Olive groves, ancient guardians of the Mediterranean

25 November 2020

November 26 is World Olive Tree Day, as proclaimed by UNESCO. For the occasion, Slow Olive is organizing conference (at 6 p.m. CET) dedicated to the role of olive cultivation for the Mediterranean landscape.

An immense olive grove, extending across millions of hectares has been one of the distinctive characteristics of the Mediterranean for millennia. The reason for the extraordinary spread of the olive across this vast area is undoubtedly a long and continuous effort by generations of farmers.

There’s an entire economy built around the complex web of relations between olive growers, millers and merchants. Over the centuries, using their skills and traditional knowledge, they’ve developed a distinctive olive culture which has been remained largely unchanged to this day. This meeting discusses the problems which are putting this traditional type of olive cultivation at risk, and the good practices being put in place by communities to safeguard it.

Terra Madre Olive: stories of people and landscapes will be held on Thursday, November 26, at 6 p.m. CET, with speakers in both Italian and English. To access the event with an interpreter you need to register (for free, as always) in the event page.

Our journey takes place across many area of the Mediterranean where olives are one of the foundations of the culture and the economy, where the olive groves are central part of the way of life.

The indigenous landscapes of the Aegean and the Orfene method

Mediterranean Aegean olive trees
Olive trees from the Aegean Indigenous Landscapes, a Slow Food Presidium. Photo: Doga Darnegi | Slow Food Archive. In Western Turkey, large tracts of the Anatolian coast of the Aegean Sea are covered by wild olive groves which people have managed and modeled over the centuries, giving life to unique habitats, where animal husbandry and olive cultivation exist side-by-side.

We speak to Dicle Tuba Kilic, an environmentalist who works to defend the landscape by opposing the construction of dams along the Euphrates. Dicle is one of the pillars of the Slow Food Presidium for Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Aegean Indigenous Landscapes and she fights to support the producers who manage these lands in respect of biodiversity and according the ancient Orfene method, which allows for the coexistence of herders with a specific type of olive cultivation based on wild olive trees.

Last year, we talked about how much construction and industrial expansion was taking place in Turkey, threatening historic food production areas like the home of the Olive Presidium in the Aegean. Has 2020 caused a slowdown in construction because of Covid-19? Could this be, in some way, a respite for olive producers? Or is the Turkish economy moving forwards anyway?

There is no slowdown in construction in Turkey. Our olive pastures are threatened by energy projects, especially geothermal energy in the Aegean region and mining projects. Moreover, due to Covid-19 all legal processes slow down and it is getting hard to stop them: our legal struggles are almost impossible.

In the same article, we said that by 2023 there will not be a single Turkish river flowing freely to the sea. Is this still likely to happen? What will the consequences be for the olive producers of the Presidium (and other farmers) if this happens?

Actually yes. We have already faced problems with climate crises. For example, this year is very dry and the efficiency is very low in olive productions. Our water cycle breaks down and we are losing freshwater resources.

Can you tell us what Doğa Derneği has been doing over the past 12 months – has the organization been able to work this year, in spite of Covid-19?

We had 3 months of difficulty during the spring but we survived. We are located in a small town and we have been actively working this year.

Beyond the Slow Food Presidium, what other kinds of protection do you think the olive growers need in order to survive and be prosperous? What more collaboration or cooperation from the government or other institutes would you like to see?

We need to recognize that olive pastures are one of the important production ecosystems, one of the most important examples of agroecology. Producers need collaboration and support from conservation civil groups, funds and governmental bodies.

Since the Presidium started, how has life changed for the producers? Have their market opportunities changed? Are they selling to a different class of people compared to before?

Producers have new opportunities not only to sell their products but also to interact with other producers, civil groups and private sector. This is not a major change for now but their opportunities are growing slowly.

What are your hopes for the future of this olive-growing community, for the Turkish food system and indeed, the world?

As a nature conservation society we cooperate with producers and their allies. We have developed local financial models for producers in the Presidium region. We want to see our olive pastures well known, under protection and supported by not only consumers but also decision makers.

Our voyage continues in Spain, where another Slow Food Presidium, Maestrat Millenary Tree Extra Virgin Olive Oil is represented by Nacho Lànderer, professor of agronomy.

We’ll be stopping in Palestine to listen to experiences of Saad Dagher, producer and humanist agronomist, teacher of agroecology, spokesperson for the Slow Food Community Farmers for ecological olives in Mazari Nubani. And of course there’ll be a stop in Italy, where olive play an important role in the country’s agriculture, and where the Slow Food Presidium for Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil has been active for many years. Speaking about the situation in Italy we’ll have Giuseppe Barbera, professor of Arboriculture at the University of Palermo, as well as Raffaele Leobilla, an olive oil producer from Puglia. The conference will be moderated by Monica Petronio of Slow Food Umbria.

Mediterranean Maestrat Olive Trees
The Maestrat Millenary Olive Tree, an integral part of the Mediterranean landscape and Slow Food Presidium. Photo: Slow Food Archive. The olives in the province of Castellón, eastern Spain, are the result of generations of work local farmers, who have left their mark on the landscape and the culture of this land like ancient monuments.

Ogliarola olive groves in Puglia

All Raffaele’s family has been growing olives, artichokes, eggplants, tomatoes for generations. It’s a perfect place for it: the plane of centuries-old olive groves in Serranova, a place that gives you a sense of peace just to look at it.

Who passed this passion and culture on to you?

It was my grandfather’s “fault”. Since I was a boy I learned to observe him as he was working in the fields, to analyze his gestures. He passed this passion for these centuries-old plants on to me.

What has changed, since then, in your way of working?

Lots has changes since then. The olives were gathered from the ground then, whereas now we gather them directly from the plant, by hand or with tools that allow us to work with delicacy, and which doesn’t ruin these ancient, fragile plants.

What’s your experience with the Presidium been like?

I’m part of the Presidium because I produce a monovarietal oil using Ogliarola Salentina olives. The Presidium has given us greater visibility, as does our being part of another Presidium for the Torre Guaceto Fiaschetto Tomato. It helps keep us motivated too, and has led us through these months of the pandemic, and will continue to guide us into the future. Our conviction of the importance of persevering with good practices, saying “no” to chemical products, and studying continuously how to deliver a product of consistently-high quality.

What do you think about the future of olive oil?

The first thing I’d like is that my children are able to continue to see these plants, a benefit from them the way we have. I want to be able to pass my passion on to them, the same as my grandfather gave to me. The future of oil and the Mediterranean landscape depends on how we work as producers, but also the demands of consumers, how far they’re able to recognize – and demand – a high-quality product. I believe that in recent year we’ve made great progress in that regard. I feel like the general public are ever-more ready to try and understand these worlds of difference.

We hope so too, as that’s a central element of the Slow Food mission: to make the value of these products is recognized. Because this olive culture is a common good, something that belongs to us all, as is the richness of the Mediterranean landscape of which these olive groves are an integral part.

Mediterranean Puglia Olives
Pugliese olive groves, part of the landscape heritage of the Mediterranean, and the Slow Food Presidium for Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Photo: Slow Food Archive. The Presidium unites producers who cultivate native olive trees without synthetic fertilizers or chemical herbicides. Potential treatments using low-impact, enviromentally-friendly products are permitted, which guarantee zero residue in the final product.

by Jack Coulton and Silvia Ceriani, info.eventi@slowfood.it