Everyone once in a while I read a news headline that makes me do a double take: “Romanian riot police fire tear gas at protesting shepherds” caught my attention in the December 15 issue of the British newspaper the Guardian. What is going on in Romania and why are shepherds, generally not a highly politicized group, being teargassed in Bucharest?
Over a thousand angry sheep herders gathered outside the parliament building in the Romanian capital to protest a new law limiting the number of sheep dogs they can use and forbidding the grazing of sheep during the winter. Politicians argued that Carpathian sheep dogs kill deer and wild boars, favorite animals among hunters, and that grazing sheep in the winter is not environmentally sustainable.
This new law was proposed by a group supporting hunting, an elite pass time that the former communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu made popular. Hunting in Romania still retains its association with aristocracy and privilege. In contrast, sheep farming is a central agricultural activity and an important part of many local economies in rural areas. There are an estimated 10 million sheep and 1.5 million goats in rural Romania.
Images of shepherds in their wooly capes standing in front of the capital building initially made me think that this was a story about conflicts between tradition and modernity, and resistance to a changing way of life in rural areas à la Slow Food. However, there is little that is modern here. What was at stake were two age-old conflicting uses of land–pastoralism and hunting. This riot reveals the imposition of power on the part of elites to protect their interests and the rural population’s pushback.
What is truly incredible is the political response of shepherds and the success of their protest. Some traveled more than 300 miles to join the protest in Bucharest. Although the protest turned ugly as riot police teargassed the angry sheep herders who were rushing the barricades, the outcome was that the government temporarily lifted the bans and promised to find a permanent solution. While being interviewed on camera, one shepherd defends his right to graze his sheep on the land he owns. Another shepherd munching on a sausage, holds up a piece of cheese and declares the deliciousness of their cheese. Perhaps the cornerstone of this defense lies with taste.