Biodiversity at the Center of Reconstruction in Ukraine

10 Aug 2022

Prof. Andrea Pieroni tells of UNISG’s field research and Ukrainian food atlas project

The images that the Slow Food network sends us from Ukraine, like those that we see daily on our screens and in our newspapers, show the destruction wrought by the conflict. Bodies in the street, people fleeing, cities destroyed. And behind all that, no less important and no less devastated, lies nature, laid waste by fires, deforestation, soil contamination and the extinction of plant and animal species.

War is total destruction and threatens all of a country’s biodiversity, meaning its traditional gastronomic heritage is also at risk of being lost.

Andrea Pieroni, professor of Ethnobotany at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, is well aware of the problem. For many years he has been carrying out field research in Eastern Europe, and in particular in Ukraine. He was there when the conflict broke out earlier this year, concluding an extensive cataloguing project that covered the regions of Bucovina, Transcarpathia, Podolia, Polesia, Bessarabia and the Krivy Rih iron-ore basin. Carried out in collaboration with an academic network put together by Professor Olena Motuzenko, pro-rector of the National University of Kyiv, together with local experts and Slow Food network coordinators in Kyiv and Lviv, the research was part of the “Ethnobotany of divided generations in the context of centralization – DiGe” Horizon 2020 project.

The environmental consequences of the Russia-Ukraine war are many, and the effects will be felt not just now, but long into the future by all of us.

“Ukraine is a mosaic of diverse ecosystems and cultures,” explains Pieroni. “There are fertile plains, the steppe and small mountain ranges, just as there are Romanian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Albanian and Russian minorities as well as the Turkish-speaking Gagauz and the Hutsuls. To say it is a fascinating place is putting it mildly, and the atlas on which we are working is of vital cultural importance, now more than ever, because it records and catalogs all the typical products of these different worlds.”

“Even the process of working on the volume has been symbolic. For the first time in Ukraine, the university, municipalities, producers and the Slow Food network have worked together in harmony to add value to the country’s heritage. There has been widespread interest in this theme for some time, and the atlas represents the perfect moment to start to show that only together can we evolve and grow.”

Conceived as a way to document the diversity and wealth of a country and its people and as an opportunity to promote the country’s immense gastronomic tourism heritage, now the volume can also act as a kind of driving force for national development as well as map for reconstruction.

Pieroni continues: “What we can see from the very first phases of the conflict is the damage to biodiversity. But while a war can be destructive, reconstruction can be even more harmful, and at times irreversible, if it does not respect the traditions and cultures that existed before, seeking instead to globalize and perhaps respond to global needs rather than local ones. I’m referring, for example, to the issue of Ukraine as ‘Europe’s granary.’ It wouldn’t take much for the European need for grain to open the way to large-scale cultivation to meet demand, thus destroying the vast network of small-scale production that characterizes the country, and in fact represents the majority.”

The situation is extremely delicate and the Slow Food network can play a fundamental role in supporting the Ukrainians in trying to maintain their traditions, like those relating to family farming and farmers’ markets.

“In the country, for example, the tradition of informal markets survives, with the direct sale of homemade products that would go against all EU regulations,” continues Pieroni: “Just think about the elderly peasant women, known as babushkas (or grandmothers), selling their homemade food on the street in villages or towns, next to stations and so on. These women offer the surplus of their home preparations such as cakes, eggs, sausages and preserves. They sell them to increase the family budget, demonstrating great ability to create a sustainable food chain and a system of collective redistribution. A real tool of resilience, which has contributed to fuelling the resistance of these past months.”

“In fact, it is this spirit of resistance on which our cataloguing work for the Ark of Taste is based. Among the 86 documented products, there is a variety of wild salsify of great importance to the Ukrainians, which I would nominate as a symbol. Not only was it the starting point for this project, but it also testifies to the tenacity and resistance of the Ukrainian people, as it is connected to the collective memory of the Holodomor, the term used for the famine in Ukraine from 1932 to 1933. It was during this period of starvation that meadow salsify roots helped the Ukrainian people to resist and survive. Now, because of the war, this wealth of knowledge and customs around traditional products could be lost from one day to the next, which is why our atlas can become a tool and historical map for recovery.”

The atlas will be presented at Terra Madre 2022.

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Two Projects to Support Slow Food’s Ukrainian Network

  1. Save Ukrainian Biodiversity– A project to support those who even in times of war have not abandoned their farms and are instead risking their lives in impossible conditions to save the animal breeds, plant varieties and precious techniques that nourish the local community and will feed the future.
  2. Keeping Knowledge Alive – To create matching opportunities between Ukrainian Slow Food Community members and their counterparts throughout Europe, thus allowing for refugee farmers and food producers to be hosted by fellow producers to facilitate a meaningful opportunity for learning and exchange. Beekeepers to be matched with beekeepers, cheesemakers with cheesemakers, and so on. We believe this exchange will not only allow for Ukrainian food producers to keep practicing their trades in exile but will be a fruitful exchange of skills: skills which will be vital for the post-war reconstruction of the country.

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