By Isabelle Wesselingh (AFP)
DANUBE DELTA, Romania — Vast stretches of golden reed wave in the wind down the Danube River to the Black Sea, where it is harvested every winter as the new "in" roofing to cover luxury homes across Europe.
After a decline in the 20th century, thatched roofs are again back in vogue from Germany to Britain, thanks to a renewed interest in sustainable construction and heritage preservation.
"Water reed from the Danube Delta is known for its hard-wearing quality," Octavian Popa explained, watching five men gather up the grassy crop with a special combine.
Popa's firm, Delta Stuf Production, is one of only two companies allowed to harvest, under strict conditions, in this UNESCO World Heritage site -- which has the largest compact reed stretches in the world.
Every year Popa's firm collects about 20,000 tonnes of reed in the wild landscape of marshes, canals and lakes that make up this far-flung corner of Romania. Almost the entire harvest is exported to Europe, notably Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, France and Britain.
Its reputation is such the Delta reed was used in creating a large-scale replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre at Berlin's famous Babelsberg film studios.
Thatched roofs appear on every continent, made with anything from plain grasses to waterproof leaves in South America and on South Pacific islands. The European models, however, are mainly made of reed and straw, with thatchers using material not only from Romania and other Eastern European countries but also from reed beds along England's Norfolk coast or the Camargue region in southern France.
China, too, entered the European market a few years ago.
"In France, there has been a growing demand in recent years for thatched roofs," the head of a French thatchers association, Jacques Baudoin, told AFP. "They look very nice and reed is an excellent sound and thermal insulator."
Likewise, "reed-covered roofs are very popular in the Netherlands," said his Dutch counterpart Henk Horlings, estimating the tiny country now has about 150,000 thatch-covered properties.
In Britain and Ireland, a similar resurgence has been fuelled by stronger conservation rules.
Before it can make it onto upscale or historical roofs, the reed must be gathered, between mid-November and mid-March, in conditions easily characterised as challenging.
"Here we are harvesting on a floating island," explained Dan Baltaneanu, who has spent 52 years in the business.
The "island" is actually a thin layer of earth and riding a tractor on it, he said, is like driving on a waterbed -- the surface undulates with every movement.
"We had to adapt the engines to the environment," he said, saying tractors and reaping machines were equipped with extra-large, low-pressure wheels in order not to damage root systems.
Under communism, the late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu ordered intensive harvesting of up to 300,000 reeds. Not only was environmental damage huge but root systems were ruined by metal-tracked engines.
Today, the harvest is only partially mechanised.
Around Lake Sinoe, locals harvest with a billhook, a tool with a wooden handle and curved blade. The bunches of raw reed are brought to an open air collection centre to dry. There, workers, mostly women, sort them into bunches ready for export.
"I take out weeds and reeds from last year which are greyer and less strong," explained Maria Scarlat.
Popa conceded that the job is difficult. "Sometimes, as we have to harvest in the winter, people have to cut reed with their legs in very cold water."
But Scarlat was not complaining. "Without the reed, we would not have anything to eat. There's not much economic activity in the area," she said.
Delta Stuf Production employs about 500 people for the harvest, some of whom sleep in floating hostels in remote areas that can only be reached by boat. Around 200 people are employed all year round.
Long part of local tradition, "harvesting is good for the environment. Reed needs to be cut to grow strong," Silviu Covaliov, a biologist at the Danube Delta National Research Institute, told AFP.
Each local family is allowed to gather about two tonnes of reed a year for personal use, be it heating, roofing, building sheds for animals or even feeding cattle.
Ironically, Popa noted, despite growing popularity among affluent people in western Europe, "thatched roofs are considered a sign of poverty in the Delta."
Covaliov said he hopes to convince locals to resume more use of this traditional material, be it for walls, roofs or even truck pallets.
"It fits into a sustainable way of life" in this land of water and reed, he said.