Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Communards of Urupia

One day you wake up, you realize the world suffers a lot from egoism, selfishness and materialism and you decide to change your life. Well, people now and then do these things and some of them create communes, exchanging their personal possessions for a common property.

In the picturesque area of Puglia, South Italy, we found the lively commune Urupia. Between old, abandoned houses, whine fields, olive trees, palms and cactuses a white stone house rises up on the horizon. On the right time one can find the communards under a long veranda with rounded bows, discussing and chatting, eating their lovely meals, drinking their own produced wine, laughing or just in silence enjoying the last sunshine. On all the other times one will wonder where everyone is. At least we did until we found out that there is a lot of whine yards and lands where the people of Urupia work on. And working they do! The moment we visited there was a lot of work to do and too less hands, and the work is done with dedication and care. After the work there waits a good Italian meal and nothing is more rewarding after working in the whine fields than drinking a glass of their own whine!
Living in such a commune sounds like a romantic dream and for guests it can quite be like that, but for the communards it is not an easy live. We have great respect for these people, dedicating themselves to this dream, living it in daily life. And off course if you want to find clichés you can find them, but to be honest we did not find any flower power but normal people searching for a good way to live together. In this time of self centered behavior it is interesting to see a different perspective being practiced.

Urupia has Berlin vibes. Starting as an initiative of German and Italian anarchists, many traces lead to Berlin and back. We got to know about Urupia drinking their whine in the restaurant where we had our wedding party, and that is not only a coincidence. Berliners come to here as guests, communards go to Berlin with wine and olive oil.
It is amazing to see how much different projects are done by people on Urupia. They produce whine with their own whine yards and whine laboratory. They produce grains and bake breads in a olive wood oven. They produce olive oil from their own trees. They grow herbs, fruits and vegetables and mainly live from their own production. A few communards work outside the commune, but most people work on these things daily. And not to forget they cook twice a day a respectable dish for everyone.
Frans worked in the whine yard and learned a little bit about it. He had to bind up the whine strings piece by piece in a large field of waving whine strings, a never ending job what has to be done every year. The binding has to be done because they need to be able to keep away the grass with machines in order to prevent the plants from illnesses. Conventional farmers use pesticides and such instead which saves a lot of work. Here they work according to ecological principles, though their products are not labeled as such. They had done this earlier, but stopped it because getting the label costs money and time so for ‘small’ projects this is not always an option.
One week is definitely too short to get a good impression of this place. We felt more and more at home and it was hard to choose a moment to leave. Sometimes they have forty guests and that would be definitely a different atmosphere. But we happened to experience the Urupia struggling for it’s survival, see the daily life of the communards, and enjoy the special, serene atmosphere of this place. Maybe not Utopia as the name suggests, but at least the practice of people realizing their dreams.

United colors of Shqipëria

Shqipëria? Wait a minute, isn´t that this poor country somewhere in Africa… What, is it really in Europe? Albania, also called Shqipëria, is one of these countries you hardly hear anything about, though it is interesting visiting it! From Macedonia we had the main road through the country to Tirana, more or less a small mountain path going over the tops rather than just over the passes. On the sides of the road wild dogs, farmers with their goats and chickens, hitchhiking families, children selling cherries or a car wash.

Tirana is a strange mix of third world slums and hip, western looks. There is a lot of trendy bars and fashion stores in Tirana, but if you look a bit higher up you often see the old, loose brick walls almost falling down. Discussing the ´surface´ of western capitalism in a shopping street, we heard some chickens just from above a trendy clothing store.
People in Tirana seem to have a good style taste. Old men wear the right old fashioned suits and sixties glasses with thick, black frames. If you see them walking slowly between the palm trees, or playing chess in the parks, you will start to believe you are in Cuba rather than Albania. Young people dress up according to western fashion, and it is quite surprising how much diversity and style one can find here on the streets.

The mayor of Tirana is famous for his project to give buildings a colorful look. It is a rather simple concept: you have a grey, poor, post-communist city without much ancient or old buildings, so you let some buildings be decorated with daring colors and creative patterns. Possibly the hardest part is to make everyone believe this is a good idea to do. But it really, really is. There is no other city we have seen that looks like this.
We tried to imagine how this city looked like fifteen years ago: grey, dirty and poor. Changes have been fast here. Rainbow waves painted on flats, pink and green striped buildings, an American bank painted more colorful than your local squat. But how much of all this color and style is just on the surface, hiding the horror of poorness within?

Moving on

We left Turkey overland, with a bit of pain in the heart. It has been such a good country to travel in, with its hospitality, the surprisingly delicious local dishes, more or less unspoiled countryside, the small men on their donkeys.

We found a beautiful spot on a beach in Greece to stay overnight, though in the morning we noticed it was just next to a large military area, maybe that´s why we got checked by civilian police in the morning. Not all too bad, but this day we were being stopped three times by the police and asked for our passports. And we know we are lucky with our fancy Swedish and Dutch ones, imagine being a Turk traveling through Greece!
Next day we drove to Kavala, a small coast town in Northern Greece. We enjoyed the food and the local atmosphere of the old town, but for the rest we did not find this part of Greece so inspiring so we decided to move on.

We entered the country of Macedonia (FYROM for the purists) and found it amazing to see the difference of landscape just changing when you pass a border. From summer we drove into spring again, with fresh green leaves and spring flowers. We climbed the mountains and found a spot high above the beautiful lake of Ohrid, very close to the Albanian border. The lake is surrounded by steep mountains, some with snow peaks, and we realized this was one of our most beautiful spots ever. Such a silent, overwhelming view, and just us here, high above everything. We were a bit afraid for encounters with border police, and in the morning two cars stopped next to us and a group of men, some of them in military uniform, stepped out and… just smiled at us.
We had picturesque expectations of Ohrid from a book written seventy years ago. Ohrid is not that unspoiled anymore, filled with grey architecture from Tito´s times, and new, plastic bars and shops. The old city is still worth visiting with its small houses and old churches, but one realizes the world has changed. The Ohrid you get is the tourist version of what it was once, as with most interesting places.

Monday, 14 May 2007

Making soap and other projects

One day we visited an alternative beach resort nearby. Between the olive trees, small holiday houses lead you to the beach. In between there is small pieces of land where all kinds of vegetables are grown organic. Just before the beach there is a bicycle with a car battery, when you bike for some time there is enough for the beach lamp to glow.

Here we met the two artists who were supposed to decorate the Dedetepe farm instead of us. They were decorating the place and painting mandalas on the small houses. They had a lot of troubles with their bus (imagine a big, old Mercedes van without handbrake or fourth gear, driving through the mountains…) and had to work for their fuel to be bale to drive, we hope they find their way to Italy as well!

Last day in Turkey we spent in a village nearby, our hosts bringing olive oil to make soap with on a fire, Cecilia to paint flowers on a balcony of one of the villagers. Meanwhile Gaya and Frans spent the time on the stairs of the soapmakers house, where the women where baking börek in the outdoor fire oven, and playing with Gaya all the time. The soap is made from olvieoil, which is put on a hot fire, some natural ingredients are added, then this is stirred and heated for a few hours, and then put into the frames to become stif. Wait a few days and you have natural oliveoil based soap!

On the way back from soap making we visited the centre of the environmental organization Bugday, which is still under construction. They choose a great spot for this centre: up in the mountains, with a fantastic view over the olive fields and the sea. The building is half round, but with the terraces it is going to be built in a circle. The building is made with natural materials, with help of old stone masters; as concrete there is used stone pulp and for the roof soil and shells. When it is finished we are sure it will be a very wonderful place for making people more aware of the preciousness of nature.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Painting flowers eating olives

A small contai
ner house with sea view, bamboo roofed terrace, colorful hammock, surrounded by olive trees, and nothing to hear than the waterfall deep down, the wind generator zooming, the frogs, birds, and sometimes a donkey
passing by on the sand road. In the evening the old, black Turk down at the river side playing his clarinet, a magical athmosphere. The night birds singing when the moon shines. Sometimes a lost tourist asking the way to the waterfall. Olive farmers passing by on their donkeys. That´s our spot.

After our frightening tourist adventures we arrived at the Dedetepe Farm, an organic olive farm close to the beach. We are located on the hill, a small path goes up to the top, where one can find a tipi, some house constructions, and a Sufi grave. Some ten minutes walking down from us one is the farm with around it growing of aubergines, beans, salad and herbs. Here is the house of Tamahine, Erkan and Nahir, the farming family, and more down a newly built tipi. For living at this wonderful place we pay with painting flowers on the houses. We came to volunteer, and got the honor to make the place look even more beautiful.
We like the way of living here and choose to stay a bit longer. The place we live is comfortably primitive; we cook and live on the ground, and eat what there is from the farm and seasonal vegetables from the local bazaar. Sometimes they do yoga camps on top of the hill, although now they are too busy with a lot of other things. Next to taking care of their daughter, she is also making creative earrings and all kinds of creams and herbal medicines on olive oil base. Also they are invlolved in Bugday, an organization working on ecoligcal awareness in Turkey.
Tomorrow we go to paint flowers on a house in a village nearby, and also make soap from their olive oil. It has been nice to live here for a while and get to experience the way of living on this place!

Tourist pollution

We traveled mainly through inland Turkey and had a lot of welcomes. When we arrived at the coast, we had a hard time to adjust. The whole coast was polluted with large scale ugly tourist flat resorts! The atmosphere changed stunningly. We were not invited anymore, but watched with unfriendly faces, all of a sudden people were not greeting us even! It is hard to say if this is only cause of tourism, or because of social problems, as a lot of citizens in the area might be Turkish refugees from Greece and Balkans, this used to be Greek dominated areas until the twenties. But it was quite a difference, and we felt really unwelcome where ever we went.

One morning we entered a national park. Ok, maybe we should have been warned that the entrance sign said ´picnic area national park´. We paid the 7 Euro entrance fee, expecting wonderful, unspoiled nature. Parking between lying around trash and picnic benches, we realized something was wrong. This got stronger when we found out that the once beautiful waterfall river was used as irrigation system for nearby olive farms, and all not that natural but spoiled everywhere with constructions of concrete! Wherever we walked, we were still surrounded by picnic benches. Then suddenly the path ended with a high barbwire fence and a sign saying this was the end of the picnic area. When we went back to our van, hundreds of tourists were streaming out of their busses. Before we even knew it, we were surrounded by tourists filming and photographing us as if we were some native tribe dressed in traditional clothing. When we told them to stop photographing and tried to walk away, they even stopped us angrily, expressing they were not ready taking pictures of us. This shocking event was for us a quite clear example for how polluting tourism can be. We have seen a lot of pollution from tourism, like lying around trash and all the ugly resorts. But maybe the worst pollution is the mind and culture of people. Time for some cleaning!

Organic cotton in Turkey

‘Fair’, ‘hiphonest’, ‘ethical’, and ‘sustainable’ clothing production are in the trend. More and more clothing brands are stepping in. Off course they use this to pimp up their image with smiling, dark skinned people between the white cotton fields. But how close to reality are these images actually?

We wanted to know more about what words like ecological, sustainable and ´fair circumstances´ mean in practice when it comes to cotton and clothing production. We traveled to Turkey and tasted a bit of what ecological cotton and clothing production looks like.

Please note that this report is subjective and may not be generalizable for the whole ecological cotton branch!

I met up with Mr. Mehmet Tozan in the morning. He is representing the ecological cotton producer BoWeevil in Turkey and also working for the Good Food Foundation, supplying Turkish ecological agricultural products to Europe. I got to know him as a very friendly businessman with his heart on the right place.
First we visited a factory where organic cotton clothing is manufactured. It was a not too large factory, the work floor did not look all too big, and it pretty much looked like an ordinary no-nonsense factory. We arrived during a break, giving an impression of a relaxed working atmosphere. The company office and working place were in the same building, just devided by some doors and stairs. The departments we visited had about thirty to forty workers. There was not much fun or laughing, just concentrated working. Organic and non-organic are both processed in the factory, and the percentage of organic is growing, now up to fifty percent. When a production is organic, this is recognized with signs above the production saying ‘organic’.

Next we visited a cotton dying factory. Cotton dying is a complex process, done with big, hot and steaming machines. Because of all noises it was hard to talk about the process while watching it. In the lab we saw all being tested in small scale. Every cotton order is here tested completely before it is taken in process. Material quality, washing, shrinking, slitting, and off course the color substance and reaction of cotton and color. Quite a complex process, this dying process. After coloring and drying, the cotton is also checked meter per meter on its quality.

We were in the wrong season for seeing the white cotton fields waving at us, but it was anyway good to hear the story of cotton farming and see the fields and the farm. The farm was on the foot of a small hill, and this hill was surrounded by their fields. On top of the hill you could have a nice view, and on its foot there was the farm buildings and the cows.
It is hard nowadays to grow cotton in Turkey, because of the high currency Turkish cotton has become too expensive for the world market, and less cotton is produced. The area we visited was in earlier times filled with cotton for almost hundred percent, now there is only a bit of it left.

For harvesting conventional cotton they use heavy pesticides to get the leaves of, which makes it possible to harvest the cotton with machines. Organic cotton is still harvested by hand, as they can't use chemicals. It is getting harder to find enough workers to harvest the cotton, it is expensive and they are only needed for the harvest time. Organic cotton does not give a much higher price than conventional, so one must be quite a believer to process organic cotton. All this doesn´t seem to make it too easy to be an organic cotton farmer. Respect!

Also other organic products here in Turkey are often just sold as conventional. We have seen organic olive oil, milk, cheese and vegetables sold without being labelled. There is not a developed market for these products, often there are no opportunities to process a product separately. And off course there are still small, local, traditional farmers that just don't use chemicals, without knowing anything about eco labels.

Last we visited a cotton ginnery close to the farm. During the ginning process the cotton is separated from the seeds, then it is cleaned and put together. The cotton here was of good quality with long fibers, you only had to turn it a bit around and you had a good, strong thread. The ginnery was pretty small and combined with a small olive oil pressing factory, which gave it a picturesque atmosphere.

Ecological cotton or clothing made in Turkey does on the surface not necessarily differ so much from conventional cotton or clothing made in Turkey. A lot of machines that are used are the same, the factories are often the same, it can be the same workers and the same working conditions. So what´s the difference after all?

When it comes to labour conditions, it merely means that certain minimum standards are controlled. The guarantee that there is no child labour, that workers are payed normal salleries, labour rights are fulfilled at least normally. It does not mean that the workers are living in paradise or that they are smiling all the time. Actually, it merely means that things are normal when it comes to labor. And that's a huge difference with the conventional woriking conditions, where child labour and all kinds of workers abuses are still a daily practice, despite all efforts and promises. Organic cotton gives a minimum guarantee, so you know: no sweatshops behind your shirt.

When it comes to the ecological aspects, it means that ecological standards are recognized and controlled in all stages of the process. Ecological cotton is grown on ecological farms. Ecological farms do not only grow cotton but also other crops in rotation. The farm we visited also has milk cows, of which the manure is used as a natural fertilizer. Organic cotton is grown and picked without insecticides or pesticides. This makes the growing of organic cotton much more risky, as with most organic grown products. Organic cotton has to be picked by hand, and this is a job where you need a lot of workers for in the harvest time. In development countries this often means a that a lot of people can earn a bit on it, in Turkey it is becoming a problem.

Conventional cotton is harvested by spraying the plants with chemicals until the leaves drop, so that machines can pick the cotton. Cotton is the most pesticide-dependent crop in the world, accounting for 25% of the world's pesticides. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 20,000 deaths occur each year from pesticide poisioning in developing countries, many of these from cotton farming.

In the ginnery, dying and clothing factories, organic production processes are kept separated from conventional ones, made visibly with signs on the machines. Most machines are cleaned between the processes. For dying the cotton basically the same process is used, the difference is that for ecological cotton only ecological acceptable ingredients can be used. Therefore not every color can be made as easily, in example it is almost impossible to make turquoise ecologically. But organic dying also means no dirty, cancer-stimulating chemicals in your trousers.

Some twenty years ago a few people started with this idea of growing organic cotton, and had the courage to try it hard enough. The branche of ecological cotton has been growing, and last years there has been a rapid growth. Quite some mainstream brands want to show off with an organic clothing line.

Concluding, organic cotton is way more normal than conventional. In the end organic is not alternative at al, and does not need an ethnic or idealized image. Producing cotton in a sustainable way with some care for the environment and the workers should not be more than normal. With all the serious critics on clothing production, child labour, the sweatshops and the 20.000 pesticides victims per year, it is the organic cotton that is shows us the new standard. Now the choice what to wear is ours!