May East: Sicily punches above its weight on the world stage

The Corleone region of Sicily. Picture: AP/Corrado Giambalvo

The Corleone region of Sicily. Picture: AP/Corrado Giambalvo

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Large-scale immigration is leading to rapid change, writes May East

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 a unique 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, the table grapes of Mazzarrone and Canicattì and the 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 leading to rapid demographic change, transforming communities across immigrant-receiving Sicilian towns in fundamental ways and challenging closely held notions of national identity.

It is not uncontroversial given the fragile state of its economy and limited capacity to absorb of the continuous flow of migrant job-seekers.

This is the scenario in the Piazza Armerina commune in the province of Enna. With 20,000 inhabitants in this baroque town there is an experiment going on that is transforming the way migrants are integrated 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, and aims to foster the socio-economic 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, the migrants are joining a 5 week course designed to provide the knowledge and practical skills on regenerative and organic farming techniques in the context of the three dimensions of sustainability – environment, society and economy, with culture as an underlying dimension.

The course also supports young unemployed Sicilians chosen among secondary agricultural school graduates, students or graduates at the University Department of Agriculture, Food and Environment. 
Utilising sustainable community design and regenerative agriculture methods, Sicilia Integra aims to build the capacity of immigrants and asylum seekers over a period of three years to enhance solidarity between newcomers and local communities, encouraging collaborative decision-making and recognising the immense power for social change that lies in building multicultural communities.

The learning journey includes ecological design skills to minimise the impact of and develop resilience to climate change in food, land, biodiversity and water systems, bringing culture back to agri-culture, and 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 the migrant and host 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 perish at sea. So far EU and national policies have failed to adopt an integrated response to deal with this dramatic and 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

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