“What a shame you cannot be here in two weeks,” our driver said, as we entered Toplica District in Southern Serbia, the poorest part of the country. It is an open countryside of rolling hills, with thick forests on the horizon. Next to the road, neat rows of bushes and low trees appear, dotted with red.
“In two weeks, everything will be red,” he said. “And what do you do with all these cherries?” I asked, half dreaming of one of my mother’s best tarts.
Export to Russia, came the reply. A river of sour cherries flowing from this small corner of Serbia, across Europe and into Russia is a less interesting image than my mother’s spectacular tart, but in a country where signs of the ongoing economic crisis abound, this is good news.
Every field we looked at had new plantings alongside more established trees. A new parasite is apparently threatening these cherry orchards, and foreign experts are working with local growers to control it. Still, it seems clear that people are investing in the business, and this means jobs – though only temporary, tough and lasting long hours of cherry picking, these jobs are a blessing for those who have little else to rely on.
Ivan and his wife Daniela, in the village of Vlahovo, are a case in point - and the face of poverty in the region.
Sitting in their unfinished house, they told me how things had turned tough for them. Ivan used to work in construction, travelling around the country to where he could find contracts. It was not a good life but they got by. They even planned to move out of his parents’ house and convert one of the stables in the small compound into a home for their growing family.
But when the crisis started, all construction work stopped. Now nobody in the family – including his parents, brother, Ivan and Daniela’s little son, has a job. Daniela was pregnant when I met her.
In winter, Ivan and Daniela receive social assistance for about 11,000 dinars (8300 dinars as social assistance of last resort and 2500 dinars for child benefits). She says they only buy food when they can, mostly what we need for the kid. About 20,000 [$226] to 25,000 [$283] dinars would help them survive from month to month. During summer, they only get child benefits.
This village depends on seasonal agricultural jobs. While available, they are scarce. Ivan manages to work 3 or 4 days a month as a daily laborer. Everybody is without a job in the village, he explained, and the daily wage is very low. At 1,000 dinars a day, his monthly earnings could just about cover their electricity bill – but there is more to pay for.
Their few animals and a small plot where they farm are the main sources of food for their family, but inadequate to cover their needs. After the social assistance benefit stopped, they had to cut down on food. And they have additional expenses to worry about, such as the bus fare for Daniela to see a doctor in the nearest town, and some medicines she needs to pay for.
“We need factories to be opened, to work so that we can have jobs, to have a decent salary so one can survive,’ Ivan said. “Or, to have the opportunity to work in agriculture. To seed grain, corn, [and raise] pigs, cows, goats, to be able to sell something and get some dinars.”
Thankfully, cherry season was upon them. Ivan is hoping he will be able to make enough to pay the expenses for the new baby and also to pull them through winter. “The whole family is looking at the sky hoping for good weather and a good price for sour cherry,” Ivan said. His smile was contagious, so I smiled too, and tried to forget that it had not stopped drizzling since the morning.
Read more about poverty in Europe and Central Asia here.