MALS, ITALY — A handful of concerned citizens with no previous community organizing experience, led by veterinarians, high school teachers, pediatricians, pharmacists and hair dressers, took their pesticide-free message directly to their friends and neighbors, leading to an unprecedented public referendum that caught the world’s attention.

By utilizing their diverse talents and embracing the principle of strategic collective action, the citizens of one small town became an international model for how direct democracies can use tools like the precautionary principle to help people topple the Goliaths in their own communities.

As news of a local organic dairy farmer’s devastating encounter with pesticides spread beyond Mals, organic farming associations and environmental groups came to Mals to meet with representatives of the region’s powerful farming lobby and government officials to find solutions that would protect the citizens and eco-entrepreneurs of Mals from further pesticide drift.

Some citizens even contemplated the unthinkable: the possibility of an outright ban on pesticide use. Given the prominence and power of local agricultural interests, the proposal seemed highly unlikely until a public opinion firm was hired by a local environmental group to survey residents and determine their opinions on the potential influx of fruit monocultures and synthetic pesticides.

The poll results took everyone by surprise: 80% of Mals’ citizens considered the issue of encroaching fruit production and pesticide use in the township to be a critical issue.

Energized by this response, organizations supporting environmental concerns and alternative approaches to agriculture formed the “Mals Advocacy Committee” and sponsored nearly two-dozen public forums. Pesticide and human health experts shared their knowledge in lively public discussions and framed potential strategies for mitigating the impacts of pesticides—or even eliminating them altogether.

A guerrilla art project by local group ADAM & EPFL: when big apple comes to Eden, beware of snakes.

A guerrilla art project by local group ADAM & EPFL: when big apple comes to Eden, beware of snakes.

One of these groups, Adam & Epfl (a play on words translated as “Adam and the Apple”) included a local cultural provocateur named Konrad Messner, a propagator of events that celebrate cultural diversity and sustainable economic development. Konrad was an early outspoken advocate for a pesticide-free future in Mals, but instead of relying on political associations, he used cultural gatherings at his medieval-era guesthouse and other venues to help lead his community away from industrial production and toward a world where arts and artisanship thrive. He even helped coordinate an overnight placement of brightly painted serpents throughout Mals as a reminder to resist the temptation of the apple in their local paradise.

Konrad Messner says that for towns likes Mals to forge pesticide-free futures, they should embrace a formula for success that benefits from a few key principles. “I’m interested in concrete deeds and not just the discussion about the task at hand,” he observes. “It’s more important for one person to build a garden than for 200 people to discuss the garden. When you build a house, you need a clear plan, schedule, and an assignment of responsibilities (especially those that further one’s self-development). When people move beyond their own fears, wishes, and self-interests, they begin working on a different level. Each person is part of the plan. Every day is a positive experience. It’s a dynamic process that is constructive and not conflictual. Compromise allows both sides to profit. When you don’t recognize the reality of possibilities, the outcome is predetermined.

A central principle in Konrad’s work is the “collective action onion method,” or Zwiebelprinzipregionalbewegung. “While it doesn’t provide the definitions or contents of the movement,” Konrad notes, “It allows us to go deeper, deeper, deeper into the subject. From there, concrete objectives (clearly established at the outset) and guidelines for collective action can be defined.”

Therefore, to understand how the town of Mals become pesticide-free, it may help to peel back the onion’s layers:

THE PHARMACIST AND THE MANIFESTO

Prescribing a theory of social change is the first step, but only certain people really understand the underlying chemistry of a specific community. Dr. Johannes Fragner-Unterpertinger is a pharmacist, and his family’s apothecary has been the center of village life for centuries. When the “Mals Advocacy Committee” chose him to be its spokesperson, he conducted his own research, which led him to become Dergiftkennerundvermeider or “the poison knower and avoider”. As a medical student, Johannes took classes in “pharmaceutical chemistry and toxicology.” Years later, as a pharmacist, he observed these same dangers in his community. He began telling his customers about the dangers of pesticides sprayed in local fields. then gathered the town’s physicians, dentists, biologists, foresters and veterinarians to discuss the serious health risks pesticides posed for their community.

“None of these pesticides are harmless. They attack the thyroid glands and can damage the male and female reproductive systems. Providing this information over the last years has borne its fruit. The community now understands how dangerous pesticides are. If you have a bit of a conscience, you cannot stay silent as a doctor.”

Dr. Johannes Unterpertinger

A central tenet of the Mals Advocacy Committee’s thinking was Vorsorgeprinzip,or the “precautionary approach,” inspired by the “Rio Declaration” made at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development” (UNCED). It explained that …”When there are threats of serious irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.” In short, there was no time to waste. Pesticide use in Mals had to stop.

These conclusions led Dr. Fragner-Unterpertinger to collaborate with Dr. Elisabeth Viertler, a local pediatrician, to write a Manifesto of Doctors and Pharmacists. In all, 51 medical doctors, pharmacists, dentists, veterinarians, and biologists from the Upper Vinschgau signed the “Manifesto to Protect the Health and Sustainable Future of Soil, Water, and Air.”

The virtual unanimity of local scientific and health professionals sent shock waves throughout the region and helped galvanize public opinion. While community response to the manifesto was overwhelmingly supportive, some people were not so pleased; Johannes soon found himself facing anonymous death threats and even requiring police protection. Despite these challenges, could the Malsers find a way to turn political action into policy?

Dr. Elisabeth Viertler, pediatrician and co-author of the Mals Manifesto, grew up in a small farming community surrounded by apple orchards, so when she moved to Mals and opened her pediatric clinic, she was all too familiar with the threats facing this community. As she studied more about pesticide drift and the impact of its environmental toxins on children, Viertler became deeply concerned. First, she co-authored the manifesto for a pesticide-free Mals with Dr. Johannes Fragner-Unterpertinger, and she joined Hollawint, a group of local women advocating for a pesticide-free Mals.

“The environment is really the first factor in medicine.”

ELISABETH — Pediatrician and Mals Manifesto co-author

“Many of the pesticides we carry in our bodies can cause cancer, disrupt our hormone systems, decrease fertility, cause birth defects or weaken our immune systems,” notes the Pesticide Action Network (PAN). “These are just some of the known detrimental effects of particular pesticides at very low levels of exposure. Almost nothing is known about the long-term impacts of multiple chemicals in the body over long periods.” 

Noted American biologist and author Sandra Steingraber explains that “One of the most powerful concepts now circulating in the human rights and also the environmental community is this idea of toxic trespass, meaning there are chemicals suspected or known to be linked to cancer or reproductive problems; neurological poisons that are entering our bodies because we’re breathing or we’re drinking or we’re eating food and we haven’t consented to their presence being there. So it’s a form of trespass of toxic chemicals.

“This places the issue of environmental contamination firmly within the context of human rights,” continues Steingraber, “and it’s most powerful when we talk about our children, because children are far more vulnerable to the effects of these chemicals than we adults are, not only because their bodies are just getting assembled but because also in some cases they’re missing certain kinds of coats of armor that we adults have to protect ourselves from low levels of toxic chemicals.

Genotoxicity is also a concern. Pesticides not only contain “active ingredients” created to kill pests and diseases in crops, but also “inert ingredients” that help the active ingredients penetrate living tissues and cells. Genetic material within the cells of any living organism – including children – can be altered by these unwanted chemical intrusions, ultimately impacting not only children, but their offspring.

“All of us have a blood brain barrier that works pretty well actually at keeping things like pesticides that might be cycling around in our bloodstream from entering the gray matter of our brain where they could really do damage,”Sandra Steingraber points out. “But you don’t get a blood brain barrier until you’re six-months old, so for embryos, fetuses, and newborns tiny, tiny, vanishingly small exposures at that vulnerable point in time may be worth more than much bigger exposures to, let’s say, pesticides in your drinking water later on in life. And that fact alone I think mounts an important challenge to the current way we regulate toxic chemicals in this US.

“Because we’ve historically taken a look at how these chemicals affect the adult and then we extrapolate down to children, but the new science is showing us that children have special vulnerabilities that we haven’t taken into account, and if we all deserve equal protection under the law then how do you explain that our laws may be sufficiently protective for a thirty- five-year old but not for a two-month old?”

Pesticides also pose obvious risks for local livestock as well. When Dr. Peter Gasser, a veterinarian and lifelong Malser, first observed the fast-paced progression of fruit orchards marching up the valley toward Mals, he immediately understood that a 5000-year tradition of livestock agriculture in the area was now in jeopardy. Having also worked on environmental issues in the Vinschgau Valley region for several decades through the Umweltschutzgruppe Vinschgau (the “Environmental Protection Group-Vinschgau”), Dr. Gasser had both perspective and strategy that would prove critical for the burgeoning pesticide-free initiative.

“Yes, I am convinced that the danger for livestock is in the creeping entry of pesticides into their feed. Eventually the pesticides in their milk will be detectable and that will, of course, be the worst case scenario not just for the dairy industry, but also for people who consider milk to be the healthy nutritious food we hold dear and also pay dearly for.”

– PETER

By using scientific findings exposing the dangers associated with pesticide use, and communicating in a clear and conversational style, Peter feels that the Mals Manifesto catalyzed public opinion by sharing what experts already knew about the harmful effects of pesticides. “The manifesto was a very important step for the referendum,” he explains. “Through it one could see for the first time that we weren’t just a bunch of green crazies, but rather, the core of a society which had grave concern for pesticide use.”

Peter’s wife, Margit Gasser, also took her place in the burgeoning movement. Weary of the absence of female perspectives in the debate and eager for a positive political response, an informal alliance of concerned women quickly became the social media and communications hub of the “pesticide-free Mals” initiative. Dubbed Hollawint, a dialect phrase meaning “Stop right there!,” this eclectic group of women developed a skill for catching the attention of media and politicians who would rather turn a blind eye to the uncomfortable calls for a pesticide-free town in an apple-dominated province. These Gestürztergoliathneuling (novices toppling Goliath) helped transform the anti-pesticide campaign into a clarion call for a positive future, one that embraced health and sustainability.

The group included, from left:

Pia Oswalda self-proclaimed Selbstvorsorgerer (“self-sufficient homesteader”) and beekeeper, also manages an after-school program for children. She was central to the entire campaign as she proposed and continually insisted that language and intent always be cast in the positive—turning a “ban on pesticides” into calls for a  “pesticide-free future.”

Dr. Elisabeth Viertlera quiet pediatrician with little interest in the public spotlight, but her expertise in children’s health and her recognition of the links between human and environmental health transformed her role in the town. She brought both knowledge and scientific clout to the growing circle of women comprising Hollawint.

Beatrice Raas teamed up with Martina after a quiet conversation in her hair salon. Within days, Beatrice was on a door-to-door campaign to get Mals citizens to send letters to the editor asking the mayor to protect their health from the dangers of pesticide drift. Never before an activist of any sort, Beatrice’s initial collaborations with Martina set the stage for Hollawint, a powerful collection of primarily women’s voices calling for a halt to the growing threat of “apple plantations.” Beatrice’s activism quickly transcended pesticides, and she transformed her hair salon into the region’s first organic hairdressing business.

Martina Hellrigl, an architect by training, moved back to Mals from Switzerland once she had children. Astonished by the lack of public discussion about the influx of orchards in adjoining towns and a few new ones in Mals, Martina turned a hairdresser’s appointment into a pivotal political point. When her hairdresser seconded her concerns, Martina and her new collaborators began letter writing initiatives, educational forums, social media alerts, and guerilla art campaigns—efforts that led to the formation of the informal advocacy group, Hollawint, a dialect term meaning “Stop right there!”

Margit Gasser grew up farther down the valley where apples had already overtaken her home village, so when she married and moved to Mals, she realized what a paradise Mals was…until apple orchards made a fast ascent upward, abetted by high profits and rising temperatures stemming from the economic and meteorological climates. Hollawint provided her a means of standing her ground in her adopted community.

Not pictured: Evelyne Piergentili, a single mother searching for answers and rationality in the food system, as well as a network interested in enhancing healthy options for children in the schools. As an executive assistant, her proficiency in organization and communication helped Hollawint gain rapid recognition in the region.

When Martina first heard about pesticide drift in her community, she brought it up during an appointment at Beatrice’s hair salon. They both realized that the media and the politicians weren’t paying attention to the issue, so Martina wrote an open letter voicing her concern about pesticides and Beatrice circulated it. By the time it appeared in the local paper, it had been signed by nearly 80 people.Emboldened by this response, these women began a series of mobilizing efforts (including baking a cake) to unite villagers for a pesticide-free future.

And as Malsers prepared to vote in their community’s first public referendum on pestides, the women made banners from their own bed linens that proclaimed “JA” or “YES” to a pesticide-free future, then hung them from windows throughout their village. Even after the referendum, the women continue to find new ways to protect their community.

THE MAYOR and the public referendum

Ulrich Veith had never run for public office – or even joined a political party – before launching his campaign to become mayor of Mals. His platform as candidate was to serve the will of the people. After he was elected, the community began to express concerns about an impending culture of monocultures and the dangers of pesticide drift—and then Günther Wallnöfer came to him with the news of his pesticide-tainted hay crop. The mayor decided to put the conversation to a vote.

An inexperienced yet inventive politician, Ulrich first worked quietly with his colleagues to change the town’s municipal codes in order to make all voter referendums binding. Once this was approved, he worked with community leaders to hold months of presentations and discussions. After scientists, toxology experts, and legal minds all helped inform the community, Ulrich outlined plans for a fair and transparent referendum, one that would establish a pesticide-free future for Mals.

After several attempts by provincial authorities and lobbyists to prevent it, the municipality of Mals finally put forward a referendum in 2014 partly inspired by the Precautionary Principle.

The referendum asked voters for a simple “Yes” or “No” to the following question: “Are you in favor of the implementation of the following amendment to the articles of the Township of Mals? The precautionary principle, with the objective to protect public health, lays down that all precautions that help prevent hazard to the health of man and animal have to be taken. The township of Mals is specifically aiming to protect the health of its citizens and guests, to maintain the sustainability of nature and waters, as well as making it possible that different forms of economy can coexist in its territory in a fair and respectful way. Conforming with these goals, Mals promotes the use of biodegradable plant protection products within its municipal boundaries. A regulation will be issued that describes the details of this provision. Independently from this provision, the use of toxic and highly toxic; as well as chemical-synthetic substances and herbicide, that are harmful to the health and the environment is prohibited within its municipal boundaries. The municipal authority is responsible for monitoring the implementation and the compliance of the referendum outcome.”

Polling was open for two weeks to ensure strong community participation. When the votes were tallied, the outcome was something few outsiders could have foreseen. The people of Mals overwhelming supported the referendum, with 75% voting in favor of a pesticide-free future.

In earlier times, towns in this South Tirolean valley built walls to keep out invaders. When pesticides appeared here centuries later, the townspeople put “building a new wall” to a vote… and the wall won!

“People have always recognized that pesticides are bad for humans. They always lead to harm. When a small town commits to building a path that eliminates pesticides, it shows what one can accomplish. It’s a hard path, but it pays off.”

 – Mayor Ulrich Vieth

AFTER VOTING IN FAVOR OF A PESTICIDE-FREE FUTURE, THE PEOPLE OF MALS LOOK TO TRANSFORM THEIR VALUES INTO A THRIVING LOCAL ECONOMY

Alexander Agethle is a social entrepreneur and co-owner of Hofkäserei Englhorn, an organic cheese company. “Here in Mals,” he notes, “we have lots of social entrepreneurs – people who make cheese, shoes, clothes, even houses with local wood. It’s a critical step to use only inputs that help support —  instead of degrade — the proper development of this landscape.” It’s also the cornerstone of building a recirculating economy, which Alexander supports through the distribution of “Gutscheine” or Englhorn bills, a community-based currency used to help finance his cheesemaking operation.

Each January, “investors” who support the principle of high quality local food production in Mals are issued this currency along with a news update from Alexander’s dairy. They can exchange their currency for cheese directly at the farm and at two organic food stores in nearby Meran and Bozen.

Englhorn investors can also use their currency at Hotel Greif in Mals, which then buys cheese for their hotel using that currency. “We promote not only sustainable agricultural production, but also entrepreneurship,” Alexander observes. “We also help young business people in the realization of their ideas, create diversity in agricultural, artisanal and touristic production – and through that create a self-sustaining region, not just one that produces apples or milk for some global market.”

A PUBLIC REFERENDUM BECOMES LAW

Mals had set its sights on achieving a goal no other community in the world had yet attained, and they’d been victorious at the ballot box, but could a successful referendum withstand court appeals and be transformed into law?

For the next 19 months, the Mals town council cautiously developed a set of ordinances that would fulfill the public mandate while not stepping outside of the legal parameters of the province, Italy, or the European Union. Throughout their deliberations, the town council focused on establishing regulations that could be implemented immediately versus reaching too far, only to encounter legal challenges that could catch them up in litigation for months or years on end while more apple orchards appeared and more pesticides were sprayed.

In March of 2016, Mals finally achieved an international milestone when Mayor Veith presented the town council’s regulations to advance Mals’ pesticide-free ambitions, which he summarized in three categories:

I. All pesticides in the two most toxic classes of pesticides would here forth be forbidden.

II. For the application of all other pesticides, a fifty-meter buffer would be required. Due to the small parcel sizes of Mals farms, this buffer requirement became, in effect, a ban. The town would continue to conduct analyses for pesticide drift, and any documented violations would result in an additional ban on those synthetic substances.

III. The town would advance the principles and practices of organic agriculture. It would begin by purchasing organic foods for its schools and by providing financial support for organic production and farmers transitioning to organic certification.

Despite continued pressures and attacks from lobbyists and government officials, the town council of Mals had decided to chart a new path, one that both protected their deep agricultural heritage while safeguarding their children’s future.

NEXT: Learning the Lesson of Mals. Tools activists can use to topple the Goliaths and build pesticide free futures in their own communities.