The Mediterranean island of Sicily has always been a crossroads of cultures and agriculture, a legacy that today is manifested in the richness and diversity of its food production and gastronomic heritage.
In ancient times, the vine and the olive tree of Sicily were the most important crops. Then, under the influence of Rome, Sicily became the wheat granary of the empire. More recently, the island has assumed the role of garden of Europe, with its unique fruit and vegetable products – the red oranges of Catania, lemons and artichokes of Syracuse, table grapes of Mazzarrone and Canicattì and pistachios of Bronte. Today European essential oils distributors see in Sicily one of the main sources of the pure produce in a global market expected to be worth almost £12 billion by 2022 as demand for organic personal care products soars.
Large-scale immigration is transforming communities across immigrant-receiving Sicilian towns in fundamental ways and challenging notions of national identity. It is not uncontroversial given the fragile state of its economy and limited capacity to absorb the continuous flow of migrant jobseekers.
This is the scenario in the Piazza Armerina commune in the province of Enna. With 20,000 inhabitants in this baroque town an experiment is transforming the way migrants integrate culturally and socio-economically.
There, migrants from 16 countries have been hosted by one of the hundred SPRARs (System of Protection for Asylum Seekers and Refugees) initiatives spread throughout the Italian territory, ensuring “integrated reception” to asylum seekers under the wings of the Sicilia Integra project.
Sicilia Integra is the product of a partnership involving University of Catania, Gaia Education, Sicilian farmers and many others. It aims to foster the integration of migrants through comprehensive agricultural capacity-building activities while increasing the production and commercialisation of Sicilian organic products in European markets.
Before being integrated into the organic farming communities, migrants join a five-week course providing knowledge and practical skills around regenerative and organic techniques, focusing on the environment, society and economy.
The course also supports young unemployed Sicilians.
Via sustainable community design and regenerative agriculture methods, Sicilia Integra helps newcomers settle in to local communities, encouraging collaborative decision-making and recognising the immense power for social change that lies in building multicultural communities.
The learning highlights climate change in food, land, biodiversity and water systems –bringing culture back to agriculture – and an understanding of the diversity of cultural influences on food patterns.
Sicilia Integra advocates that immigration can also represent a “transformational” opportunity and an effective way to ease people out of situations of vulnerability, building long-term resilience for both migrants and communities.
The fate of migrants fleeing North Africa has confronted Europe with the reality of its refugee crisis, as desperate people trying to reach the Continent in overcrowded ships die at sea. So far EU and national policies have failed to adopt an integrated response to deal with this complex problem.
The latest drownings are a reminder of the cruel paradox of the Mediterranean calendar: as summer approaches with blue skies, warm weather and tranquil waters, human trafficking along the North African coastline gets a new impulse. In Enna, at least, the victims of traffickers have become agents of change, building a better future, free from poverty and war.
Here lies the power of serendipity. Piazza Armerina, Sicilia Integra and the first generation of immigrant farmers may have accidentally discovered something valuable. The future can only be multicultural.
May East, Chief Executive, Gaia Education