What a wonderful title for an international cooperation project!
That was the first thing I thought when Alessandro Mancini, the project coordinator, invited me to talk about Social Agriculture.
The BEE THE CHANGE project aims to increase opportunities to create income and work, especially for women and young people, in the rural areas of Ramallah and Jenin (Palestine), by strengthening the beekeeping sector and supporting the supply chain of aromatic and medicinal plants. The project is funded by the Italian Agency for International Cooperation, led by the Umbria Region and currently implemented by FELCOS Umbria, an Association of Local Authorities in the Umbria Region that promotes sustainability at a local and international level.
I was delighted to give the introductory speech to a webinar organised by FELCOS Umbria as part of this project. They asked me “Why choose Social Agriculture?”. I gave them six reasons: production, therapy, education, emancipation, social innovation and community. In Italy, the country where I was born and where my heart is, there are over a thousand Social Agriculture initiatives, mostly run by Social Cooperatives (think of a social enterprise that is also cooperatively run. Yes, a blissful chaos!).
Social agricultural cooperatives in Italy grow a wide variety of fruit and veg and official data suggests 70% are organic, but I believe this number is higher: during many wanderings across my country I realised many don’t have an organic certification because they believe they don’t need one. They say: “We are more organic than that; we have no time to waste on bureaucracy; and we know our customers, we trust each other”.
Social Agricultural initiatives are not just about food production. In many cases, agriculture is a way to fulfil therapeutic and rehabilitative needs, especially for vulnerable members (e.g. people struggling with mental health issues and people with physical disabilities). It is also a means to achieve educative goals – for young people and adults alike, in formal and non-formal contexts. Moreover, agriculture facilitates the social and work integration of people at risk of marginalisation (e.g. in Italy, this is the case for former patients of psychiatric hospitals, drug addicts, minors of working age in situations of family difficulty, people detained in prisons – a wide range of human biodiversity!). It is also a chance for innovation: whether a product innovation for social cooperatives or a social innovation for farms and agricultural cooperatives. Finally, through agriculture people come together and take political action. Emblematic is the case of the “anti-mafia” social cooperatives, working on confiscated land (confiscated by the State from the mafia).
Social Agriculture in Palestine is inextricably linked to the struggle for self-determination and food sovereignty. In a context where land dispossession is the everyday reality, to farm means to reclaim space and independence, to have more work opportunities and to preserve and enhance the relationship between people and their cultural heritage. Social Agriculture in Palestine is also linked to the fight for gender equality. Sawsan Saleh was one of the panellists at the webinar. She represented the Association Of Women Action (AOWA), an inspiring organisation engaged in developing the political, social and economic awareness of women so as to increase their active participation at a local level.
During the webinar, Sawsan presented a fascinating start-up action, developed in the context of Social Agriculture. AOWA has been managing a laboratory for the production of essential oils and natural soaps for many years. Supported by the BEE THE CHANGE project, AOWA has now started-up a new aromatic and medicinal plant cultivation in Jenin, to supply their laboratory. Imagine a field of lavender, surrounded by barren land. A field of lavender on land that used to be cultivated for tobacco. A land in the midst of a never ending war. A place that is now preserved and cherished by a group of working women, determined to fight for their rights. This action has allowed AOWA to complete their supply chain (cultivation of aromatic plants - distillation of essential oils - production of soaps – selling of natural soaps and essential oils).
Ibrahim Mahameed and Saad Dagher represented two Beekeepers Cooperatives of Jenin and Ramallah respectively. Ibrahim is 24 years old. He joined the Jenin Cooperative three years ago, when 15 beekeepers gathered together to share their knowledge and skills whilst strengthening their presence on the market. The cooperative now includes 40 beekeepers, half of which are young people. Saad is a beekeeper and a pioneer of agroecology in Palestine. For him, beekeeping is a synonym for political struggle. Since the 1990s, he has campaigned for pesticide-free farming and lobbied to change agricultural policies. His vision is for a local and independent agriculture, connected to the traditional methods of Palestinian farming practices.
With the support of the BEE THE CHANGE project, the two cooperatives in Jenin and Ramallah have improved the quality of the honey produced, whilst increasing their environmental standards. They have also activated a new technical assistance centre for honey production that also represents a new market place in which to sell their products.
I was honoured to participate in a webinar that gathered some truly inspiring organisations, farmers and co-operators. While listening to Sawsan, I thought about Hannah, Laura, Lois, Natalia, Summer and Veronika, the Real Food Store women. To what extent are the local actions they take – in the field and in the shop – united by a similar vision? While listening to Ibrahim and Saad I thought about Peter, our friend and honey supplier.
How different (or similar!) are Palestinian and Devonian bees and beekeepers?
How amazing would it be to meet one day, all together, around a beehive on Dartmoor or in a lavender field in Jenin, to share stories, learn from each other and strengthen our common hope in a future where food is real, local and just.
I left the virtual room reenergised. Food really is – in every corner of the world – the best way to bring people together.