Europe’s Last Olive Tree: Traveler Gypsies vs. Environmentalists

Gypsy musicians play traditional music during a wedding ceremony in the Sulukule neighborhood of Istanbul. The lifestyle of the Roma, known for their music, is threatened by plans to revamp the neighborhood and erect new buildings. Work is to start by the end of the year following the eviction of some 3,500 people, including 1,500 gypsies. (Photo: Mustafa Ozer / AFP-Getty Images)

In his poem "The Gypsy and the Wind," Federico Garcia Lorca portrays the gypsy in a romantic, if melancholic, light: "The Englishman gives the gypsy a glass of tepid milk, and a shot of Holland gin, which Precosia does not drink." Yet in today's Europe, the reality that gypsies face is anything but romantic. The ongoing discrimination against the traveler gypsy communities in the E.U. in general, and the U.K. in particular, makes a powerful case for the systematic marginalization of a charismatic community within the borders of an ever-expanding and -deepening union. The cultural, social, and political marginalization of the traveler gypsy is well-known.

A less known aspect of the traveler gypsy saga in the U.K. is that in order for this invisible community to preserve its culture and way of life, it has to fight an uphill battle with an unlikely enemy: the environmentalists. While the gypsies have often routinely been portrayed as the most marginalized and least understood community in Europe, the ongoing battle between traveler gypsies and environmentalists in the U.K. offers a revealing flip side in which gypsies are villified and persecuted as environmental polluters.

Socio-cultural Marginalization

In today's Europe, Precosia the traveler gypsy is the invisible 'other.' She is like the ghost of the E.U., often spoken about, yet hard to touch in flesh and blood. That's because most Europeans prefer to keep the ghost at a comfortable distance. Dr. James Smith of the U.K. National Holocaust Centre, where a conference on the treatment of gypsies and travelers was held, observed: "Gypsies are the most hated minority in Europe despite centuries of persecution and the Holocaust" ("Gypsies are 'Europe's most hated,'" BBC News, April 26, 2005).

The conference, in which delegates were asked if gypsy travelers were Britain's most demonized people, is one of recent attempts aiming at raising attention to the dismaying reality facing gypsies all over Europe. When available, the facts speak for themselves. According to Alain Reyniers, an ethnologist and lecturer at the Catholic University of Louvain and editor of the magazine Études Tsiganes, between 60 and 80 percent of Hungary's working-age Roma gypsies are estimated to be unemployed.

More than 60 percent of Romania's gypsies are said to live below the poverty line and 80 percent have no formal qualifications. In Bulgaria, the same percentage of gypsies living in cities are jobless. In Britain, an estimated 10 to 20 percent of the travelers live in absolute poverty. In some French cities, between 70 and 80 percent of the gypsy population are on welfare payments paid out to the most destitute. Their housing conditions are appalling, while their bill of health is another cause for concern — most Roma have a life expectancy of under 50 (Alain Reyniers, "Gypsies: Trapped on the Fringes of Europe,"

The Invisible Community: State-sponsored Exclusion

According to Reyniers, the exclusion of gypsies is not just a product of cultural differences or inability to adjust but systematic, state-sponsored racial prejudice and segregation: "Gypsies were not excluded because of a deep-rooted failure to adjust to local economic conditions, as it is too often suggested. Rather, it seems clear that governments and officials — first in western Europe, especially Spain, and then in central and eastern Europe — have, over the centuries, gone to great lengths to portray the Roma as a foreign and anti-social people without a culture of their own."

In the 1970s, a major attempt to provide caravan cites for gypsy travelers unraveled amid major popular resistance: "Civil servants concluded reforms to help gypsies were doomed because councilors had no electoral gain in taking on popular prejudice." (Dominic Casciani, "Prejudice Defeated Gypsy Reform," BBC News, May 14, 2004). In 1968, MPs won government backing to compel local authorities to provide caravan cites. The eventual 1968 Caravan Sites Act compelled local councils to provide residential "pitches" — but only if there was a proven need in their area.

According to the documents, placed in the National Archives, gypsy campaign groups urged officials to force councils to provide sufficient "pitches" or to support willing private landlords as soon as the legislation became law in 1970. Immediately, some local authorities applied for exemption, arguing they had no gypsies in their area. Consequently, authorities willing to provide sites said they would resist unless Whitehall guaranteed they would not be left "shouldering the problem" alone.

By 1971 officials diplomatically conceded to campaigners they were "under some pressure" from local councils. Campaigner Donald Kenrick of the Gypsy Council warned the government would create "Indian reservations" if it agreed with councils that traveling communities should permanently settle. His remark draws attention to the problematic cultural rights of gypsy travelers. The advice of John Downie, a senior official at the Department for the Environment, reflects the pervasive popular prejudice against gypsy travelers in the U.K. Downie advised ministers to invest in education for gypsy children in the hope they would be more likely to give up a nomadic lifestyle. The breakdown of this historic initiative reveals the inherent tension between the cultural rights of gypsy travelers on one hand, and those of the settled community on the other.

Europe's Last Olive Tree?

Do gypsies have inalienable cultural rights? The Preamble of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states: "In accordance with the principles proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations, recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world." Moreover, it acknowledges that "recognizing that these rights derive from the inherent dignity of the human person, the ideal of free human beings enjoying freedom from fear and want can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his economic, social and cultural rights, as well as his civil and political rights."

The Covenant was adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by the U.N. General Assembly, Resolution 2200A of Dec. 16, 1966, and entered into force on Jan. 3, 1976, in accordance with Article 27. While it may be argued that the cultural rights of gypsies are the same as those of all indigenous peoples and nomadic communities (the Roma are not considered an official ethnic minority in the U.K.) as outlined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, it is also true that the Roma are unique. They do not have roots, a nation, or a state. Yet they have a proud and rich cultural heritage they have managed to preserve for centuries, and a nomadic way of life that can be described as both local and global. It is local because it is in constant cultural, professional, and social interaction with local communities.

Alluding to the olive tree metaphor, which represents the roots that keep a local community alive, author Thomas Friedman explained why cultural richness and culture-preservation are so crucial: "When you strip people's homes of their distinctiveness — either by homogenizing them, or by destroying them environmentally — you undermine not only their culture but social cohesion. Culture…gives life structure and meaning." (Thomas L. Friedman, "Demolition Man," The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Anchor Books: A Division of Random House, New York, 1999, p. 303). Yet this one-of-a-kind olive tree, the gypsy culture, is also global because its distinctive way of life symbolizes a trans-boundary, universal culture. Like 'environmental pollution,' gypsy culture cuts across borders and cultures. Friedman's analogy is useful to explain the roots of the traveler gypsy question — the battle between traveler gypsies and settled communities can be framed as one between a dying culture and a spawning culture.

Environmental Injustice

The European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), an international public interest law organization engaging in a range of activities aimed at combating anti-Romani racism and human rights abuse of the Roma, outlines its mission as defending the cultural, economic, and social rights of the Roma, namely "combating prejudice and discrimination against the Roma, and promoting genuine equality of treatment and equality of respect" (Annual 2003-2004 Report of the European Roma Rights Center).

While the report does not specifically mention cultural rights, it does mention efforts to establish a Fundamental Rights Agency, and discusses in length Roma rights. The report stresses the major challenges facing the Roma today: high rates of unemployment; lack of infrastructure and social housing; environmental racism; discrimination in provision of healthcare; discrimination in the criminal justice system; lack of statistical data available on the Roma; inadequate policy implementation; and opposition by local authorities, who in many cases undermine government initiatives to resolve the situation.

A major concern of the ERRC is environmental injustice. Among other issues, the annual report draws attention to displaced Roma communities facing disproportionate levels of environmental pollution in post-war zones such as Kosovo, where previously integrated Romani communities were victims of a massive systemic exclusion. At three camps built by the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, some 60 percent of gypsy children under the age of six have been exposed to such high levels of lead that they are highly likely either to die soon or to suffer irreversible brain damage (Paul Polansky, "Poisoned Camps for the Gypsies in Kosovo," The International Herald Tribune, April 26, 2005).

Traveler Gypsies vs. Environmentalists

Given the social, cultural, and environmental discrimination that traveler gypsies face today, it is perhaps ironic that the debate between themselves and environmentalists in the U.K. offers an interesting flip side of the Roma's quest for survival. From an environmentalist perspective, traveler gypsies are deviants, not victims of discrimination. Unlike the Kosovo scandal in which formerly settled Roma communities were victims of environmental and social injustice, in the U.K. local authorities, settled communities, and environmentalists face a different scenario in which it is the unrepresented traveler gypsies who are vilified and persecuted as trespassers, vandals, and environmental polluters (Francis Wayne, "They are Back: Travellers Defy Court to Return to Illegal Site," Sunday Express U.K., June 19, 2005).

By contrast, the settled community is portrayed as the passive victim of vandalism and environmental pollution caused by intrusive traveler gypsies with little or no respect for the urban lifestyle or green belt. In one high-profile case, ninety campaigners raised $21,550 for their fight to remove a 56-strong group of gypsies from the village. Action group treasurer Michael McTiernan said: "I am confident we are going to win because of the importance of planning and environmental issues."

McTiernan remarked that septic tanks used by gypsy families were thought to have flooded into the nearby Derry Brook River. (Steve Hallmark, "Beauty Spot Spoilt by Rubbish," U.K. Newsquest Regional Press - This is Cheshire, May 20, 2005; Dennis Rice, "How Gypsies Have Turned A Beauty Spot into Squalor," The Express, March 12, 2005; U.K. 1st Ed. Appeal Cases: Gypsies and Travellers — Landscape Impact Held to Outweigh Needs of Family, Planning , April 29, 2005; "Call for Action over Rise in number of Gypsy Camps," Western Morning News (Plymouth), April 8, 2005).

Conservative group leader Iain Whyte objected to any gypsy camp development plans by emphasizing the importance of conserving the green belts: "I am very concerned that councils meet their targets to provide proper sites for travelers, as that will better enable us to take action against the illegal campsites which spring up and stop the kind of environmental damage we have seen at such sites in the past. That said, we are all very conscious of the need to preserve green belt land and not use it for inappropriate developments and I'm sure the council would object just as strongly to multi-million pound houses being built there." (Gareth Edwards, "Row Erupts over Plan to Turn Petrol Station Site Into Travellers Camp," The Scotsman Publications Ltd. Evening News (Edinburgh), June 27, 2005).

A major case that pits locals and environmentalists against traveler gypsy culture involves an illegal camp in Bulkington Field at Bulkington, Warwickshire. The case is useful in illustrating the legitimate concerns of the parties involved in the dispute — traveler gypsies, environmentalists, local councils, and settled communities. In this case, as in most cases involving traveler camps and subsequent evictions, the gypsies were ordered to leave after the High Court ruled that they were occupying a gypsy site illegally.

However, one family returned to the site, which they owned. The Nuneaton and Bedworth Council warned that unless they left, the gypsies would face jail. The reaction of the Environmental Services Director Alan Franks illustrates how illegal gypsy camps pit the gypsies not only against local communities but also against environmentalists: "It is clear the travelers are in breach of an injunction. They have been informed by letter to leave the land immediately. They own the land but clearly that land does not have planning permission. It's for grazing purposes — green belt land."

By siding with the public and the city council on the traveler gypsy issue, environmentalist policy inadvertently legitimizes the rationality of the majority. Society and environment, both firmly grounded in the rule of law, appear to be more important than the intangible cultural rights of traveler gypsies. A comment by the father of the land-owning gypsy family reflects the rationale of gypsy travelers: "We had nowhere else to go. We have been living in a car park for 10 months with no electricity and no water. My children have been terrified living there. We own this land and the council has failed to find us anywhere else to go." Villagers fought for three years to drive out 21 families in what became known as the Battle of Bulkington Field. A villager voiced the frustration of the entire community: "Local people are just fed up that the same travelers have returned with no respect for the rule of law."

Who Wins?

Who wins and who loses? Bitter local communities win the Battle of Bulkington if the traveler gypsies eventually leave their neighborhood, redistributing environmental and social pollution to another illegal site outside the territory of their village, presumably another community's territory. The cycle of prejudice and pollution will thus be perpetuated, not eliminated. Environmentalists win the battle, too, because the evacuation of gypsies means that the green belts will be conserved. However the gypsies are left in a no-win situation. They face an impossible choice — abandon their culture, or face legal charges.

This dilemma suggests that that environmental policymakers in the U.K. are part of the traveler gypsy problem, not the solution. By compelling gypsy travelers to abandon their sites and way of life for the sake of designated green areas, they contribute to the framing of the traveler gypsy vs. settled communities debate in a non-collaborative, non-democratic, non-participatory framework. The traveler gypsy question in the U.K. offers an instructive case study for the largest yet most marginalized ethnic minority in the U.K. They lack official status, and their cultural sovereignty is diminishing in the face of popular opposition. They are victims of a degenerative policy-making model characterized by an unequal distribution of political power, social constructions that separate deserving settled communities from undeserving traveler gypsies, and an institutional culture that legitimizes powerful settled communities at the expense of marginalized travelers.

Raising critical awareness is the first step towards a sound and sustainable environmental policy that balances cultural and environmental rights and creates not only a sustainable environment, but also a sustainable community.

For all the challenges traveler gypsies face today, their future may not be so bleak. The high-profile tension that pits settled communities and environmentalists against traveler gypsies may lead to positive outcomes — raised popular awareness of the gypsy problem, prompting the public to reinsert the traveler gypsy question into the political agenda. On an international level, a larger and deeper European Union may provide vital political capital by compelling new and old members to (re)address the gypsy question within the human rights framework. One positive impact of the enlarging and deepening E.U. is that the Roma may eventually be recognized as a trans-boundary issue begging for a solution.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Leman Canturk.