Ukraine: biodiversity as a means of reconstruction

22 Aug 2022

Andrea Pieroni, professor at UNISG, shares his insights from his field research and the work behind the Atlas of Gastronomic products of Ukraine.

The images that the Slow Food network sends us from Ukraine, as well as those that accompany us daily on our screens and in the newspapers, return the devastating image of the conflict. Bleeding bodies, fleeing people and destroyed cities. In the background, no less important and no less devastated, is nature: fires, deforestation, soil contamination, extinctions of animal and plant species.

War is total destruction and also puts at risk the entire biodiversity of a country, and consequently an entire traditional gastronomic heritage.

Andrea Pieroni, professor of Ethnobotany at Pollenzo and for many years active in field research in Eastern European countries, particularly in Ukraine, has been involved in a substantial cataloging effort, implemented in the regions of Bukovina, Transcarpathia, Podolia, Polesia Bessarabia and in the Krivy Rih basin, in cooperation with the academic network built by Professor Olena Motuzenko, pro-rector of Kyiv National University, local experts and Slow Food network leaders from Kyiv and Lviv, as part of the “Ethnobotany of divided generations in the context of centralization – DiGe” Horizon 2020 project.

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The environmental consequences of the Russian-Ukrainian war are manifold, and the effects fall (and will fall) as much on the present as on the future of each of us.

“Ukraine,” Pieroni tells us, is a mosaic of different ecosystems and cultures: we go from fertile plains to steppes or small mountain ranges, as well as there are minorities of Romanian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Albanian, and Russian origin, all the way to the Turkish-speaking Gagauzi and Huzuli. To say it is a fascinating place is putting it mildly, and the Atlas we have been working on, now more than ever, is of great cultural importance because it censuses and catalogs all the typical products of these different realities that exist in the country.

The very process of working on the volume is symbolic: never before has the University, municipalities, producers and the Slow Food network itself worked together and in harmony to enhance its heritage. There has long been widespread interest in this topic, which has seen the Atlas as a kind of perfect moment to begin and to show that only together can we evolve and grow.

Created as a witness to the diversity and richness of an area and its people, therefore, and as an opportunity to publicize and promote the country’s immense gastronomic tourism heritage, today it can also be a kind of center and driving force for national development as well as a real map for reconstruction.

What can be observed, in fact, from the early stages of the conflict is the damage to biodiversity. But if a war can do damage, even more-and this time irreversible-reconstruction can do it if it does not respect the traditions and cultures that existed before, seeking to globalize and perhaps respond to global needs rather than local ones. I refer, for example, to the “Ukraine breadbasket of Europe” issue. All it takes is for the European need for grain to pave the way for large-scale cultivation to meet demand, thus destroying the vast network of small-scale production that characterizes the country.

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It is an extremely delicate situation, and the Slow Food network can play a key role in supporting Ukrainians themselves in trying to hold on to traditions, such as those of family production and farmers markets.

In the country, for example, there is still a strong tradition of the informal market with the direct sale of small family productions in spite of any EU regulations. It is common to meet elderly peasant women, the famous babushke (i.e., grandmothers), on the streets in urban centers, next to stations, and so on. These women offer the surplus of their home preparations such as cakes, eggs, sausages, canned goods: they sell to supplement the family budget, demonstrating great capacity to create a sustainable food chain and a collective redistribution system. A true tool of resilience that-among other things-has fueled the same resistance in recent months.

Incidentally, it was from resistance that our own cataloguing work for the Ark of Taste was born. Among the 85 products catalogued, there is a variety of wild scorzobianca that is very important to Ukrainians and that I would elect as a symbol: not only was it the cue to start the work, but it bears witness precisely to the tenacity and resistance of the Ukrainian people, linked to the collective memory of the Holodomor, a term used to define the famine and death by starvation that marked Ukraine from 1932 to 1933. It was during this period of starvation that scorzobianca (known in Italy as Barba di becco) played a key role in survival and enabled the Ukrainian people not to give up. Now, because of the war, all this wealth of knowledge and uses of traditional products could end any day so here is where our Atlas can become a tool and historical map of restart.”

The Atlas will be presented at Terra Madre 2022.

Slow Food supports the network in Ukraine through two projects

1. Save Ukrainian biodiversity – aims to support those who, even in times of war, have not left their farms and in the most difficult conditions, risking their lives, preserve the most valuable animal breeds, plant varieties and techniques, those that nourish the local community, that feed the future.

2. Keeping knowledge alive – aims to create twinning between Ukrainian Slow Food Communities and their counterparts across Europe: women cheesemakers ask colleagues

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