Slow Food and FAO are working together to encourage international development and restore value to local food production.
At the end of August, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) organized a study trip to Piedmont and Liguria for a group of women, all small-scale farmers from Syria. The two organizations have joined forces to develop the women’s skills, with the aim of helping them to relaunch and strengthen their businesses in their home country.
Eight years have passed since the start of the crisis in Syria. The experience of many of those who stayed was traumatic. Now, due to the conflict, five million Syrians live outside the country. But despite this, the seven women who participated in the study trip organized by Slow Food and FAO, are looking forward to a better future. Roles within families have changed due to the crisis, whereby women have become much more prominent, taking control of their lives, for themselves and their children.
They come from the governorates of Homs, Hama, Lattakia, Tartous, Aleppo, Sweida and Al Qunatra, and each one specializes in a particular type of local product—one per village—from dried figs to honey. They own small plots of land (less than half a hectare) where they grow food to feed their families, and they also make other food products, whether jams, pickles, tomato concentrate or cheese, to try to support their families financially.
They are well aware how fundamental their role is. In many cases, women have become the sole breadwinner of their families. Many have turned to farming and food production, often the only option they have to earn enough to make a living and look after their families.
“I had goats, sheep and cows before the crisis, and then we had to flee,” says one of the women producers, a mother of four and a cheesemaker. “I would like to start producing like I did in the past, improving and learning from the producers we visited in order to make and sell quality cheeses.”
Whether telling their stories or asking questions of the producers from the six Presidia they visited (for Upper Elvo Raw Milk Butter, extra-virgin olive oil, high-mountain honey, Robiola di Roccaverano cheese, Sambucano lamb and Vessalico garlic), their voices never descend into dejection or sadness. Instead, what shines through is curiosity and a desire to learn.
“Because of the crisis, I had to abandon all my hives and start from scratch in a village far from my home town,” explains a beekeeper from Aleppo, while visiting the Apicoltura Fossati workshop in Sambuco, Piedmont. “Now I can only process my honey manually and sell it locally. During this trip to Italy I’ve seen modern equipment and devices. I hope I can go back and bring all this knowledge to the village in order to put it into practice and be able to restart my family business.”
A crucial element of the study trip was rediscovering the value of being in a community, of the mutual exchange of knowledge and products.
The exchanges with the Presidia producers proved effortless: Italy and Syria, like other countries in the Middle East region, share a similar Mediterranean culture and crops like olives, wheat, figs, honey and grapes. Similar production techniques also connect the producers, a kind of shared language that was easy to tap into during each meeting, particularly in Liguria. There is also a shared pride in local traditional specialities. To those who accompanied the group, the small-scale producers of the Slow Food Presidia seemed not so different to these women, in their struggles to protect tradition, maintain ecosystems, reconstruct, and share ancient knowledge.
”We use the same rudimentary tools that we’ve had at home since we were girls,” explains another one of the women producers, a mother of five who grows and dries figs, the only fruit available in her village. “They’re not that different from some of the tools that were used in Italy in the past. We want to learn about new technologies and how to make a quality product that will be accepted by the market and increase our profits. All of my family is living off what I make, a little like the producers that we are visiting.”
Similar stories, separated only by distance, which came together thanks to the collaboration between Slow Food and the FAO. Not for the first time the partnership highlights a winning model of cooperation, sharing and, put simply, optimism.
“For us it was an honor to bring the Syrian farmers to visit our producers and our Presidia,” said Nazarena Lanza, Slow Food’s coordinator for North Africa and the Middle East. “Slow Food really believes in the value of exchange, collaboration and sharing. In the past we also brought a number of Syrian herders to Terra Madre, in Turin in 2008, and we funded 10 school food gardens in northern Syria, inviting the local coordinator to Terra Madre 2018. We would be happy to consolidate this alliance and to organize other workshops to improve food production in semi-arid zones through the use of agroecological practices. Years of conflict and climate change and decades of monocultures have led to a serious loss of biodiversity and a lack of skills, leaving no room for sustainable agriculture.”
During the five days of the trip, food was shown over and over again to be a link as well as a key tool for global citizenship, dialog and knowledge, able to bring to light new networks and gradually change ways of life and the economy of local communities.
“I want to learn things that can be useful for my country,” concluded an olive producer from Tartous who also participated in the study tour at the end of the trip. “I’ve been on this long journey so that I can go home and teach other women in the village. I want to help them to be independent, to improve our lives… Women are the starting point for a new Syria.”