A journey through change

The CCRI FARMWELL project team have been on field work in Romania. The aim of the trip was to meet up with project partners and discuss outcomes from data analysis, undertake a review of case studies in different EU Member States, and explore the potential for informing policy makers operating at different levels of government.  In this blog the CCRI researchers provide some initial impressions of Romania during the drive from Bucharest into Transylvania. 

The car doesn’t stray from its smooth course in the fast lane as the driver picks up his mobile to make a call, manoeuvring one-handed between the centre line of concrete blocks separating us from the oncoming traffic and large, slower trucks, on our right. The road ahead lies dead straight cutting across the flat Danube plain heading north out of Bucharest. The last time we came here in 2009 Romania had just joined the European Union (2007) and they were working on widening this road, using structural funds to improve communications between some of Romania’s major cities and its borders. Now, it is heavy with traffic in both directions and lined with an endless ribbon of houses, small shops and businesses. The houses mostly built perpendicular to the road and each with a carefully tended allotment or garden. The sun is shining and there are splashes of white blossom everywhere, contrasting with the flat green fields, a sure sign that spring has arrived.

A large oil-fired power station appears on the left, smoke stacks and cooling towers no longer showing any sign of emissions, and the large turbine hall standing empty and derelict. Rusting pipes of the old district heating system snake across the landscape towards Ploiesti, the familiar twists and turns enabling expansion and contraction of metal as hot water is circulated from the power plant to the city and back, no longer needed. New housing developments have found localised heating systems more energy efficient and easier to control. One indicator of the loosening grip of centralised control over people’s lives.

Snow-capped mountains appear in the distance gradually becoming clearer as the road starts to climb into the foothills of the Carpathians, following a winding valley through a chain of small towns and villages.  It is hard to gauge the state of the economy from a single drive through one small part of the country but the towns are a mix of derelict industrial sites and new factories, rusting metal-roofed houses perched precariously on steep hillsides contrast with new red-tiled buildings suggesting both losers and winners from the last 20 years of economic change. 

The valley narrows as the road climbs higher along this ancient trade route between the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires until the river, road and railway are almost on top of each other and we keep pace with a train for a couple of miles along the twisting road as the forest turns brown, interspersed with green islands of pines, all over-shadowed by sheer rock walls.  The blossom has long since disappeared, these are mountain lands, stuck in that long, drawn-out period between the end of winter and the coming spring, the ground still cold and dead, and new growth not daring to make an appearance too soon, preferring to wait for more assurance that the warming signs of change are here to stay.

We drive down into the large basin of the Brașov region, hemmed in on three sides by mountains in the elbow of the Carpathian range, the road curving round in a great series of hairpin bends, with only occasional barriers to prevent any slide over the edge of the road, it’s not a place to make a mistake.  Brașov, the 6th largest city in Romania (the larger metropolitan area has a population of around 382,000 whereas the city itself is approximately 283,000), appears to be economically dynamic with new industrial developments, the road lined with car dealerships and logos of some familiar west European brands, the large tractor factory demolished and replaced with shopping malls and new housing.  The signs of economic change are clear, but we are here to look at social change, and in particular social innovations benefitting the wellbeing of farmers, a more ambitious and difficult area for assessment.  We have made the journey for a project meeting in the FARMWELL project with partners coming from Hungary, Belgium, Greece, Poland, Italy, and Romania itself.   Arriving late in the day, we check into the hotel, greet others that have arrived, then walk into the old part of the city for a meal. 

The next day the air turns colder and it snows heavily, transforming the appearance of the city, winter has not yet lost its grip on this part of the country.  A good day to sit down inside with our project partners and explore the journeys of change being made by people implementing social innovations in a range of different local contexts across Europe.