did not, he laments, fulfil his expectations of a university degree: “of the twenty professors I had there was only one that opened my mind a little, one that was really a teacherYou realise then what junk there is in a university degree”, and it was only when he undertook a postgraduate course in ecological agriculture did he feel satisfied with what he learnt.

IMG_0425_lznThe same is true of all the natural sciences, he argues. Take medicine, for example; why – if Hypocrates himself said “you are what you eat” – do medicine students hardly study dietics (the study of food’s impact on health)? Instead of looking at the whole, we fix this and that problem by giving this and that pill from this or that specialist, to the point where his mother, for example, “would have had to have taken sixteen pills a day if she did what the doctors said; my grandfather thirteen, my uncle now is taking nine pills a day – taking sixteen pills a day isn’t normal!”

Political Ecology: Man in his Environment

Once leaving behind his formal studies, César would start to think beyond biology. “At a political level I was ‘I’m from biology, don’t tell me anything about other things’, so I had to have different events happen to have a broader vision than biology…  A great explosion for me was meeting Felix Rodrigo Mora”, a friend of Cesar whose writings on capitalism and ecology helped him understand the working of the state, the market, and their effect on the human and natural world.

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The modern state, as César understands, eliminated previous forms of material payment of taxes to local parishes and landlords (in the form of grain or produce), by necessitating payment in metallic currency, which was the only form of taxation which allowed for mobilisation of armies from a centralised monarchical bureaucracy. This payment of taxes implied the expansion of the market into production which was previously allocated for subsistence consumption.

He cites an example of Señora Lola, a local woman of some ninety five years of age who remembers a day in which “we had everything, we didn’t lack anything, only when the contribution (taxes) came did we have problems” – to be able to pay, Señora Lola would be forced to sell part of the cow milk her family produced, which had to be sold five kilometres down the road, first for taxation and then for olive oil and other goods.

The Commons: Self-Sufficiency and Self-Organisation

Prior to the construction of the centralised state, and following the fall of the Roman empire across Europe, César highlights, there was a reality of a decentralised model of production in which the village and the parish was the centre of a shared economic life. Within these communities the essential means of production – land – was commonly held between members of the village: the hills were used for pasture, collection of wood and forest fruits, for hunting, and so forth, the streams were used for milling, and so on– “the communal forest was the base of life for people”.

The tractor does not unite anyone, it disunites

– César Lema

Remnants of this shared countryside remain scattered throughout the Galician landscape today in the form of what is known as the Comunidad del Monte, the Community of Hills, which is a stakeholder model of land title which confers right of use to the members of the neighbouring village.

But a century of state appropriation and privatisation of this model have meant that these associations of land-users are often under-resourced and undercapitalised, their governing bodies sometimes yielding to the pressure of the timber industry in allowing wood-pulp companies to plant and extract invasive eucalypt and acacia species on common land. César notes that when the democratic Second Republic was declared, there were some ten thousand requests for the state to cede back to the community communal land which had hitherto been appropriated by the state.

Galicia: The Land of Exodus

The same process which Karl Marx described in Capital – in which the communal lands of England were forcibly ‘enclosed’ and appropriated from the villagers by the violence and law of state in benefit of wool merchants and lard proprietors – occurred in Spain and Galicia. César explains that this process of privatisation in Spain and Galicia – known as desamortización, or confiscation – begun in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a means of repaying Spanish Royal debt and creating a rural bourgeoisie.

The process aimed to create a private market on land where previously monopoly title was strictly prohibited. This privatisation of the previously commonly-owned, César argues, explains why Galicia has for so long been a land of exodus, a land which has produced over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries successive waves of emigration, particularly before and after the Second Republic when this process of communal destruction was accelerated, especially under Franco whose program of forced industrialisation moved some six million people from the rural world to the urban world. The same is true of technological changes, which, César notes, were often met with great resistance among rural producers.

“We should have in our heads the idea of leaving to the country, and leaving the city behind”

– César Lema

These process of forced dispossession of land and the means of production reveal as fantasy the idea that the establishment of a ‘free’ market was a peaceful evolution of commerce. Marx concluded his Capital chapter on the destruction of the commons writing:

The spoliation of the Church’s property, the fraudulent  alienation of the State domains, the robbery of the common lands, the usurpation of feudal property, and its transformation into modern private property under circumstances of reckless terrorism, were just so many of the idyllic methods of primitive (pre-capitalistic) accumulation (of wealth).”

César laments that unlike the communal labour of past generations, unlike the communal forms of socialisation, “the tractor does not unite anyone, it disunites”. Here he unconsciously echoes John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, when he writes:

“The tractors came over the roads and into the fields, great crawlers moving like insects, having the incredible strength of insects… But this tractor does two things – it turns the land and turns us off the land. There is little difference between this tractor and a tank. The people are driven, intimidate, and hurt by both.”

Technological change may be in some degree inevitable, but to portray the resistance of whole regions, cities, and populations to its unwelcome implantation across time and space as luddism or romanticism is to fail to appreciate that what is being resisted is not just a tool, but a system of production. In Galicia this happened too in the seafaring world: when modern methods of fishing were introduced there was an escalation of class conflict between subsistence fishermen and industrial, salaried fishing, producing great strikes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

 Valuing and Recovering Communal Life

Against the commonly held belief within Spain that Galicia was or is somehow backward, César argues that here people were “managing their communities the best they could do”, and, in contrast to modernity, here people learnt to convivir; that is, to live together, to share.

IMG_0422_lzn

Modernity, in contrast, offers an atomised community and alienated production, living beside people you might not even know and working to generate a profit you will never possess – that is, the absolute contrary of the shared life. Yes, in the city there is a certain level of comfort, but César argues that “the city is unbearable, and it is depriving, it deprives the rural world (of its culture and economy)”, and when it has finished depriving the rural world at home it deprives the rural world abroad, in the colonies, in the new source-markets. “We should have in our heads the idea of leaving to the country, and leaving this (the city) behind” – recuperate something of the shared life, traditions, culture, and economy of previous generations, and recuperate “the value of strength, the strength like my grandmother had”.

The task is, César recognises, complicated, but, citing the fall of the British Raj and of Rome, César notes that “there are many utopias which were achieved” – and he reminds me that the course of time is very long indeed: “you never know…”. Ignoring the path proposed by reformists who would engage with the state, with political parties, with electoral systems, César simply lives as he thinks. He repeatedly returns to the idea that “the most important thing is one’s self” that is, “to have your story in life, (to say) I’m going to follow this path and try”. The determination to live freely, that is what defines César Lema – “I don’t want anybody to govern me, I want to govern with my equals”.

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